Why do we pay good money to see psychotic clowns, vengeful ghosts and chainsaw-wielding serial killers terrorize people on screen?
It turns out that many experts have studied that exact question. The answer: it's complicated.
(Less of a mystery is why studios love horror movies: aside from documentaries, they produce the biggest returns on the smallest investments. “The Purge,” for example, cost $3 million to make and grossed nearly $80 million across the globe.)
The same people who love zombie movies might hate ghost flicks and vice versa. To get to the bottom of this mystery, we decided to delve into the minds of people who love delving into the minds of people who love horror movies.
Zombies: For people who love braaaaaaaaiiiny movies
Yes, zombies might not be the brightest monsters in the crypt, but they are the favorite of directors who want to provoke thought as well as fear.
"Zombie movies are usually laden with subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle social commentary," Steven Schlozman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told TODAY. Hence the appeal to college students looking to dissect the anti-consumerist message of "Dawn of the Dead" or the moral dilemmas inherit in AMC's "The Walking Dead."
Zombie movies are also popular with "thrill-watchers," said Deirdre Johnston, a Hope College professor who has studied the effects of horror movies on adolescents. They care more about "laughing and socializing" around a movie —"Dude, look at that zombie explode!" — than they did about getting a good scare.
Vampire: Feelin' Sexy
Nobody has fantasies of being a zombie. Vampires are different. As "The Lost Boys" tagline goes, "Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It's fun to be a vampire."
Oh, and they are sexy too. "Vampires are all about lust," Schlozman said. Think of the actors who have played vampires over the years: Robert Pattinson, Kate Beckinsale, Brad Pitt, Aaliyah ... You get the idea.
"It's very rare to see an obese, out-of-shape vampire," Schlozman said.
There is an especially strong appeal to teens coming to terms with their sexuality, Johnston said.
"These plot lines also play on the sexual apprehensions of teens and pre-teens — she's sexy and seductive, and oh, so dangerous!"
Slasher flicks: Different knife strokes for different folks
So what about slasher flicks like "Friday the 13th" and "Halloween?" For some people, watching these movies is almost like playing a game, Schlozman said, where the goal is to spot how many stupid things the characters will do in the course of two hours. (Go into the basement without turning on the the lights? Sure, why not?!)
For conservative viewers, slasher flicks also provide morality lessons, showing the dangers of pre-marital sex and underage drinking.
"They have their roots in movies like 'I Was a Teenage Werewolf,' which was basically written as a cautionary tale against dating older men," he said.
When it comes to teens, watching slasher flicks is all about conquering their fears, according to a study by Johnston. She also found something more disturbing. Some kids liked the movies because they identified with — and sometimes dressed and play-acted as — the killer, she said, with those kids reporting more anger and problems at home and school.
Ghosts, monsters and demons: Seriously scary stuff
The top-grossing horror movies of 2014: "Annabelle," "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones," and "Deliver Us From Evil." Every single one of them involves ghosts or demons.
For the most part, people don't watch these for kitsch value. They watch to conquer deep-seated fears about death, spirits and the afterlife that humans have had for thousands of years.
"The more plausible the plot, the better," Johnston said, in contrast to fantasies like zombie and vampire movies. For a large part of the population, religion is a very real part of their lives — which makes watching films about demonic possession even more thrilling, Schlozman said.
"You go see those because you want to dance with the devil — literally."
Torture porn: Gross, bloody redemption
When "Saw" came out in 2004, it spawned a whole new horror genre: torture porn. In these movies, a demented killer traps his victims and forces them through all types sick, bloody challenges — often shown in brutal, unflinching detail.
What kind of person loves this kind of stuff? It's hard to tell; it's a relatively new genre, although the "Saw" and "Hostel" movies have a similar appeal to slasher flicks, both experts said.
Where they differ, according to Schlozman, is that "torture porn" films usually feature a protagonist, often female, who bests the sadistic killer. That could appeal to people who want to conquer their fears and see a happy — relatively speaking, of course — ending.
"There could be something redemptive in that people fight back and eventually get out," he said.
Forget Jason from "Friday the 13th"; some people just want watch Jason Segel flail around for 90 minutes. Are those people cinematic cowards? Hardly.
"Early on, one theory was that people who loved horror movies weren't affected by them," Schlozman said. "It turns out the exact opposite was true."
Studies have shown that people who are not terrified by horror movies simply don't like them very much. It's the test subjects who got a thrill from the fear that end up becoming fans.
Another reason you might not like horror movies: you are too old. The thrill that captivates teenagers "fades by the early 20's because sensation-seeking neurotransmitters also start to decrease at this time," Johnston said.
Overall, the human psyche is too complicated to completely understand why someone does or does not like watching murderers and ghouls wreak havoc on screen.
"So much of enjoying these kinds of films is tightly tied to nostalgic memories," Schlozman, who fell in love with vampire flicks because his father watched old Bella Lugosi movies, told TODAY. In the end, he said, it's all "sort of a fancy way of saying that there is no accounting for taste."
This post was first published in October, 2014