Horror movies are a controversial and complicated subject in terms of the influence they have on the viewers. Some people favor such films, stating that they have a powerful therapeutic effect – like any form of art does. Others are rightly afraid that being accustomed to violence on the big screen leads to being accustomed to violence in the real life. In any case, the benefits which horror films have to offer for the emotional well-being are worth exploring.
In his essay Why We Crave Horror Movies, Stephen King approaches the controversial phenomenon of people's attraction to the morbid and the macabre. The writer, who is a recognized master of horror in fiction, suggests that in the basis of scary movies' attraction there lies the opportunity to relieve the emotional tension in a civilized way and set free some violent “uncivilized” desires without being socially punished. In other words, in order to understand the nature of the fascination with horror films, especially in the young audience, King invites the reader to look deep into himself or herself and become conscious of the impulses which are usually kept dormant. He points out that “the potential lyncher is in almost all of us”, and horror films allow to release this lyncher to feed on “seeing others menaced – sometimes killed” (King 69 – 70). This is, according to King, the dirty job which scary movies perform for their audience: they present an acceptable and perfectly civilized way to enjoy the suffering of the other. In the everyday life, an open longing for this sort of pleasure would inevitably cause social problems at best and being put away to a mental hospital at worst. For the sake of being accepted as a fully functional member of society, people keep their uncouth impulses in restraint. Looking at someone being threatened, hunted down, tortured and killed allows to satisfy those impulses even though everything which is happening is happening just on the big screen.
The basic premise of King's theory is quite provocative, but inherently true: “ we're all mentally ill; those of us outside the asylum only hide it a little better, after all” (King 69). In other words, the author emphasizes the macabre inside every human being – even the most docile one. Civilization calls for suppressing “negative” emotions and praises “positive” emotions. As King suggests, the benefit of horror films lies in the opportunity to “allow our emotions a free rein or no rein at all” (King 69). Following King's line of thinking, one arrives at a conclusion that scary movies are a therapy for people's tired selves sick of the effort which wearing the “public” image requires. It almost seems to be a positive item to let in one's life – a legitimate way to get some rest for one's strained nerves.
Even though King's suggestion is rather uneasy, there is definitely some truth in it. When one thinks of it, watching others being tortured and killed publicly is not a new form of entertainment. History can yield a great deal of examples when people gathered to watch public execution in one form or another. Gladiator fights in the Ancient Rome are one of such examples. Gladiators fought and died on the arena only for the sake of entertaining the public, who derived a great pleasure from seeing the men injured and killed. One would say that the ancient times were cruel times. However, closer to the modern times, the tendency is preserved as well. For example, in the eighteenth century, criminals were executed publicly, and common people as well as nobility gathered to watch it. This tendency is brightly depicted in the brilliant famous novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas: Monte Cristo lures Franz d'Epignay and Albert de Morcerf into friendship by offering them to share the balcony with an excellent view on the place where the execution will take place. Throughout history, people went to see other people hunted down and killed, burnt at stakes, beheaded, or hanged and viewed this a sort of entertainment. Put into this perspective, the modern fascination with pretend killing of the pretend victim with a lot of pretend blood seems quite innocent. This perspective also invites to draw the following conclusion: what has changed is the medium, not the desire.
Undoubtedly, the phenomenon of horror films requires an approach more complicated than one theory. King's suggestion focuses on the hidden desire to inflict pain on others and watch them suffer. However, there is a room for an alternative: people like to watch horror in order to find themselves in the situation they are highly unlikely to experience in the modern civilized world – the situation of major threat. Even though a person in the movie theater is only a viewer, not the chased victim, he or she experiences intense emotions. It is interesting that horror films are the kind of films which are most often watched with someone rather than alone. Watching such a movie with one's friends might intensify the emotional response and place the group together in the pretend situation of life and death. This tendency can be observed very often in teenagers and young adults, who, as King pointedly noticed, are a lot more attracted to the emotional roller-coaster than adults (King 69). While King's model appeals, roughly speaking, to the viewer identifying himself or herself with the assailant, the alternative model invites the viewer to identify himself or herself with the victim and enjoy the chase without any grave consequences.
I am not much into the horror genre, be it fiction or cinema, but, nevertheless, I have some experience with it and I have had an opportunity to observe my friends' reaction on it. For instance, as far as I know, none of my friends likes to watch scary movies on his or her own, but many of them gladly do it in company. This trifle observation makes me think of some form of group catharsis: several young people are trapped together in an overtly dangerous situation and live it together. What is even more interesting that people try to handle their reaction to what is going on. Among my friends, there is a young man who seems to be never scared a bit while others shudder and even scream. Once, I asked him how he managed to be so calm while watching such horrid things, and he answered that he simply liked to test himself and to make it an exercise of controlling his emotions in front of others. This tendency of his reminds of the ancient danger, which was to be met bravely, especially by males. In his essay, King mentions this instance too, but only in passing: “we are daring the nightmare. Why? To show that we can, that we are not afraid, that we can ride this roller coaster” (King 69). Thus, to some extent, the pleasure of watching a scary movie has nothing to do with the pleasure of watching someone suffer. The pleasure of watching a scary movie can be connected to a pleasure of standing tall in the face of danger. Either way, the emotional relief is a benefit.
Everyone experiences art in an individual way. The same concerns horror films. Although it is uneasy to suppose that such films can provide any sort of benefits, for some people it might be the case. The approach suggested by King is certainly sound, but it omits the fact that not all people are into the horror genre.
King, Stephen. “Why We Crave Horror Movies”, pp. 69 – 70.