Seeking Scares

Megan Knapp


Seeking Scares: Why do people like watching horror films?

Georgia Davis / Blogs Editor

From an early age, Bianca Malcolm grew accustomed to late-night binge-watching with her sister as Gilbert Gottfried introduced Up All Night movies on the USA Network. The television series was known for showing B movies, low-budget films that were often part of double features.

Some B movie staples are horror films, a genre Malcolm can’t get enough of.

Malcolm’s earliest memories of horror films formed around the age of 7 with the Nightmare on Elm Street films in particular. The first one she remembers watching was the fourth installment, The Dream Master, which was released in 1988.

“I loved Freddy (Krueger) because he was such a unique villain. He would not only kill people, but he would taunt them,” said Malcolm, a second year masters of fine arts student studying film. “I remember being afraid to fall asleep because that’s how he got you.”

Despite the nightmarish tendencies of the horror genre, Malcolm loves the thrills and scares that come with watching the genre.

Horror films accounted for 9.46 percent of ticket sales in 2017 — the genre’s peak is from the years 1995 to 2018, according to The Numbers. That number increased by 5 percent from 2016.

Domestic box office for highest grossing horror films (1995-2018) in millions

  • I am Legend (2007): $331.5
  • It (2017): $327.5
  • Hannibal (2001): $261.6
  • The Blair Witch Project (1999): $248.1
  • Scream (1996): $204.3
  • The Ring (2002): $199.2
  • Scream 2 (1997): $197.4
  • A Quiet Place (2018): $188.0
  • Sleepy Hollow (1999): $177.6
  • Get Out (2017): $176.0
  • Horror movies have been a staple in cinema showing that people love being scared. More specifically, people love seeing the fear of the unknown personified on the big screen. But seeing the films in the comfort of a theater or home allows for the rush of being scared, without the threat of actual danger.

    Seeing fears

    Kimberly Rios, associate professor of psychology and director of experiential training at Ohio University, discussed the science and psychology of watching horror films at a screening of The Shining at The Athena Cinema, 20 S. Court St. Most of Rios’ work delves into how people respond to different threats and uncertainty — common themes in horror movies.



    “Some of us, depending on certain personality traits and contextual factors, really find uncertainty to not be such a negative experience,” Rios said. “Some of us actually seek it out, then that absence of threat and that presence of uncertainty could be a large part of what motivates people to watch these things.”

    The scariest movie Malcolm saw was the 1973 classic The Exorcist, which features a demon-possessed girl. The girl’s mother calls for the help of two priests to extract the demon from her daughter.

    Malcolm watched the film for the first time as a sophomore in college. The movie had been out for quite some time, but it didn’t stop her from hiding under the blankets in her dorm room as the demon kills the priest as crosses on the walls turn upside down.

    As for the realistic aspect of the horror genre, Rios said some research has concluded women are drawn to serial killer and crime dramas. The subgenre of horror films can potentially teach women defense techniques and they can empathize with the characters.

    “Part of the differences in reactions might be that because the non-supernatural movies are potentially more realistic,” Rios said. “Depending on what they are of course, they could be something one could imagine happening to themself. Sometimes that has the potential to be even scarier for people who actually put themselves in the mindset of the characters they’re watching.”

    Horrifyingly realistic

    Thrillers are often categorized as horror films. In both genres, the protagonist — and most times the audience — doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, said Anil Srivastha, a second year master’s of fine arts student studying film.

    “In horror, it’s much more immediate and physical, in terms of he literally cannot see what’s in the dark, which means he doesn’t know what’s coming,” Srivastha said.

    Protagonists in thrillers are often intellectual detectives trying to solve a murder like in the movie Se7en starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, Srivastha said. The two characters set out to find a murderer who uses the Seven Deadly Sins to kill his victims. When compared to a horror film like The Conjuring, it’s clear the characters in both films don’t know what’s going to happen next, he added.

    “Thrillers are mostly grounded in reality,” Srivastha said. “The fantastical element is removed. It’s nonexistent. It’s more in terms of human behavior.”

    “When I see a horror film, the very reason I get scared is that this cannot be a movie unless someone saw it or felt it in real life. It need not literally be what’s in the movie, but they would have felt some element in their life that resembles that force.”Anil Srivastha

    For Srivastha, no thriller has ever scared him as much as horror films. The only time the experiences were at an equilibrium was during the movie Gone Girl. The film highlights what can happen when a marriage falls apart because one person expects the other to be someone they’re not, Srivastha said.

    “When you look at it, it’s pedestrian — it’s marriage,” Srivastha said. “But, that it’s taken to a higher level where this could happen if you don’t watch out, that’s really where these two met for me — these two horror and thriller. There’s not many thrillers I would relate to (with) that much fear.”

    Srivastha’s friends try to tell him that a scary movie isn’t real and the events within its duration won’t happen, but he doesn’t see it that way.

    “When I see a horror film, the very reason I get scared is that this cannot be a movie unless someone saw it or felt it in real life,” Srivastha said. “It need not literally be what’s in the movie, but they would have felt some element in their life that resembles that force.”

    Scaring the seasoned

    It’s easy for any type of movie to fall into tropes, especially in the horror genre. Filmmakers have to continue to put horror movie junkies on the edge of their seats.

    Cinematography plays an important role in horror films, but each shot the director of photography sets up is elevated with strategic lighting, said Keisha Martin, a first-year master’s of fine arts student studying film.

    “Usually what makes the movie scary is what we can’t see,” Martin said. “It’s very important to highlight certain areas, like a protagonist’s face, but leave the space dark enough that you can see a hint of a creature or of someone lurking in the background.”

    It’s in human nature to fear the dark because it symbolizes fear of the unknown, Martin said. An audience member’s imagination starts to take over when watching a film; it tries to figure out what’s lurking in the shadows of a well-constructed frame.

    “If we were to shoot a horror film in just broad, natural daylight, I don’t think it would set the same atmosphere and mood because everyone would be like, ‘There’s a guy in the bushes. Why doesn’t she see that?’ ” Martin said.

    With lighting, the director’s vision comes to life. From the beginning, the director will establish whether he or she wants the viewers to know what the imminent threat is. If a director wants to focus on the character’s uncertainty, he or she might want to light the protagonist's face so the audience can feel what the character is feeling.

    Jordan Peele’s Get Out used close-up shots of Daniel Kaluuya to focus on his eyes, allowing for an intimate experience.

    “The closer you get and the more you show intimately with the light, the more connection the audience feels,” Martin said. “If we were to show a wide shot where we can see everything, we don’t feel the fear. You’re not in the character's mindset.”

    “It’s something primal. I think we all like to be scared, and it’s great watching horror movies because on a subconscious level, or maybe on a conscious level, you know nothing that happens in the movie can happen to you.”Bianca Malcolm

    Horror films of the ’70s and ’80s had memorable villains. Those of the late ’90s focused on building different tropes, and now the genre has moved toward concept-driven plots.

    “What keeps horror movies fresh nowadays (is) we’re trying to move toward the Get Out and socially conscious horror films,” Malcolm said. “Though, I see those more as thrillers than horror films.”

    Putting the audience in the horror film mindset allows for a form of escapism. It’s a simulated adrenaline rush with no actual threat. But the need for thrills and scares is part of human instinct, Malcolm said.

    “It’s something primal,” she said. “I think we all like to be scared, and it’s great watching horror movies because on a subconscious level, or maybe on a conscious level, you know nothing that happens in the movie can happen to you.”

    Development by: Megan Knapp / Digital Production Editor

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