Why do we watch horror films?

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In my review of Cabin in the Woods I mused that the film seems to be asking a question it provides no answer to. Namely why do human beings enjoy watching horror films? Why do we enjoy stories where people die?

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard in Cabin in the Woods seem to have approached this from a cultural and symbolic level, arguing that there is an ingrained need for human beings to see violence and suffering. I don’t entirely disagree with this but I’m not quite as cynical as they are. Nor do I think it has anything to do with an ingrained cultural hatred of the young or the need to see them suffer.

For me it’s kind of basic. Humans are sacks of chemicals, one of those chemicals is adrenaline and we really like it when adrenaline gets fed to our brains. Adrenaline is a chemical associated with the fight or flight response so it is released whenever we are confronted by a scary or dangerous situation to help us deal with it.

The thing is our fight or flight response is an idiot and the rest of our brain is a genius by comparison and so we’ve been able to trick it into releasing adrenaline when we’re not really in danger. Like when we ride a roller coaster, or climb a cliff face, or watch a horror movie.

This is a physical chemical process in our brains, watching a horror film releases a chemical that makes us feel good. There’s no deeper investigations needed into the cultural reasons for this it’s basic science, being scared feels good. What is culturally determined is what makes us scared and why things that are scary in one culture are not in another. Japanese horror films, for example, are obsessed with children and water things not traditionally considered scary in the west.

But why do we need a horror film to do this? Roller coasters scare us without needing to invoke the imagery of death and suffering and on a purely cinematic level a jump cut will scare us even if the context around it isn’t scary at all. Even the laziest hack director can throw a spring loaded cat at the screen and scare the audience through surprise alone. So why not combine jump scares with something innocent like two guys driving a golf cart, won’t that scare us? Why do we need these images of girls suffering, isn’t that just a symptom of a sick society?

It’s because horror fans are like drug addicts addicted to that feeling of being scared. They keep coming back to seek it out again, but like any addict they become numb to the stuff with repeated use and so they have two choices, up the dose or change the drug. These can be thought of in film making terms as intensity and novelty.

Intensity accounts for most of the changes in horror as time has progressed. Just as a heroin addict needs to use more and more heroin to get a fix a horror fan needs more and more horrific images to trigger the same original thrill. You might watch Psycho and flinch when the knife hits the girl but after the 5th or 6th time you’ve seen this you’re numb to the image, de-sensitised. Worse you’ve worked out how it’s done and know the knife never stabbed her, instead the camera cut away. You can no longer trick your brain into producing the adrenaline because it knows it’s a trick now. But then some film maker comes along and shows the knife lingering a little longer and shows some blood! Oh wow! Suddenly this is terrifying again and it’s tricked your brain all over again. Until the 8th, 9th or 10th time you see this done and then, you’re used to it again. But now some guy comes along and shows the open wound! And on and on the cycle goes getting gorier and more explicit.

This operates on both an individual level and across the genre as film makers move to out do each other or push boundaries. That’s why the genre has gotten progressively gorier since the 1950’s.

Then there’s novelty which is much harder to do. A film shows you something you haven’t seen before, a combination of images or sounds that scares your brain in a new way. This doesn’t even have to be intense if it’s original or unexpected enough.

But novelty is hard to do whereas intensity is easy. It takes talent to come up with something new but anybody can just add more gore.

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You can fake novelty though by rehashing the same bag of tricks that always works (discordant music, isolated areas, jump cuts, slow pans, etc) but with different stock elements. So it’s a cabin in the woods with a murderer, in space! Or a cabin in the woods with a murderer, that’s a leprechaun! There’s just enough novelty there to make the audience think they’ve seen something new when really it’s the same stock techniques again and again and again.

Indeed Cabin in the Woods makes fun of this lazy copy paste approach to film making with the signature scene in the room full of monsters.

That’s why you get so many films that work on the same basic premise. It’s not because humanity demands some kind of totemic sacrifice, it’s because lazy film makers know that they can use stock character archetypes so long as they come up with a unique monster or one novel scare. And we watch them, because we’re desperate for a fix and if it provides that fix we’re happy even if the characters, setting and story are incredibly familiar.

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Indeed that familiarity can help. Genre cinema is pretty much defined by a conflict between familiarity and novelty. Audiences enjoy genre cinema because at heart we like to see our expectations confirmed. This is not a new nor a controversial statement, there is a wealth of media theory discussing how audiences essentially like to see the same things over and over again. But they can’t be exactly the same things. Give us exactly the same as we had before and we just get irritated by the repetition. So film makers need to give us the same with just enough new to disguise it.

Sometimes that takes the form of something like Evil Dead, taking the familiar spam in cabin set up and formula but investing it with novelty trough the tone, the way the camera is used, the way the music is used, etc. Sometimes it takes the form of Jason X, taking the familiar spam in a cabin set up…but in space!!! And having the familiar set up helps make the novel elements more distinct which helps from a marketing perspective too.

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But is there any deeper meaning to the particular elements that get re-used. To go back to Cabin in the Woods is there a particular reason that so many horror films use teenagers and use teenage archetypes like the jock, the slut, the fool, the virgin and the brain?

Possibly and many a fine essay has been written on just such a topic. But I can also offer much more prosaic and practical reasons why that might be.

Why are they teenagers? Because your audience is mainly teenagers and so it helps with audience identification. It also gives you a plausible reason for your characters to act rock stupid since teenagers are well known for making mistakes. Why have a brain? To spout expository dialogue. A fool? Comic relief. A slut? Some cheap exploitation (read boobs) that will bump up the potential audience.

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In fact let’s look at the new vogue in horror cinema, found footage films. Although found footage as a concept goes all the way back to Cannibal Holocaust it really first made an impact with the Blair Witch Project and with monster hits like Paranormal Activity and REC has become the new hotness in horror cinema.

Why is this?

Well you could look at it one way and construct an argument around the fact that modern society is increasingly recorded. We all carry a camcorder built into our phones everywhere we go and our own recorded image is now plastered all over social media. This is the society of the recorded image more so than any society that has existed before and horror films reflect the tensions and fears of the society that produces them.

Or you could make an argument that Blair Witch costs peanuts to make and made bonkers amounts of cash. That found footage is cheaper to film, doesn’t require a particularly talented DP or particularly nice cameras and yet the ticket price is just as much as for a big studio production. That they’re a relatively new trick in the tradition of horror cinema and they still have enough novelty to work on the audience for the moment so producers are squeezing as much profit out of the trick as they can before audiences vote with their wallets and reject them or someone creative comes up with a new trick.

And this ultimately comes back to Cabin in the Woods and two possible ways to read the film.

In one interpretation the film seems to be saying that you are a bad person for wanting to watch horror films. This is the interpretation that is focused on the cultural significance of the repeated use of archetypes. It asks you “why do you wan to see the youth of society slaughtered again and again, what does that say about you as a horror fan?”

In another interpretation though the film seems to be saying that you are a bad person for wanting to watch unoriginal horror films. This is the interpretation that is focused on the prosaic and monetary significance of the repeated use of archetypes. It asks you “why do you want to see these stock characters get slaughtered again and again, what does that say about you as a horror fan that you’re prepared to put up with the same recycled plots?”

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1 comment
  1. Right – well you mentioned roller coasters… which made me chuckle. I have to say that I disagree with some of the points you make. I don’t buy into your idea of horror fans being like drug addicts continually having to get a bigger hit. And I don’t think your claim about horror movies getting gorier since the 1950s in a progressive historical way. One of the first “gore” scenes in cinema was in the 1929 film “Un Chien Andalou” where an eyeball gets sliced open. Although the “gore” genre doesn’t really kick off until the 1960s (“Blood Feast” 1963, and “Flesh Eaters” 1964). But the horror genre as a whole does not get gorier – Blair Witch (1999) is not gory and neither is The Woman in Black (2012). Which brings me onto the other point you make about horror films mostly being about groups of teenagers and specifically girls getting killed. OK so your article originated from a review of Cabin in the Woods, but you go on to make claims about the horror genre as a whole based on your reading of this movie. I think your comments would be appropriate for the stereotypical American slasher movie genre (e.g. Halloween, Friday 13th etc), but not other horror genres – e.g. gothic horror (Dracula, Frankenstein and the endless stream of vampire movies that have come out etc). I’m not sure your comments are even valid with regards to the typical zombie movie.
    Things you didn’t discuss include the notion of “catharsis” where we can purge our negative emotions vicariously by watching a horror movie. You didn’t mention the kinship between horror & comedy (e.g. in Evil Dead, American Werewolf in London, Gremlins, Shaun of the Dead). This I think could be related to the fact that we enjoy having some sort of control over death, we can laugh at it etc.
    I take your points about novelty, especially with regards to the found footage movies… Blair Witch was probably one of the better examples – but I do agree that this was just a novelty and despite all the Paranormal Activity “success” audiences are becoming bored with this style (I certainly am).
    Sorry if this sounds overly negative , but my main gripe with your article, to summarize, is that you take Cabin in the Woods as a typical example of a horror movie and then based on your conclusions about this movie, make general claims about the horror genre as a whole (but then even you admit that this does not fit for some non-American movies, e.g., Japanese horror movies).

    Feel free to argue with what I have said.

    Like

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