“horror fiction capitalizes on cognitive and physiological machinery that is a product of natural selection”
The question remains why many people continue to like horror stories? If horror triggers our danger management systems unnecessarily, why do we seek them out?
Well, here is where it gets a little tricky. More importantly, at least as far as I am concerned, here is where psychology begins to play a huge role. There are two potential explanations:
1. We can loosely categorize this along demographic lines: Target audiences for horror. In talking demographics, we also end up considering gender roles. The main target of horror movies and the biggest consumers are adolescent boys. Beyond the obvious fact that this group is a little on the goofy end of things to begin with, male adolescents often engage in behavior that has been considered rites of passage. Some of this is culturally sanctioned, other rituals are more informal. Regardless, going to scary movies together and surviving the horror together can be considered a male bonding experience (according to Clasen). “Hey, dude, we survived and we did it together” (although teen boys probably wouldn’t report it in this manner). At the same time, girls tend not to be the market audience, but are often taken to these movies by their dates (the guys who love them – the movies in this case, and maybe the girls). Now, according to Professor Clasen, teen girls like boys who are brave and boys like to reciprocate by being brave (that is, gender appropriate reactions to horror movies). If everything goes according to plan, both parties get their wish – and boys also get to watch a cool movie to boot. According to Clasen, this is known as the snuggle theory of horror. (Please, I’m just reporting his argument).
2. The second explanation makes more sense to me. Basically, it is this: we vicariously learn how to behave in extremely dangerous situations in the relative safety of a movie theatre or our own homes while reading a book. The situation as portrayed on a screen (or in a book for that matter) is indeed well beyond the norm and highly life threatening – but it is fictional. As a result, we learn how to mentally prepare for and handle unbelievable situations without the risk. This process has its parallel in childhood play. Kids act out practical strategies of survival in all kinds of games and activities. Pretend play is fun and pleasurable – and kids are vicariously learning all kinds of behaviors which are applicable to real life in years to come: problem solving, negotiating, self-control, assertiveness, physical safety responses and so on.
To put it simply, enjoying horror stories allows us to practice survival strategies and to form bonds with other survivors – all within very low-risk situations. As Clasen states, consuming horror is adaptive – we learn new skills for survival and practice and rehearse them in thrilling and uncanny encounters that aren’t real. How cool is that?
What about the people who don’t like horror? Well, I suppose they’ll be relying on us to keep them safe during the upcoming apocalypse. It’ll be annoying, but what the heck – everyone will get a chance to snuggle.
Clasen, M. (2012). Monsters evolve: A biocultural approach to horror stories. Review of General Psychology, 16, 222-229.