Horror, theoretically, shouldn't be big business. By their very gory, visceral nature, horror movies alienate a great number of the movie-going population. A lot of folk can’t stomach them. Parents can’t take their kids to see them. The elderly don’t generally like them. They frequently have low budgets and no-name actors, bucking the idea that dictates audiences will only pay for movie stars and explosions. The last thirty or so years have seen a depressing number of paint-by-numbers sequels and terrible remakes. They shouldn't work.
And yet, they do.
The Conjuring, the latest trick from horror magician James ‘Saw’ Wan, was one of the surprise hits of the American summer. Costing $20 million to make, it’s currently sitting at a current worldwide gross of over $240 million. It left films with much bigger budgets, much bigger stars, and much higher concepts in its dust. The Conjuring’s David vs Goliath success story is not historically abnormal. Just look at Saw, Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project, Friday the 13th, The Evil Dead… and so it continues into the past.
We still flock to horror movies. We sit in the dark with giggling couples or jaded purists or those who tried to get into the Man of Steel premiere without a reservation. Why? Why do we pay to scare ourselves sick? Why do we pay to watch others menaced and murdered? Why do we want to see what fear looks like?
We want to see things we wouldn't usually see in our daily lives, of course. Curiosity is a powerful emotion. There’s a sense of illicitness to horror that is very seductive, because from a very early age we are taught that watching horror movies, like porn and cigarettes and pinching the underside of your little brother’s arm to make him squeal, is wrong. Part of the appeal of horror comes down to a basic thrill of seeking out that which we’re not meant to see; it’s a feeling that stays well into adulthood, buried deeply, no matter how world-weary one may grow.
At a basic level, horror is all about thrills. There’s a sense of catharsis once the credits roll, a sense of having survived a brief brush with something dark and unexpected. Horror movies are frequently compared to rollercoasters; both take you on a journey that feels dangerous but is inherently safe. It’s a ride that feels unbridled, but a ride nonetheless.
The ‘Excitation Transfer Theory’ is tied closely to this idea. The theory reads that viewers who experience fear or anger at the antagonist during a horror movie will feel an amplified positive emotion come the film’s resolution, whether it be a happy ending or not. According to psychology professor Susan Burggraf, the exaltation caused by excitation transfer results in the “snuggle effect” - hence the reason why horror movies are frequently considered to be great for first dates.
We are drawn to horror, too, because we want to demystify the unknown. In a recent essay written by author Warren Ellis, Ellis stresses the importance of violence in fiction. It is only through violence, he argues, that we can understand and come to terms with the violent acts that occur around us.
“Fiction is how we both study and de-fang our monsters. To lock violent fiction away, or to close our eyes to it, is to give our monsters and our fears undeserved power and richer hunting grounds.”
A psychological distance must be achieved, of course, or these movies would only serve to intensify our fears. A 1994 study saw a group of hardcore horror fanatics exposed to a series of video scenes depicting real-life horrors –specifically, animals being slaughtered and explicit surgery – and 90% of them turned the video off before it had reached its end. Why did these gore-hounds, exposed to far worse imagery than a cow getting its head bashed in (which is still inarguably awful), find these real-life acts so sickening?
We are afforded a sense of control over abhorrent fiction, concluded Jonathan Haidt, Clark McCauley, and Paul Rozin, who ran the study, because it is so unreal. As long as we are aware of the fictional nature of horror, which the films themselves frequently encourage through black humour, off-the-wall supernatural elements, and often, let’s face it, shaky acting – we feel in control of it. Hence why we laugh, why we pull our whimpering partners closer to our chests. Those of us who see horror for what it is tend to have a much better time in the cinema than those who don’t.
Contrary to the popular knee-jerk opinion, there’s an argument that horror films serve to reaffirm our status as healthy, well-adjusted human beings. We grimace at Freddy Krueger’s scarred face and Regan MacNeil’s unhealthy use of a crucifix and the devouring madness of Jack Torrance and think to ourselves; thank god this isn’t my reality. As Stephen King puts it in his essay ‘Why we Crave Horror Movies,’ the horror movie is innately conservative. “Even reactionary,” he writes.
Indeed, of all horror movie theorists, King is surely the most qualified, and certainly the most dastardly. The principal reason we are drawn to horror, King believes, is not because we want good to win out against evil, or because we want an excuse to wrap an arm around a trembling new lover, but because we are all fundamentally insane.
“I think that we’re all mentally ill,” he writes. “Those of us outside the asylums only hide it a little better – and maybe not all that much better, after all.”
Horror affords us to purge our insanity. Most of us keep our uncivilized selves – our Mr Hydes - under lock and key, so there is a catharsis when they are allowed to stumble free. As sports games are the modern equivalent of war, King suggests, horror movies are the modern equivalent of a savage and chaotic public lynching.
“The potential lyncher is in almost all of us (excluding saints, past and present; but then, most saints have been crazy in their own ways), and every now and then, he has to be let loose to scream and roll around in the grass,” says King.
The horror movie is “morbidly unchained,” to borrow the author’s apt description, and its job is to appeal to the nastiest in us. It is a different kind of catharsis to surviving the ordeal – it is the perverted enjoyment of the ordeal itself.
It's a fascinating theory. Horror movies will continue to make money because we are always seeking that liberation, that dark ride. And we’ll take it any way we can.
Source : ign[dot]com