It is debatable whether or not fear of the unknown is greater than fear of the known, but in childhood so much is unknown that a child, in order to make sense of fear, must isolate and identify it; only the known can be dealt with.
– Jan Mark, British Writer
I believe that children should be allowed to feel fear … Walter de la Mare … believed that children were impoverished if they were protected from everything that might frighten them … Once one has answered this basic question … the second problem arises of how it is to be presented. This is really a technical problem which has to be faced by every writer for children.
— Catherine Storr, from ‘Things That Go Bump In The Night’ in the Sunday Times Magazine, March 1971
“We’re not really being scared by movies at all, at least not in the ‘brain chemistry way’.”
The Allure of Scary Stories
2. Relevance – a universal, cultural, subcultural or personal relevance
3. Unrealism – sounds counter-intuitive, but isn’t. At some level we know that what we are watching is not real. Our disgust-o-meter doesn’t necessarily go off when we know something is fictional. Children have a harder time separating reality from fiction, which should be the basis of age censorship.
Does watching violence on screen make us angry or does it have a cathartic, and ultimate calming effect?
Do certain personality types like horror movies more than other personality types?
Different people watch horror movies for different reasons:
1. gore-watching — low empathy, strong identification with the ‘baddie’
2. thrill-watching — high empathy, high sensation seeking motivated by the suspense
3. independent watching — high empathy for the victim and with positive feelings at the end of the film, and
4. problem-watching — high empathy for the victim but negative feelings of helplessness at the end of the film.
Do men like horror films more than women? (Men enjoy horror films more when their female romantic partner is visibly scared, but women enjoy horror films more when their male romantic partner is visibly stoic. I think this just explained to me why it’s always a female voice screaming in the sound effects, and why male screaming is only ever used to comic effect.)
Horror films require us to face the unknown — they allow us to face our fears and put them into context. They shape our belief system, and provide a good, safe space to explore.
For more on this interesting subject, watch The Psychology of Scary Movies.