Why do we like scary movies? Professor G Neil Martin, Head of Programmes for Psychology and horror enthusiast, explains

Halloween. The time for ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night. Many people are antipathetic to such horrible delights; others quite like the thrill and suspense of being scared. But why? And are certain types of people drawn to horror, particularly horror films?

Professor G Neil Martin has had a long-standing interest in horror and has just published the very first review of the empirical literature on why we like or dislike horror film.

Horror, like other film genres, has its distinctive characteristics and leitmotifs. We can distinguish it from Westerns, romances, comedies, documentary, thrillers and so on. The primary aim of the horror film is to horrify, shock, frighten and disgust using a variety of visual and auditory devices including reference to the supernatural, the abnormal, mutilation, blood, gore, the infliction of pain, death, deformity, putrefaction, darkness, invasion, mutation, extreme instability and the unknown.

There is very little empirical literature examining why we approach this type of film and why we like it but there is some and this suggests that suspense and the resolution of suspense are key factors in motivating us to watch horror. One theory, the excitation transfer theory, argues that we derive pleasure from horror because we wish to see the resolution of suspense that has built up dramatically and powerfully during the course of the movie.  If the suspense is not resolved, we experience dread not relief. Another view argues that people enjoy horror for affective reasons:  its depiction of instability and destruction. There is evidence for both and neither.

What is clearer are the individual differences which affect our motivation to watch. The greatest of these is sex: men and boys are far more likely to seek out and enjoy horror films than do women and girls. Their behavioural responses also differ. Women more than men report looking away from screens, feeling anxious, feeling their heartbeat faster, screaming, and holding onto their companion. 

Other individual differences include sensation-seeking and empathy. People who score lower in empathy are more likely to enjoy horror and there is some evidence that those who seek our sensations also prefer horror and enjoy it more (but this evidence is inconsistent). While horror is designed to create anxiety and dread, there is no evidence that exposure to it can cause mental ill-health.

When asked for his favourite horror film, Neil was unequivocal: 'Theatre of Blood, the 1973 work of genius by Vincent Price and Douglas Hickox. It is brilliant and clever in so many ways, not least the way in which Robert Morley’s poodles reach a sad, if nutritious, end. Released in the same year as The Exorcist, this is by far the better film.'

You can hear Neil talking more about the psychology of horror on the Regent’s podcast here.