Why Do We Like Horror Movies?

Fear doesn’t seem like a very pleasant emotion. So why do we watch horror movies?

Another year in a few days is Halloween again. A celebration that is not typical of our country, but little by little it is gaining ground, perhaps because it is a date marked for terror.  

Throughout this week, television channels will start broadcasting horror movies and specials, and on the same night of the 31st we will be able to see people in disguise roaming the streets.

Scary cinema: the disconcerting taste for horror

If something is clear, it is that a large sector of the population like horror movies. But why do they come to like horror movies?  The sensations associated with fear are not usually associated with pleasure, but rather the opposite: fear is produced by a physiological response that appears when the chances of seeing our life threatened by some danger are relatively high and, therefore, we learn to avoid it. However, in the cinema, people invest money and time in being exposed to situations that produce terror. Why is this happening?

Many may come to think that it is due to a lack of empathy or a  person’s own sadism that is politically incorrect and that, once a year, it can come to light. However, there are theories that go beyond this view.

Zillman’s theories about our preference for scary and sadistic movies

To give some answers, the theories of Zillman (1991a; 1991b; 1996) can be applied , which talk about  why dramatic characters attract us. If you have ever thought about how a genre that is dedicated to exposing the suffering of others can be liked, the following explanation may satisfy your curiosity.

Dispositional Theory: the importance of “good” and “bad” characters

Every fictional narrative includes a plot and characters. The objective of the scriptwriters with these two elements is, on the one hand, to articulate the plot to induce an aesthetic pleasure in the viewer, a “hooking plot”. For this, on the other hand, it is necessary to work on the characters, so that the viewer can put themselves in their place and live their adventures in first skin. Therefore, unlike what you might think, it is a process of empathy .

However, in every story there are protagonists and antagonists; and we do not empathize in the same way with each other. Moreover, the same context of events that surrounds the protagonist is undesirable for the viewer, that is, no one would really like to experience the same situations that happen in a horror movie.

Empathy and compassion towards the characters with whom we identify

The dispositional theory explains that after the first scenes of seeing the characters on the screen, we make very quick moral assessments of “who is the good guy” and “who is the bad guy . In this way, we assign the roles to the plot and organize the roles. expectations of what will happen. We are clear that the characters valued positively, misfortunes will begin to happen to them, thus generating compassion towards them and gaining empathy and identification. In this way, we act as “moral observers” throughout the film, assessing whether the ” facts are good or bad ”and if they happen to“ good or bad people ”, creating what is called affective dispositions .

We wish good characters the best … and vice versa

When you develop a positive affective disposition towards a character, you want good things to happen to him and you fear that bad things may happen to him. However, it also has a counterpart, since if the affective disposition generated is negative, it is expected that those negative acts that the character develops will have their consequences. In other words, as long as we value positively, we hope that this character will do well, while if it is negative, that it will do poorly; a principle of justice .

In this sense, the attraction towards these films is given by their resolution. Over the minutes expectations are generated about “how the story of each character should end”, so that when it is resolved, it gives us pleasure. The end of the movies manages to satisfy the anguish generated by expectations, fulfilling that ending we expected.

Some examples: Scream , Carrie and The Last House on the Left

As examples, these two processes of affective and negative disposition are exploited in horror films. In “Scream” the same protagonist is maintained throughout the sequels, maintaining empathy and a positive affective disposition towards her and the expectation that she survives. 

Another case is that of “Carrie”, in which we develop such compassion that we do not judge the final scene as unfair. And there are also cases of the opposite process, as in “The last house the left”, where we produce a great negative disposition towards the villains and we wish their misfortunes ; a feeling of revenge that is pleased.

Activation transfer theory: explaining pleasure through fear

However, the disposition theory does not explain why we like to feel discomfort with expectations contrary to the character’s assessment. If we want good things to happen to that good girl, why do we enjoy when bad things happen to her? Many investigations reveal a principle of hedonic inversion in the assessment of dramatic characters: the more suffering is caused in the viewer, the better their assessment of the film.

The worse the protagonist has, the more we enjoy

This is due to a physiologically based process that is explained by the activation transfer theory. This theory states that as events contrary to our expectations occur, empathic discomfort is generated and, in turn, a consequent physiological reaction. This reaction is increasing as the problems accumulate for the protagonist, at the same time that the hope of our initial expectations continues to be maintained.

In this way, the difficulties that appear in the hero’s path increase the discomfort we feel, and the fear that he will not have a happy ending. However, our hope for this remains. In this way we are reacting to the anguish of the contradiction of both paths: we want good things to happen at the same time that only bad things happen. When the end is reached and expectations are met, despite the fact that it is a positive emotional experience, we still maintain the physiological activation produced by misfortunes, since their elimination is not immediate. This is how these “residues of excitement” are maintained during the outcome, increasing the pleasure of the ending.

The tension has something addictive

Let’s say that little by little, even if we hope that it ends well, we get used to misfortunes happening, so that by having the happy ending, that expectation fulfilled, we enjoy it more, because we were more predisposed to the opposite. It is a process of habituation towards misfortunes that sensitizes us towards successes. The greater the intensity of residues of excitement prior to the outcome, the more pleasure it causes us. That is, the more tension appears in the moments leading up to the end, the more we enjoy it.

What are horror movies like and why do they get us hooked?

In this sense, it explains how horror movies are articulated. At the beginning there is a presentation of the characters, and the first victims do not interfere to a great extent in the course of the events. There are a large number of films in which the protagonist discovers the corpses of his companions at the end, in the middle of the chase and achieving the climax of tension. Therefore, the tension is managed progressively, gradually increasing before the end.

Characteristics of horror films

However, the previous two theories are elaborated by Zillman to explain, especially, the dramas, not the horror movies. However, both genres are close in their narrative, as they both feature characters who befall them. Even so, there are features of horror films that increase the effects of previous theories.

  • Number of protagonists. Most horror movies feature a group of characters. In the beginning, any of them can be the protagonist, so our empathic activation is shared among all. As the number decreases, our empathy increases towards those who still remain, thus progressively increasing empathic identification in parallel with physiological tension. That is, at first we empathize less, but as characters disappear, our empathy for those who remain increases, intensifying the effect of dispositional theory.
  • Horror narrative. Seeing a horror movie already puts us in doubt about its end. Well, many of them have a happy ending, but many others have a tragic ending. Therefore, uncertainty is added to the tension due to expectations . Not knowing if it will have a happy ending increases tension and its physiological activation, as well as the pleasure after the end. Playing with the uncertainty of the ending is a feature of the “Saw” saga, in which the expectation is maintained about what each protagonist does and how it will affect the ending.
  • Stereotypical characters. Many of the arguments of the genre resort to include stereotyped characters. The “silly blonde”, the “funny African American”, the “overbearing hunk” are some of them. If the film uses these stereotypes a lot, we may empathize with them less. What’s more, if a well-crafted villain profile is added to this, it is possible that we empathize with the antagonist to a greater extent and that we like that he survives in the end. This is how the great sequels are explained, such as “Friday the 13th”, in which the villain has a greater complexity than the protagonists and the story focuses on him.
  • Setting. Unlike dramatic films, the setting in horror films predisposes to physiological activation. The sound, image, or context in itself, are aspects as important as the plot, since they serve to increase the effects that the plot produces by itself. What’s more, they are elements that also influence expectations, since, if it is a stormy night and the lights go out, something is sure to happen.
  • Murder complexity. Being a horror movie, surely some character is going to die. With that predisposition, viewers expect to see death scenes that surprise us. Rather, they produce the physiological activation that they should provoke, since those that may have occurred previously, as well as those seen in other films, produce a habituation; we get used to seeing die. This may well be an inconvenience, since it makes the audience more demanding, but it also determines how, throughout the plot, each victim develops greater suffering; or in a different way to the previous one, so that we do not get used to it. There are several examples, as in “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, in which when we see Freddy Krüeger appear, we are already scared by not knowing what will happen. The “Saw” saga or the famous “Seven” are also good examples of this.


Therefore, although it seems that it is due to lack of empathy, the processes that lead to a passion for terror are the opposite.  

An attempt is made to facilitate the empathization process , pose a series of misfortunes and play with the expectations of the outcome that the viewer forms. I am sorry to disappoint some readers, as you do not have a hidden sadist as you thought. Or, at least, not all. Happy Halloween to those who enjoy it.

Bibliographic references:

  • Zillman, D. (1991a). Television viewing and psychological arousal. In J. Bryant D. Zillman (Eds.), Responding to the screen: Reception and reaction process (pp. 103–133). Hillsadale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
  • Zillmann, D. (1991b). Empathy: Effect from bearing witness to the emotions of others. In J. Bryant and D. Zillmann (Eds.), Responding to the screen: Reception and reaction processes (pp. 135–168). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Zillmann, D. (1996). The psychology of suspense in dramatic exposition. In P. Vorderer, WJ Wulff, & M. Friedrichsen (Eds.), Suspense: conceptualizations, theoretical analyzes, and empirical explorations (pp 199–231). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

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