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The psychology of horror movies
By Michelle Liew Tsui-Lin
“Physical reality is one of the biggest horror movies of all, and you know how we love horror movies.”
― Thaddeus Golas, The Lazy Man's Guide to Enlightenment
The macabre has always had its draw. We love a good scare and I freely admit, the latest visit I paid to the cinema was to watch the latest dive into the paranormal, The Conjuring.
We have all had a wild fascination with horror since the dawn of the movie era. Scared though we may be, we have always been, well, drawn by its eerie magnetic force.
The answer to why has always been a little difficult to fathom. Perhaps a look into the psychology behind these movies and the elements of good ones will provide some answers.
Why do we like scary movies?
We are often puzzled as to why people would actually put themselves through the ordeal of being scared witless by axe wielding murderers or angst-filled poltergeists. So it is time to take a little peek at the psychology behind the good old horror movie.
Rite of passage
The horror genre seems to be a rite of passage among young people. One is considered only to have ‘grown up” after watching a horror movie. It explains why the more fear we feel, the more people will claim
to enjoy the movie.
Adults have a strange relationship with horror. It is inexplicable and parallels the fascination we have witnessing accidents on the road. The human is, after all, an animal; it could stem from his innate need to stay aware of dangers in the environment.
Coping with fear
There is also a theory that explains that people will seek out violent entertainment because they need to come with their innate fear of it by seeking out a referential authority. In the words of Stephen King, they act as a safety valve for our aggressive impulses.
The nature of true horror
Those who want to try their hand at a little horror fiction or movie screenplay may want to know what it is that makes a good horror movie linger frightfully in the minds of those who watch. A good one would, without a miss, have these qualities.
Post the question “What makes a good horror movie” on Facebook and one of the first answers that will be received is atmosphere. Successful horror depends on jump scares as much as the eerie quality that has to pervade the film.
Strong storylines are pivotal to a good scary movie. Horror films are created with the intent to shock or frighten. Some films, though, concentrate so hard on this that they neglect about the storyline that holds the film together. It should also have an impacting ending, as seen in M Night Shyamalan’s movies, that should leave the audience feeling satisfied.
The creepier the score, with infused echoes or deep, creepy breathing makes a difference to whether a horror film is a success. Discerning audiences who watch a film only to hear music choices that do not blend with the film’s theme may be completely thrown off.
A balance of blood and gore
Arguably, there as to be some in a good horror film. When filmmakers just throw in gore for gore’s sake, it s makes the audience disgusted rather than scared stiff.
Believable does not necessarily mean realistic. Here, we refer to the ability of the horror movie to draw the audience into its world. The more that can be achieved, the more believable it is. In short, it is the state of suspended disbelief.
A good horror film will draw on the audience’s real and relatable fears. Everyone dreads the feeling of being constantly watched or followed. Everyone would also relate to the extreme fear of having someone who is about to harm hiding in the basement.
Which is your favorite horror movie?
Which is your favorite horror movie?
Great horror movies of the time
Here are some of the great movies which have, by virtue of relatable fears or sheer realism, been able to scare us all out of our wits. This list is by no means exhaustive, so feel free to add other great horror movies in the comments. Do note that these trailers should only be watched if you are not prone to goosebumps.
The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock
The 1963 movie, based on the suspense/thriller novel by Daphne Du Maurier, depicts Bodega Bay and was developed around the concept of unexplained bird attacks. What makes the movie especially scary is that the presence and attacks of birds are regarded as a sign of the apocalypse. The religious reference is enough to make anyone’s hair stand a little on end.
Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock
Again. what makes this thriller especially horrific is its innate realism. Secretary Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, ends up at a secluded motel after embezzling money from her boss. She ends up being stalked
and traumatized by disturbed hotel owner and manager, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).
The film sends chills down the spine because characters like Bates, like them or not, do exists. He is a reminder of what might happen when someone is mentally traumatized or suffers from an emotional breakdown.
The 1963 movie won Leigh an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress and Best Director for the master of horror.
Amityville Horror Remake 2005
The Amityville Horror by Stuart Rosenberg
The 1979 film by Stuart Rosenberg was based on the 1977 best selling novel by Jay Anson. The story revolves around the real life experiences of the Lutz family, who stayed in 112 Ocean Avenue, New York, where a mass murder took place.
The scariness of the movie stems from the fact that the experiences were real. Audiences leave with the fear of the “Could this happen to me?” question in their minds.
Poltergeist by Tobe Cooper
The 1982 film, directed by Tobe Cooper and produced by Steven Speilberg, revolves around a family plagued by a group of malevolent ghosts which abduct their youngest daughter.
The film cuts to the core of many because it was said to be cursed, owing to the inexplicable deaths of some who were associated with it. A reboot of the franchise is set to be released some time next year.
The Silence of the Lambs Trailer
The Silence of the Lambs by Jonathan Demme
Starring the remarkably skilled Sir Philip Anthony Hopkins as the demented psychiatrist turned cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter and the charmingly innocent Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, the film revolves around Starling as she is pulled from her training as an FBI agent to interview Hannibal.
The scary element of the movie is owed to the heady manipulation of the mind - what unfortunately exists in the world today and is portrayed faultlessly by Hopkins.
The Exorcist by William Friedkin
Adapted from the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty, itself inspired by the 1949 possession of little Roland Doe, this film surrounds the possession of a 12-year-old girl and her mother’s desperate attempts to win her back through an exorcism.
Anyone who has witnessed an exorcism can attest to the shivers that it can give, so this film wins because, again, of heady realism.
The Conjuring 2013 Trailer
The Conjuring by James Wan
Based on the real events experienced by the Perron family, The Conjuring stars Vera Famiga and Patrick Wilson as demonlogists Ed and Lorraine Warren. The family, again, is plagued by sinister happenings in their farmhouse on Rhode Island. The house was previously owned by a falsely accused witch, Bathsheba, who seeks revenge. The hauntings prompt the family to contact the Warrens.
The real Lorraine Warren, interviewed in a mini documentary, showed the cameras her Occult museum, which contains the doll belonging to one of the Perron children. The atmosphere in the museum is so heady that few dare step in!
The mysterious and scary have always held their fascination with us. Do take the time these holidays to enjoy the scare that one of these films provides.
I would also like to thank those who answered the question “What makes a good horror movie?” The answers were invaluable!
Michelle Liew Tsui-Lin All rights reserved
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