The horror, the horror
Why we like to get scared
11/04/2009 10:00 PM
The “Saw” horror movie series solidified its position in the record books by grossing more than $14 million on a recent weekend, according to the film Web site Box Office Mojo, as moviegoers flocked to theaters to see the sixth installment of serial killer Jigsaw’s exploits.
The series is already the 45th most successful franchise in film history, grossing $700 million in its first five films, according to The Numbers Web site, which compiles gross amounts and other statistics on films. The series features Jigsaw and his followers torturing victims to death with riddles and puzzles.
The previous installment, “Saw VI,” had low production costs of $10.8 million and grossed $113.2 million. “Saw VII” is scheduled for release in October 2010, according to Michael Geiser, a spokesman for Lionsgate, which distributes the series.
The success of the critically panned franchise has left many people wondering what’s behind the public’s love affair with horror.
Glenn Walters, a clinical psychologist and author of behavioral psychology books, is a horror fan. In a 2004 paper published in the Journal of Media Psychology, he suggested that horror ensnares viewers by acting as an emotional conduit.
“It deals with our fears in a safe environment,” Walters said. “It often deals with fear of acceptance, identity, and mortality, which makes it so popular amongst adolescents who are going through a very tumultuous period in their lives.”
According to a 2008 Nielsen report on trends in youth consumption of media, 49 percent of U.S. teens ages 12 to 17 were horror fans.
Walters asserted that tension, relevance and unrealism keep audiences coming back for more. The movies are fiction and so viewers know what’s on the screen isn’t real.
Tension, meanwhile, holds their interest.
Cultural relevance is another important element to the popularity of the genre, Walters said.
“We’ve come into an age where everyone is worried about swine flu and contagions, so it’s good fodder for horror because that’s where our fears lie at the moment,” he noted. “Look at the zombie and vampire trend, it all has to do with blood and contamination and disease.”
Dr. Joel Cohen, adjunct professor of anthropology and director for the Center of Consumer Research at the University of Florida-Gainesville, believes that the need for horror movies relates to our need to satisfy an internal stimulation level for enjoyment.
The fascination with the macabre is interesting because it challenges human nature, Cohen said.
“The assumption is that people will willingly expose themselves to things that make them feel good, not things that cause fear and anxiety,” he said.
Cohen studied the reactions of self-described horror movie viewers and non-horror movie viewers to various horror film clips. He and Eduardo Andrade, a marketing professor at the University of California-Berkley, discovered that watchers and non-watchers experienced the same level of fear, but horror fans got a “positive effect” from the clips.
However, Cohen found that non-viewers had a more positive response when handed biographies of the actors, which reminded them that the clips were not real.
“Some people have learned how to put themselves in a ‘protective frame,’ and detach themselves from a threatening aspect, while other people have not learned how to do that,” he said.