It was a typical Friday night on Maynard Street. My roommate and I had just finished up with a week of online classes from within our sublet apartment. Still in the heart of the pandemic, we acquired it immediately after University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel notified us that the dorms would be changing to single-occupancy residency.
Our freshman year of college had so far been tumultuous, unpredictable, suffocating and monotonous all at once. We were always on our toes, waiting for the next bad thing to happen, while simultaneously exhausted by staring at the same four walls day-in, day-out.
Plagued by our boredom, we began a tradition that would ground us while simultaneously exciting us, drawing us out of our repetitive routine and allowing us to escape our less-than-perfect circumstances.
Every Friday night, my roommate and I immersed ourselves in horror movies.
We began the tradition in the dorms the night before Halloween and brought our obsession with us into the winter semester. We had both loved horror movies before college, yet the stimulation of watching these films became more of a restorative experience in 2020 rather than mindless entertainment. It was an escape from reality, a controlled, thrilling environment that captivated us.
My fascination with horror grew exponentially throughout my COVID-19 freshman year. Each day I listened to true crime and fantastical horror podcasts while washing dishes or working out. I binge-watched every season of “American Horror Story” while falling asleep. My constant engagement with the horror genre made me progressively more desensitized to the content of the stories; at this point, it takes an incredibly creative director or writer to get a genuine fearful reaction from me. My roommate and I are always searching for a film that will truly scare us to the core, a narrative that will shock us out of the real world and leave us haunted.
Some might find this almost therapeutic perception of horror strange, or even disturbing. Horror movies allow me to focus on someone else’s world. In a strange way, their tragic circumstances make our own real-world problems seem manageable. But though there are numerous die-hard horror fans, others see no appeal in voluntarily igniting feelings of fear, disgust or dread. Why do some love this rush of adrenaline, while others avoid it at all costs? Why do certain individuals have such a high threshold of fear that even the most gruesome films elicit no reaction?
The Halloween season forces us to reflect on these questions and the curiosity surrounding fear as a whole. The fact that we allot a whole month to the concept of “spookiness” and horror certainly indicates a collective attraction to the idea of fright. Going into October, I wanted to understand this allure of the eerie, the creepy and the ghastly that movies present to us. Whether we like it or not, horror surrounds us during the fall, and horror films are ever an essential component of this spine-chilling period.
Dissecting a Horror Movie
Horror movies are characterized by their ability to create an ambiance of uncertainty, eliciting feelings of suspense, disgust, shock or terror. According to AMC, horror capitalizes on “whatever dark, primitive, and revolting traits that simultaneously attract and repel us,” tapping into the twisted allure of unthinkably heinous circumstances. Viewers are drawn in by a collective fascination with brutality and a peculiar gratification that they are not experiencing similar atrocity in their own lives.
The human interest in the macabre is not new. Horror has been around for centuries, evidenced by the more morbid stories from folklore or popular 19th-century gothic novels from Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. Directors have been producing films that cater to this feeling of terror almost since the beginning of the movie industry. Since then, horror has developed into eight different sub-genres — psychological, slasher, gore, body horror, found footage, monster, paranormal and comedy — that approach the category from a distinct perspective. The movies amplify different types of fears so each consumer can obtain a thrilling experience fitting to their idea of what’s terrifying.
This is what makes my horror-going experiences so intriguing. Whether I wish to experience a succession of quick jump scares or evoke a lasting psychological paranoia, horror has the capacity to cater to whatever effect I want to incite.
The diversity of the genre also makes it a unique tool for artistic expression. Horror explores the most appalling parts of humanity, the roots of our fears and worries, and reflects the state of society. Take the example of the U.S. in the 1970s: Serial killer murder rates were the highest they’d ever been in the country’s history. Not coincidentally, slasher films became a cinematic staple, presenting viewers with a heightened production of the reality they were living in. Jordan Peele’s 2017 film “Get Out” explores the deep roots of racism in America while social justice movements became more visible in real-life mainstream media. The visual effects of horror thrills audiences, but witnessing a twisted version of the issues of one’s own world is what’s truly terrifying.
Mark Kligerman, a lecturer in the LSA Department of Film, Television and Media, emphasized the importance of this cultural component of horror.
“Each time I revisit the genre in the classroom, I ask students to tease out relationships between horror movies and the broader system of values that form the basis of culture, both domestically and internationally,” Kligerman said.
Kligerman also urges students to, “focus on the fluidity of the form” of horror, paying attention to how directors adapt their films over time to reflect current society.
“The original Halloween, for example, premiered in 1978, yet Hollywood has produced countless sequels, remakes, and knockoffs since then,” Kligerman said. “I just watched the latest retread this weekend: Halloween Kills (2021). It was a real letdown, to say the least. Though the film certainly belongs to the same genre as the original superficially, its attitudes toward politics, violence, sexuality and even monstrosity is much different, alerting us to the very dynamic and unstable nature of horror. Recognizing and delving into this instability with students is when discussions of the form become really interesting.”
Kligerman highlighted the revealing nature of horror films, whether in the U.S. or abroad. These movies, he explained, spotlight the central issues and philosophies of each culture in a more poignant manner than other genres.
“I do tend to stress the importance of cultural specificity when teaching horror,” Kligerman said. He cited Vanderbilt professor Teresa A. Goddu, who he says argues “that the gothic narrative in early American literature was a resistant cultural form that unsettled myths of New World innocence by revealing the darkness at the heart of the American civilizing process: the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the legacy of racial exploitation and exclusion have formed the basis of a living nightmare that has haunted American culture for centuries and from which we have yet to awaken.”
Diving into the world of horror films with my roommate was simultaneously an act of escapism and an ongoing education on the history of the world around us. Sexism, health, violence, racism, family and mental health — we explored all of these issues in horror while they reached a fever pitch in the events and movements occurring outside of our apartment walls. We immersed ourselves in fantastic tales that magnified the problems of disease, environmental collapse and political division plaguing our world. Through film, the issues were easier to absorb, allowing us to examine their truths as outsiders to the unfolding events. While the sensational effects of horror were upfront and at times extreme, we internalized themes that addressed some of the largest and darkest issues haunting humankind.
Fear and How We Deal With It
Though many directors use horror movies as a medium for expressing important ideas, the main draw for audiences is the thrill of its content — the unexpected and extreme events that make up the plot.
“What is perhaps the primary appeal of the horror genre,” Kligerman said, “is its ability to wreak havoc on our emotional equilibrium… Charting (discrepancies) in affective response is in itself fundamental to the work of genre analysis and raises critical questions concerning the nature of spectatorial desire and pleasure.”
There is obviously an overlap between the fear response and more pleasurable emotions, such as “desire” and positive excitement. It’s the reason that my roommate and I can’t wait for our Friday horror nights and why audiences flood to theaters when a new movie is released. Dr. Kent Berridge, U-M professor of psychology and neuroscience, explained the connection between these vastly different reactions and their shared origin in the amygdala, a brain structure responsible for emotion recognition.
“Fear, of course, can be a very terrible experience,” Berridge said. “But the kind of fear where people are actually kind of chasing horror movies or roller-coaster experiences, there’s a kind of active fear connected to the dopamine reward system.”
Berridge outlined how in this “reward system,” certain “cues or sights or images” will incite the urge to react to the reward. For example, “when you’re thirsty for something, water” provokes your urge to drink. These cues are equally important in fear as they are in desire.
“Just like the reward cues are attention riveting, a threatening percept is also attention riveting,” Berridge said. “It’s hard not to look at it, but it’s in a threatening way, not in an attractive way. It’s so attention-grabbing it has to mean something, it’s motivationally significant.”
People are so attracted to horror movies because the brain’s responses to both fear and desire share the same chemical and psychological components involved in emotional processing.
“(It’s possible) to flip back and forth between fear and desire,” Berridge said. “In the lab, we can create this, and it may be that in the roller coaster and in the horror movie, the situation is scary but it’s under control. Part of you knows that, and so you can oscillate and enjoy the oscillation in the overlap. It’s sort of counterintuitive that fear would overlap with desire, but it does, and that may be one reason why people can seek out fearful experiences that scare them just enough.”
For many, there’s a fine line between finding stimulation that “scares them just enough” and those that put them over the edge in terror. There are personal discrepancies that prevent some from indulging in activities like horror films, while others with high thresholds for fear actively seek out these experiences. Individual distinctions, according to Berridge, arise from certain personality traits such as thrill-seeking, which draws people to these rousing attractions.
Some people are simply more likely to enjoy horror and other heart-racing attractions. My own thrill-seeking character explains why I search regularly for the ideal horror film that will astound me with its ghastly content. The shock of horror — just like an amusement park ride or a zip line — satisfies my need for adventure and sensation.
LSA junior Sylvia Giger is another individual who enjoys the excitement of horror movies, especially if they delve into uncertainty and suspense.
“I’m more into films where the unknown is teased, such as spirits and when the intergalactic is mentioned,” Giger said. “It makes the experience more horrific because the possibilities of these topics are only limited to the creators’ and viewers’ imaginations. It can be as terrifying and unique as possible.”
Giger also pointed out that there’s an important social aspect of horror movies. Experiencing intense emotions alongside other watchers makes for a unique bonding experience. After witnessing the eerie events in “Hereditary” or “The Babadook” together, my roommate and I were certainly grateful that we didn’t live alone.
On the other hand, Business senior Aianna Smith is of the exact opposite opinion, choosing to stay away from horror due to their haunting effects.
“As an adult, I enjoy some thrillers, but I particularly hate any sort of paranormal movies,” Smith said. “These also seem to stick in my head even now and I can struggle to fall asleep for days after watching. The unfortunate part is that I think the plots of many horror movies are really interesting and I’d really love to see them play out, I just have an incredibly hard time watching movies that a lot of people die in or where people die in extreme ways.”
The enjoyment of horror centers on the balance between feeling fear and remaining in touch with reality. Some may think it’s “too real” and retain images of the gory scenes while others recognize the artificiality of the events on-screen. Their minds recognize that they are in a stable environment that is vastly different from the tumultuous plot unfolding within the movie.
“I think that for the people who are attracted to (horror movies), it’s always in a context where there is some safety and control,” Berridge said. “If you’re in a haunted house, you know they’re not gonna actually hurt you. So as long as these contexts are there, people enjoy it.”
Looking back on my freshman year, this desire for contained stimulation was a driving factor in beginning our household tradition. The pandemic uprooted any sense of normalcy in our lives, transforming the world into an unpredictable, stressful and all too real manifestation of the chaos of a scary film. Escaping into horror movies during COVID-19 renewed our semblance of control over horrible circumstances, even if just for a couple of hours.
Context plays an important role in the processing of fear, determining our positive or negative reactions to it. Recognizing our true environment allows us to revel in the distraction of horror. It gives us the chance to escape from our mundane troubles and concentrate solely on the rush of chemical signaling in our brains. This is the therapeutic effect of horror: I can give into the psychological effects the films evoke. In contrast with reality, I can enjoy the thrill of intense situations without actually living through them.
Fear doesn’t have to be a completely negative experience, even for those who struggle with confronting it. Acknowledging the presence of fear and appealing to your own rational thought processes allow you to keep the feeling from going out of control — whether you are watching a horror movie or braving a distressing situation.
Horror movies force us to face the worst parts of humanity, of the universe and of our own minds. We can’t escape the truths or circumstances that they illuminate. In this way, scary flicks help us understand our own capacities for terror: Do we respond proactively or freeze up in stressful circumstances? Not everything we truly fear is in our control, but the pleasure associated with fear lies within our ability to overcome it.
Horror films inundate us within our “fight-or-flight” instinct, forcing us to confront our (fabricated) state of danger. Yet, once we successfully conquer the threat enclosed within the film, our perception of our own strength is amplified. Once we accept our fears, we are more prepared than ever to defeat the next beast, killer or demon who dares to challenge us.
Statement Correspondent Sarah Stolar can be reached at email@example.com.