Friday, September 16, 2011

Keep Telling Yourself It's Only a Movie: The Psychology of Horror Movie Enjoyment, Part 1

The weather is turning colder and fall is just around the corner. There are many things to love about fall. As much as people love summer activities, the heat begins to wear on many of us; the cooler days of fall are usually a welcome change by summer's end. Fall clothes are also some of my favorites; say goodbye to shorts and flip-flops and hello to scarves, sweaters, jackets - there's just something cozy about the layers, the neutral colors. Speaking of colors, fall leaves... need I say more? Yes, fall is wonderful for many reasons, including one more: Halloween.

Why Halloween? For one: It's the one time of year that it is acceptable to watch horror movies (I watch them pretty much year-round, but this is the one time that it's totally acceptable to talk about these movies and invite people over to watch them with you). I love horror movies. Despite (or perhaps because of) being slightly traumatized watching a scene from Children of the Corn when I was 4 or so years old, a scene I remember quite vividly, I grew up to be a horror movie fiend. When my family made its visit to the local video store, I'd want to check out movies from A Nightmare on Elm Street series (I've seen them all, even, shudder, Freddie versus Jason; Part 3: Dream Warriors, is my favorite for blending scary with funny – generally on purpose). On rainy days when we couldn't play outside, I'd turn off all the lights, block out of the windows, and watch the Exorcist in the dark. Alone, because no one in my family wanted to join me. And it wasn't just movies: I was a voracious reader, and though I would read pretty much anything from the fiction or nonfiction sections of the library, Stephen King was (and still is) one of my favorite authors.

Many believe that people who love scary movies don't find them scary. I don't know about others, but I find them terrifying. I'll sometimes have trouble sleeping after a really good one, like the first time I saw Poltergeist, and, especially when I'm alone, I'll find myself imagining all kinds of creepy things and explanations for weird noises. I probably find them just as scary as people who refuse to watch them (and I know a lot of people who fall into this camp, including my family, especially my mom).

But still, I love them. I own many, one of the first things people notice when looking through my movie collection. I talk about them to anyone who will listen; yes, I'm that person who still goes on about that awesome scene in that one movie that came out the year I was born but didn't see until I was 10 (aka: The Thing). When someone talks about zombies, I feel we have to clarify, "Are these slow-moving Night of the Living Dead zombies? Or crazy fast 28 Days Later zombies? Or somewhere in the middle Walking Dead zombies", because it’s an important distinction. And yes, I’m also that obnoxious person who thrives on horror movie trivia: did you know that A Nightmare on Elm Street (movie 1) took place in Springwood, California, but suddenly in later movies, they reveal they’re in Springwood, Ohio? That’s movie magic for you; they moved an entire city across the country.

So what explains my love of movies that would leave my mom insisting she sleep with the lights on surrounded by crosses, garlic, and silver? I started doing some research on this, and it seems there are many psychologists and communication experts who have sought to explain this very thing. There's actually a lot here, and a lot of commentary that I think is necessary, so this is the first of two parts on this topic.

One explanation is the notion of "sensation-seeking". Some people, for instance, are high sensation seekers. According to Jonathan Roberti, clinical psychologist and expert in sensation-seeking (read a review of his here), these individuals thrive on experiences that leave them emotionally and physically high. Not only would high sensation seekers be more interested in seeking out thrills and other emotional highs through the media (they apparently enjoy horror movies), they also are at increased risk for other "thrilling" activities, like drug use, excessive gambling, and casual sex. (Hmm, this isn't really sounding like me, but let's continue exploring.) Furthermore, high sensation seekers thrive on novelty, always seeking out new experiences, and are willing - and perhaps, prefer - to take risks to achieve these thrills; they're likely to select careers that allow them to take risks and experience new things - forensic identification, aka profiling, is one career they tend to express an interest in - and are prone to boredom.

Some research suggests that people have different brain responses to stimuli, and that some people, called "high stimulation seekers" (sounds like high sensation seekers to me, but different terms for different folks) experience activation in areas of the brain associated with reinforcement and arousal when exposed to intense stimuli, whereas others experience activation in emotional areas of the brain. While the researchers did not measure these brain reactions in response to horror movies, it may be that my brain responses are what differentiate me from my mom. While these images are reinforcing and psychologically arousing to horror movie lovers, they're upsetting to others.

But I hesitate to leave it at that. It seems that this explanation is more clinical, referring to enjoyment of horror movies as part of an additional diagnosis or, at the very least, a personality type. I hesitate to accept this explanation alone, because it clinicalizes (if that is in fact a word - and if not, it should be) something that could be considered normal. Additionally, though this research suggests there is a correlation between enjoyment of horror movies and these other behaviors, the one thing that makes horror movie viewing different from these other things is the notion of risk. There are risks of bodily injury or death involved in these behaviors, even something as commonplace as riding a roller coaster (though the odds are very, very low). The only risk involved with watching horror movies is that you might get a little freaked out, which could be quite traumatizing for people who dislike horror movies but probably not people who seek them out (either way, remember the advice given to viewers of Last House on the Left: "to keep from fainting, keep telling yourself 'it’s only a movie'"). As Roberti points out, however, not all of their behaviors are related to risk; they also enjoy trying new things in general, in terms of art, music, and sports; they score high on the personality dimension, "Openness to Experience".

Still, there are many good reasons to avoid clinical explanations when other explanations are just as likely if not better. One early example of the dangers of over-clinicalizing is a study by Rosenthal, aptly titled "On Being Sane in Insane Places". In this study Rosenthal and 7 colleagues got themselves committed to different mental hospitals, by each meeting with psychiatrists and informing them they were hearing voices saying the words, "Empty", "Hollow", and "Thud". All but one were diagnosed with schizophrenia (the final patient was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, or “manic depression” as it was called then) and committed. After reporting to an inpatient psychiatric ward, these "pseudo patients" stopped faking any symptoms and began acting as they normally would to see how long it would take for facility staff to notice. Their stays ranged from 7 to 52 days, with an average of 19 days.

So, they had time to kill, and thought, "Let's have some fun". What's a social psychologist's idea of fun? Doing research. While they were inpatient, they had an interesting opportunity to observe the various happenings: patients' behaviors, providers' behaviors, and most importantly, providers' assessments of patients' behaviors. They found that once a patient had been labeled with a clinical diagnosis, his or her behavior was often interpreted in line with that diagnosis, even when situational explanations were perhaps better. For example, patients spent a lot of time hanging out in the cafeteria waiting for meal-time, which providers attributed to things like "oral fixation", but the researchers thought was more likely because there's not much to do in a mental hospital, but eating is one regular activity that breaks up the monotony. Even the researchers' note-taking behavior was attributed to their diagnoses. [Interesting side note: while the providers never caught on that the pseudo patients were not actually mentally ill, 35 of the 118 other patients caught on rather quickly, and would ask the researchers things like, "Why are you here? You're not crazy."]

As a social psychologist, I think we should at least consider situational explanations for these phenomena. That's for next time. To be continued...

Thoughtfully yours,


  1. Great post! If we take the first theme (scary movies) together with the second (psychologist self-committing to a mental hospital for research), then we have the makings of at least five great horror movies (possibly all in one series).

  2. I love it! How about I write, you direct? Who should we get to star? :)

  3. The Rosenthal study reminds me of a story I heard on This American Life about a guy who faked mental illness to avoid prison time, but once he was committed to Broadmoor Hospital, he could not convince the staff that he was actually sane. But maybe he really wasn't as sane as he thought he was.

    Jon Ronson has written more about him in "The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry"

  4. Thanks for the links! :) Broadmoor - isn't that where Sylvia Plath was inpatient for some time? I also think Susannah Kaysen (author of Girl, Interrupted) stayed there.

    It's actually a common misconception that people who use the insanity defense are "getting off easy". After the Hinckley trial (the man charged with attempted murders of Ronald Reagan and his press secretary, James Brady) ended with a Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity verdict, they actually passed some legislation making the insanity defense harder to prove, because the public felt that justice was not served. Many pointed to the fact that Hinckley could be out on the street in days if the doctors felt he was cured. I don't know what length his sentence would have been if he had been found guilty, but 30 years later, he's still in a mental hospital, and will probably spend the rest of his life there.

    There's also fear that people are faking mental illness to use this defense - there are actually tests (measures of what is called 'malingering' - faking illness) to pinpoint these people.

    Anyway, thanks again for sharing (and reading)!