I began my Countdown to Halloween pondering the question of why we love horror movies. I wrote about the “horror paradox”, a phenomenon where, although we find the horrific to be repulsive, we pay good money to watch it again and again. This is not a new question; it’s as old as Aristotle, who addressed disgust as an emotion. Why do we enjoy ugly things? Why do we enjoy tragedy?
I’ve explained in previous posts that people watch horror movies as a way of coping with actual fears or violence in the world in which we live. That is a sound theory when you examine various decades in which horror movies were produced. But now I want to take a different approach and attack the question from a more specific psychological angle, independent of time and era.
Confronting Our Own Mortality
In the excellent documentary, Nightmares in Red White and Blue, legendary director Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins) says, “The appeal has always been confronting death. In various ways, these movies help us cope with that.” That makes sense to me and I can support the theory with three points:
– We are afraid of dying, so watching other people die in gruesome ways eases our fear. Perhaps we think, “Whew… my death can never be as bad as that one!”
– We face death along with the characters in a movie. However, we survive and they don’t. In a way, we’ve challenged death and lived through it.
– We are simply desensitized to the horrors we watch, making our everyday fear of death seem just a little less extreme.
Perhaps the perfect example of a horror franchise proving these points is Final Destination. The structure of the five movies in the series (so far) is exactly the same. In fact, there’s really no ongoing mythology other than the concept itslf: handsome/pretty boy/girl has a premonition about an impending disaster, cheats death and then spends the rest of the movie trying to escape it. You see, when you’re supposed to die, you’re supposed to die. Death does not let you off the hook.
In regards to my first point, the Final Destination movies are full of gruesome, inventive deaths. When we see someone decapitated at the jawline by flying shrapnel, hit in the head by a falling brick, impaled by a flying flagpole or bisected by a flaming car hood, it is unrealistic to think we’ll meet the same type of demise. Most of us will probably die of something health or age related. Even if we die in our sleep, it will not be as horrific as a death from these movies.
The more exaggerated the deaths become in later movies of the series, the more we anticipate them. We’re thrilled to discover the creative ways the filmmakers eliminate the characters. More importantly, though, we begin to laugh at the deaths. The movies always start with a disaster of some kind that could feasibly happen to any one of us: a plane crash, a car accident or a bridge collapse. (Hey, we actually see these events occurring in the news.) These disasters are truly horrifying and represent our fear of death. But as the deaths become more fantastic, we look forward to the next one so that we can laugh in death’s face.
In regards to my second point, as we go through the process of watching other people suffer in these gruesome ways, they always meet the same fate: they die. However, we survive and leave the theater envigorated because we beat death! We know we’ll eventually die, but each time we confront our enemy and live to tell about it, it becomes a little easier to actually face it.
Which leads directly to my third point. Whether or not you buy my first two points, there’s no doubt that we are desensitized by watching these elaborate deaths. So we may not actually feel like we could face death and survive, but our fear of it is lessened. As we are confronted with something over and over again, it naturally becomes a little easier for us each subsequent time.
The punchline of the Final Destination movies, and of real life, is that you cannot cheat death. It is inevitable. Movies and real life don’t let you forget that. But it’s better to face the horrors in a movie, don’t you think? That makes us stronger and more resilient when we must face them in real life. And anything that can distract us from the fact that someday we will exit this plane of existence is somehow a comfort, no matter how terrifying. That is one reason we love horror movies.