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The psychology of horror movies

Updated on December 3, 2013

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.

Morbid curiosity

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.

Relatable fears

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?

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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 Trailer

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.

Exorcist Trailer

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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    • profile image


      5 years ago


      Nice sequencing of information.

      "...Atmosphere...Plot ...Score..."

      Thank you for those bullet points for a good horror; I am keeping an open mind to writing in different genres.

      Something I read:

      I read that Shelley, author of the unabridged version of Frankenstein began that work under these circumstances:

      She and her collegues, due to inclement weather had to stay longer in a cabin that had been visiting together in. Upon being bored with one another they drifted into solitude to write in thier rooms, and she began Frankenstein. I can't remember the source of this information, but I know it was not a "fly by night" account.

      Thanks for setting a good mindset on things I've often avoided and refused to shack and shake me.


    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      I was watching The Conjuring today and I still haven't gotten over it yet. Thanks for sharing, Martie!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Glim!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Janet!!

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      6 years ago from South Africa

      Thank heavens I have outgrown my addiction to horror movies. I have no longer a need for an overdose of adrenalin in my blood and guts; I have actually developed an allergy to fear and anxiety. I even forbid myself to think about all the horrors in reality, also to be seen in detective stories.

      Excellent hub, thank you, midget :)

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Nithya! Nor can I!

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Claudia Mitchell 

      6 years ago

      Interesting article Michelle. I like scary movies, unless they are too scary. Then I can't handle them. Nice insight here.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Me too, DDE!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Kidscrafts!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you!

    • Quoteslover profile image

      Quotes Lover 

      6 years ago

      Very infomative

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      The exorcist is a bit too scary for me too!And Psycho gave me the creeps! Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Dianna, the old ones just seem so true! Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks Nell, always destresses, in an odd way!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks very much!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Horror movies is the best.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Yup, Jackie, my point exactly!!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Bill! Nah, I think it just means you like excitement!

    • josters profile image

      Janik D 

      6 years ago from Dresden, Germany

      Very interesting Hub, beautifully written. I liked that you included a short description and the trailer of the movies and also went into the psychology of horror a bit.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      6 years ago from England

      I love a good scary movie! especially the horror films and yes I agree with you I think we like them to remind ourselves to be careful and not get lazy with our own safety. great hub!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      I do not watch today's horror movies, I prefer comedy and see enough horror in real life. You just have to admire Hitchcock's artistic talent when it came to producing his movies. Suspense was all you needed to shock you. I still get chills watching The Birds. Interesting post and very educational.

    • kidscrafts profile image


      6 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      Interesting article, Michele! I must say since a while I can't watch horror movies or violent movies; it's just too much for me. But it's nice for people to have a choice of movies to watch depending of your interest!

      Thanks you for sharing another interesting hub, Michelle!

      Have a great day!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      6 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      The psychology of horror movies has scary photos especially the first one and I like watching horror movies.

    • janetwrites profile image

      Janet Giessl 

      6 years ago from Georgia country

      I'm a big horror movie fan but I can't watch them alone and normally I can't sleep at nights after watching them. A very interesting and informative hub about the psychology of horror movies.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 

      6 years ago from Dubai

      Interesting article. I cannot watch horror movies alone! Great write.

    • Paradise7 profile image


      6 years ago from Upstate New York

      I STILL remember seeing "Psycho" on Insomniac Theatre late night TV when I couldn't sleep one night. Well, after that movie, it was several nights that I couldn't sleep! The Norman Bates guy scared the pants off me, and I loved the movie. Go figure.

      Some movies really are way to scary for me. The Exorcist is one of the too-scary ones. I never even tried Amityville Horror, either.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      6 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I can read scary and I did read true crime for years but I cannot watch it. Maybe because they play all those tricks to shock you when you least expect it! lol ^

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 

      6 years ago from Daytona Beach, Florida

      Fascinating article. That handsome fellow at the very beginning is an old and dear friend lol Love horror movies. Passing this on.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I don't know what it says about me that I have seen all of these and many, many more. :) Very interesting article.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Why we love horror movies


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