What makes a horror film scary, and why, when most of the time fear is an unpleasant emotion, do people like watching horror?

Part of what makes horror films scary, according to Professor Ronald E Reggio, is that they connect with some of our biggest fears, such as death, the dark, scary places, and things that are strange or unusual. Screenwriter Ken Miyamoto adds that horror films also use anticipation and scary music to frighten us, building tension as we sense that something scary is about to happen. He says that it’s often the things we don’t see on the screen that scare us the most, as we have amazing imaginations.

Where you are and who you are with will also contribute to how scared you feel watching a horror film. For example, some people believe that The Exorcist is one of the scariest films of all time, but when I watched it with a group of friends while I was a university student, I was disappointed by how unscary it was. In contrast, I watched The Ring alone in a strange hotel while travelling in Vietnam some years back, and (spoiler alert) when she came out of the TV screen, I was absolutely terrified. And yet I still enjoyed it – why might that be?

One explanation for why we enjoy watching horror films is that we get to experience the fear while feeling safe, as we know it’s not real. There is a thrill to being scared, which is partly connected to changes in our bodies, psychologist Christopher Dwyer explains. When we are scared, our heart rates and breathing get faster, and we get an increase of adrenaline and other hormones, which can create a feeling of excitement, especially when we know we are safe, and can leave us with a good feeling after a threat has gone or a scary moment has passed.

This excitement can also be transferred to other things, according to Glenn Sparks’ excitation transfer theory. For example, positive experiences that you have after the movie, like having fun with friends, will be intensified because of the excitement in your body, Margarita Tartakovsky says. And Dwyer adds that this excitement can also be misattributed during the film – a couple on a horror movie date might like each other more, but not realise that it’s because of the pleasurable feelings in their bodies in response to fear rather than each other’s company, he says.

Another reason horror is appealing is that many of us are curious about the dark side, Dwyer says, and horror films allow us to explore that and help us to make sense of the unknown. It may even allow to us to get to know ourselves better, according to child psychiatrist Stephen Schlozman. In his TED talk, Schlozman explains that there are often profound themes in horror films, and, despite being scary, the unrealness of horror helps to create a safe space in which we can look at parts of ourselves and ask difficult questions about who we are.

Schlozman gives a scene from the 1979 film Salem’s Lot as an example of this: a boy is in his bedroom, and his little brother, who got lost in the forest and was bitten by a vampire, is outside banging on the bedroom window to be let in. The little brother is now a vampire, but he’s still a little brother, so what should the boy do? Schlozman says that even kids that are watching can sense when there is a profound question being asked, and while, ‘Would I let my brother in if he were a vampire?’ doesn’t seem profound, it can open up bigger questions, like, ‘Would I still accept my brother if he were a criminal or a drug addict?’ We get to think about these more difficult questions in the safe space of horror, which allows us to learn about ourselves, Schlozman says.

There can also be a sense of satisfaction at the end of a horror film – a feeling that you made it through. I seem to get more scared and experience less of a thrill from horror as I get older, but I recently made it through Hereditary and It Follows, and I’m pleased I did, as they were both very good, but I only just made it.

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