Top 7 Must-Watch Horror Movies by Woman Directors

horror movie research paper

For some odd reason horror movie writing and directing has mostly been associated with men. However, many women have also taken leading roles as writers, producers and directors of hit horror films. In fact, some movie distribution companies are now run by women. And for a good reason too, women have directed some of the most iconic as well as influential horror movies out there. Yes, that includes the hit American Psycho. Let’s look at the seven main must-watch horror movies directed by women.

The American Psycho

The horror movie was released in 2000, co-written and directed by Mary Harron. The movie embraces a darkly satirical adaption of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel from 1991. Harron does a great job with the dark humor throughout the movie and also flips the male gaze in the film. Also Harron ensures that the American Psycho does not objectify women unlike other horror movies throughout history. This is actually one of the reasons she wanted to work on this project.

View this post on Instagram #AmericanPsycho #PatrickBateman #ChristianBale #WallStreet #PierceAndPierce #IHaveToReturnSomeVideoTapes #Dorsia #PaulAllen #JaredLeto #WillemDafoe #BretEastonEllis #MaryVaron A post shared by Brett Pritchard (@btpkp) on Sep 26, 2018 at 11:36pm PDT

Kathryn Bigelow co-wrote and directed this movie which was released in 1987. You can consider Bigelow as one of the pioneers for horror movies directed by women. The movie revolves around an exciting and romantic story of a family of specifically nomadic American vampires. Almost like an 80’s ‘Twilight’ Kathryn directs this movie in a unique way without ever mentioning the word ‘vampire’. The movie features amazing actors such as Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen and Jenette Goldstein who also appeared in James Cameron’s ‘Alien’.

View this post on Instagram Near Dark (1987) While shooting in the desert, Lance Henriksen relieved the boredom between takes by hopping in his car and taking short drives through the desert, still in costume and often staying in character. According to Henriksen and Bill Paxton, the two were stopped by a policeman who became so unnerved questioning Jesse about his speeding that the officer became visibly uncomfortable, stepping back and placing his hand on his firearm. The obviously flustered officer decided to send them on their way rather than write them a ticket. Unusual for a vampire movie, the word “vampire” is never mentioned. . . . #NearDark #Classic #Horror #Vampires #Vampire #horrorfilm #Horrorfan #Horrorart #HorrorMovies #HorrirMovie #Horrorfanatic #80s #Flick #Horrorlover #Halloweenparty #NoSleep #Terror #Desert #scary #goodmovie #Liked #Spooky #Bests #VAMP #Brutal #Twisted #Story #frightfest #horrorgram #InstaHorror A post shared by Hitcher HorrorSeeker (@horrorseeker) on Sep 18, 2018 at 3:27am PDT

This is one of the recent horror movies written and directed by a woman, Julia Ducournau, who does a stunning job in this cannibal based drama. Raw may be one of the more graphic horror movies on this list, so viewer beware. It even caused a man to faint at a festival viewing. Depending on your stomach this might be a reason to see it or not see it. Julia’s use of bloody violence and shocking imagery is what made it so popular.

View this post on Instagram #rawthemovie #horrormovies #horror #rainysundaymovies A post shared by Courtney Jackson (@courtjay99) on Jul 22, 2018 at 10:24am PDT

The Babadook

The Babadook was released in 2014, written and directed by Jennifer Kent. Although it’s a must-watch movie, it is not for the faint of heart. The Australian writer and director embraces various mechanics of a horror movie to narrate a soul-shaking story. It features main characters such as Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman. Essie Davis plays a young widow who is struggling to raise Noah, her six year old son, who is hyperactive. The movie has virtually no onscreen gore of bloodshed as the director is more interested in preying and exploring upon the most primal fears of the human mind. But still, it’s scary.

View this post on Instagram The Babadook (2014) Director: Jennifer Kent Cinematographer: Radek Ladczuk #cinematography #thebabadook #babadook #babadookdookdook #babashook #jenniferkent #radekladczuk #babadookmovie #babadookthemovie #jedkurzel #simonnjoo #nikkibarrett #alexholmes #karenhannaford #jenniferdrake #heatherwallace #suecarroll #andreahall #dalebamford #justindix #clintdodd #timpurcell #essiedavis #noahwiseman #hayleymcelhinney #barbarawest #craigbehenna #cathyadamek #horrormovies #horrormovie A post shared by Cinematic Artistry (@cinemartistry) on Jun 15, 2018 at 11:05am PDT

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare

For fans of Nightmare on Elm Street, this fan favorite is iconic and directed by a woman. Rachel Talalay, the director, worked on several Elm Street movies but has a breakout role as director in this one. She is one of the most notorious women in the franchise and had been working behind the scenes for years before directing this masterpiece. 

View this post on Instagram Released on September 13th, 1991, FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE is 27 years old! Happy Anniversary! #freddysdead #freddysdeadthefinalnightmare #thefinalnightmare #freddy #freddykrueger #robertenglund #90smovies #horror #horrormovies #slasher #lisazane #breckinmeyer #yaphetkotto #tomarnold #roseannebarr #johnnydepp #alicecooper A post shared by The Big Freaking Ogre (@the_big_freaking_ogre) on Sep 13, 2018 at 9:13am PDT

The Hitch-Hiker

Ida Lupino was a popular actress in the early 1950’s. After several successful movies, she made her way into the directing scene. Released in 1953, The Hitch-Hiker is one of the original modern horror movies. It’s about two men who pick up an escaped psychotic convict who then tells them he is going to end their lives before the trip is over.

“The Hitch-Hiker”: The Origin of a Twilight Zone Classic: (new blog post via @wordpressdotcom ) — The Twilight Zone (@TheNightGallery) May 1, 2017

Pet Sematary

After working for several years as a music director for big names like Madonna, Mary Lambert became a household name with her 1989 cult classic ‘Pet Sematary’. This was one of the many horror movies based on the works of Stephen King and her feature movie debut.

View this post on Instagram This is one of my favorites movies: Pet Sematary (cementery). Because i saw it when i was kid and i finished in shocked for many weeks #petsematary #petsematarymovie #petsematarycat A post shared by anubisalejandro (@anubisalejandro) on Jul 15, 2018 at 10:37am PDT

While many think that women don’t have much of a presence in the horror movie genre, this list shows that the statement itself could not be more wrong. While women have directed less horror movies than men, the movies directed by women are some of the best horror movies you can see. There are many good reasons to see these movies above, but the fact that women directed them all is another great reason.

Ida Lupino on the set of The Hitch-Hiker (1953). — Albert Galera (@AlbertGalera) February 4, 2018


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“The Thing,” “The Fly” and the Best Body Horror Movies Ever

horror movie research paper

Forty years ago, John Carpenter released a horror movie called The Thing . In the early ‘80s, Hollywood seemed to be extremely interested in extraterrestrial life and the not-quite-human: in 1982 alone, three of the top 30 movies were E.T. , Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Blade Runner . 

The Thing , which is about a parasitic alien lifeform capable of mimicking other living organisms, was not as successful. It barely beat out its $15 million budget at the box office. It doesn’t have the sweetness or the optimism of E.T. ; it doesn’t have the world-building narrative charm of a Star Trek movie; it doesn’t have the cool, sci-fi crispness of Blade Runner . 

And yet here we are celebrating The Thing after four decades, because it has a long-lasting popularity that makes it nearly the equal of those aforementioned films. What it has instead of all of the stuff those other movies have is blood, guts and gore. It’s a body horror movie, which means it showcases grotesque changes to the human form. 

Body horror movies have an appeal that’s hard to explain in words, but is immediately understandable to anyone who has ever, for example, popped a zit. Movies —  The Thing among them — create a fantasy space where we can imagine the limits of what the human form can endure. Movies are thought experiments, narrative hypotheses. We wonder what would happen if… And we get lost in the possibilities of that. 

Body horror movies also seem to endure over time. The movies on this list were not often the biggest blockbusters when they came out, but they’ve gathered followers over the years. Something in them makes our skin crawl but that something also sticks with us — and we keep going back. Body horror movies are like the little sore in your mouth that you can’t stop touching with your tongue. But don’t worry! They’re just movies, right?

Dark Passage (1947)

horror movie research paper

Before we get into proper body horror films, I wanted to shout out this gem from 1947 by the great director Delmer Daves. It’s the story of a man who escapes from prison after being wrongfully convicted for murdering his wife. It’s also one of the four great movies that the real-life movie-star couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together, and it’s worth watching for that reason alone. 

But what makes this movie really great is that for the first third of it, we see everything from the perspective of Vincent Parry (Bogart). That means we never see his face until — due to a convenient plot twist — he gets some shady plastic surgery in the middle of the night and a couple weeks later is revealed to look like, well, Humphrey Bogart. It’s a great movie joke — having Bogart play an unseen man who does not look like Bogart until he does. 

And yet there’s something creepy about it — about imagining someone’s face being altered to look like an entirely new person. It never sits quite right, and it’s part of what gives us the nagging sense that something’s wrong all the way through the film. Dark Passage has a happy ending, but to me it’s proto-body horror for the way it makes me squirm at the manipulation of the human form.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

horror movie research paper

I thought about including the 1978 remake of this film, but the purist in me wants to go with the original here. This movie, directed by Don Siegel, is an absolute masterpiece of the genre, and really as a movie, period. It concerns an alien invasion and involves plant seed pods that are able to grow exact visual copies of human beings. These “pod people” are devoid of life and personality — they just kind of wander around. 

There are two classic body horror things going on in Invasion of the Body Snatchers . One is just the idea that the people you see walking around might be possessed by some other intelligence that has stripped them of their agency or selfhood. That’s scary enough. But the other body horror element is the pods themselves. They’re gross! 

The Blob (1958)

horror movie research paper

We have no choice but to include The Blob , which also has the distinction of being the first starring role in the career of Steve McQueen, one of the greatest action stars of all time. The Blob is one of many movies in which some sort of alien goo crashes on Earth and begins expanding. In this case, the goo begins eating people and growing bigger and bigger as a result. 

Honestly, the technical capacity of filmmakers in the ‘50s means The Blob feels a little quaint in comparison to more recent body horror movies. Nevertheless, the idea absolutely works. The director, Irvin Yeaworth, shows us the titular blob only here and there — a mass of red, vaguely pulsing. Like all great horror directors though, he knows that what we don’t see is more terrifying. With this in mind, so much of the body horror is revealed to us through the reactions the characters have to what they see around them. 

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

horror movie research paper

We wrote about this movie in our “Bad Dads” Father’s Day roundup recently, but it deserves mention here for being the flagship film in the demonic pregnancy genre of body horror. It’s the story of Rosemary (Mia Farrow), a woman whose husband does the unthinkable and gives his family over to a satanic cult. 

Part of body horror is imagining that there’s something terrible inside of you, unseen. Rosemary’s Baby , as Rosemary’s paranoia mounts, makes you feel that fear to a sublime degree. It’s a film about possession and invasion, but, most troublingly, it’s also a film about choice. Rosemary doesn’t get to choose what’s happening inside of her body, and the decision she makes at the end of the movie shows the limitless capacity of a mother’s love.

Eraserhead (1977)

horror movie research paper

Another movie dealing with the emotional weight of parenthood, Eraserhead is nearly impossible to explain, plot-wise. It’s a dreamlike nightmare from the master of psychological horror, David Lynch. In fact, it was his first film, and that it was made as he himself was going through the emotional experience of raising a very young child is pretty creepy and troubling to consider.

The body horror elements are in the details. At dinner, a chicken that’s about to be carved moves and spurts blood, for example. The child itself is inhuman, reptilian and screaming. It really is a nightmare, but Lynch films can’t be experienced as simple narratives. It’s a curated series of moving images designed to unsettle and confuse you. It’s experimental, but the feeling in the end is pure body horror, as we are left deep in thought about the oddness of our physical selves. 

Altered States (1980)

horror movie research paper

One of the greatest performances by recently deceased movie star William Hurt was this hallucinogenic classic from 1980. Hurt plays Eddie Jessup, a psychopathologist at Columbia University who ends up using psychoactive drugs and sensory deprivation tanks to explore the limits of human consciousness. 

The results — this is a body horror movie, after all — are pretty horrifying. Jessup starts to experience the externalization of his visions; the things happening in his mind end up getting transferred into the real world. He begins to regress, turning into more and more primitive forms of life and consciousness. It’s wonderfully spooky to consider the possibility of your imagination becoming real — intoxicating and terrifying all at once. That’s what makes this movie such an exciting ride.

The Fly (1986)

horror movie research paper

As far as I’m concerned, David Cronenberg’s 1986 film The Fly is the archetype of the body horror genre. You could include lots of Cronenberg’s films here: Shivers , Rabid , The Brood , Scanners , Videodrome and a whole bunch of other films he’s made over the course of his career are body horror classics. The Fly is, in some ways, the simplest though. It asks: what happens if, by accident, you cross a man with a fly?

Jeff Goldblum plays Seth, a weirdo scientist who’s working on a bit of technology involving the teleportation of matter between two pods. Geena Davis is Ronnie, a journalist he ropes into covering his experiments. You’re not going to believe this, but Seth ends up trying to transport himself, and a fly buzzes into the pod at that exact moment. And then we’re off to the races. 

The movie gets to play with the classic elements of body horror: grotesque physical changes, experiments gone too far. It also gets to have some fun though. As Seth becomes more fly-like, he craves sugar and becomes inhumanly strong. In predictable fashion, he gets excited about the changes before he becomes afraid, but it’s too late. 

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

horror movie research paper

I don’t know if I’m recommending you watch Tetsuo: The Iron Man if you haven’t, but I can’t make a list of body horror movies without including it. It’s an incredibly low-budget independent Japanese film by Shinya Tsukamoto, and although it’s pretty brief — the run time is just over an hour — it’s a real ordeal to go through. 

The basic idea is that a man who’s obsessed with adding metal to his body ends up creating a monster who becomes increasingly metallic in nature. The monster isn’t a glistening, smooth metallic creation like the T-1000 in Terminator 2 though. It’s hideous and deformed, with metal protrusions of all shapes and sizes. 

In the end, the spread of this monster threatens to take over the entire planet, which is always the fear in these body horror transformations. But really this is an experiment in moods — the film is so frantic that it’s nearly impossible to follow, and you start to feel as though you’re watching a nightmare. When the scope widens out to the entire world, it’s jarring. You might have hoped this problem was local, but it’s global, and that’s the scariest part. 

Mimic (1997) 

horror movie research paper

This movie by visionary director Guillermo Del Toro deserves credit for flipping body horror tropes in a way I’m not sure I’ve seen elsewhere in movies. Instead of the humans being transformed, a novel species of cockroach evolves to mimic the look of humans. But this doesn’t mean the characters are dealing with walking, talking cockroaches. In fact, it’s much scarier.

The story is about a team of scientists, led by entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino). Alongside the CDC, the team creates a new species to eradicate the cockroaches in New York City, which are spreading a deadly disease that afflicts children. The new species is supposed to be unable to breed, but, as we learned in Jurassic Park a few years earlier, “Life finds a way.” It’s a real thrill-ride of a movie, but the scariest part is the way the new cockroaches, which have grown to be man-sized, can fold their wings to mimic a man’s face. I’m telling you: you will have shivers down your spine the first time you see it.

Titane (2021)

horror movie research paper

We seem to have gone beyond the golden age of the body horror movie, but once in a while a new director comes along who carries on the legacy of body horror directors like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. The most recent is Julia Ducournau, who directed her debut feature film, Raw , in 2016. It’s about a veterinarian student who develops a taste for flesh, so, yes, Ducournau is squarely in the body horror zone.

Titane , which came out last year, is the story of a girl who has a metal plate put in her skull after experiencing a horrific car accident as a child. She grows up to be a serial killer who has, well — let’s just call it a strange relationship with metal. The movie is a terrifying masterpiece, and it makes me really excited to see what’s next for Ducournau, who is the daughter of a gynecologist and a dermatologist , if you can believe it. 

The truth is that we understand so little about ourselves. Titane is a terrifying vision, yes, but so is getting old, if you really think about it. Our bodies are so familiar to us, but also so strange sometimes. Body horror movies are one way of exploring that strangeness. They’re about learning to accept what we can’t change, about remaining mysterious to ourselves, and that’s why we’ll always come back to them. 


horror movie research paper

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Review article, (why) do you like scary movies a review of the empirical research on psychological responses to horror films.

horror movie research paper

  • Faculty of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, School of Psychotherapy and Psychology, Regent’s University London, London, United Kingdom

Why do we watch and like horror films? Despite a century of horror film making and entertainment, little research has examined the human motivation to watch fictional horror and how horror film influences individuals’ behavioral, cognitive, and emotional responses. This review provides the first synthesis of the empirical literature on the psychology of horror film using multi-disciplinary research from psychology, psychotherapy, communication studies, development studies, clinical psychology, and media studies. The paper considers the motivations for people’s decision to watch horror, why people enjoy horror, how individual differences influence responses to, and preference for, horror film, how exposure to horror film changes behavior, how horror film is designed to achieve its effects, why we fear and why we fear specific classes of stimuli, and how liking for horror develops during childhood and adolescence. The literature suggests that (1) low empathy and fearfulness are associated with more enjoyment and desire to watch horror film but that specific dimensions of empathy are better predictors of people’s responses than are others; (2) there is a positive relationship between sensation-seeking and horror enjoyment/preference, but this relationship is not consistent; (3) men and boys prefer to watch, enjoy, and seek our horror more than do women and girls; (4) women are more prone to disgust sensitivity or anxiety than are men, and this may mediate the sex difference in the enjoyment of horror; (5) younger children are afraid of symbolic stimuli, whereas older children become afraid of concrete or realistic stimuli; and (6) in terms of coping with horror, physical coping strategies are more successful in younger children; priming with information about the feared object reduces fear and increases children’s enjoyment of frightening television and film. A number of limitations in the literature is identified, including the multifarious range of horror stimuli used in studies, disparities in methods, small sample sizes, and a lack of research on cross-cultural differences and similarities. Ideas for future research are explored.

Horror: An Introduction

“It seems an unaccountable pleasure which the spectators of a well-written tragedy receive from sorrow, terror, anxiety and other passions, that are in themselves disagreeable and uneasy” ( Hume, 1907 ).

Why do people watch, and enjoy watching, horror films, and why is this an important or useful question to ask? The primary aims of the horror film are to frighten, shock, horrify, and disgust using a variety of visual and auditory leitmotifs and devices including reference to the supernatural, the abnormal, to mutilation, blood, gore, the infliction of pain, death, deformity, putrefaction, darkness, invasion, mutation, extreme instability, and the unknown ( Cherry, 2009 ; Newman, 2011 ). It is the emphasis on these characteristics that tend to distinguish horror from the related genre of thriller or psychological thriller ( Hanich, 2011 ). Thrillers are designed to create suspense and terror, but the creation of these feelings is dependent not on the presence of mutilation, gore, or the supernatural but via more human devices. These boundaries, however, can be fuzzy. If these features are utilized in thrillers, they are not the principal focus of the film but are incidental to it (an example would be the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs, which is bloody and brutal but is contained within a film, which has a non-horror theme). Together with Westerns, science fiction, comedy, musicals, documentaries, and other film genres, which are characterized by particular tropes, styles, themes, characters, and visual leitmotifs, horror sets itself apart from other film types via its distinctive characteristics.

Although commercially successful, the cinematic reputation of horror film has been less than stellar. It has been frequently regarded (if it is regarded at all) as the runt of the cinema family and held in lower esteem than other film categories ( Stone, 2016 ). Etchison (2011) observed that “The horror film occupies in popular culture roughly comparable to that of horror literature. That is to say, it is generally ignored, sometimes acknowledged with bemused tolerance, and viewed with alarm when it irritates authority - rather like a child too spirited to follow the rules that rendition has deemed acceptable” (p. ix), a view that is echoed elsewhere. For example, Tudor (1997) noted that “a taste of horror is a taste for something seemingly abnormal and is therefore deemed to require special attention” (p. 446). Part of the reason for the disdain, apart from the broad and base nature of the content, may be the relative cheapness of horror film: these are often much less expensive to create than are other genre films such as westerns, comedies, or science fiction. The first horror film can probably be dated to 1855/1856. The Lumiere Brothers’ L’arrive d’un train en gare de la Ciotat depicts the arrival of a train into a station, the appearance of which, if anecdotal although possibly apocryphal accounts are to be believed, resulted in the audience becoming consumed with a fear that the train would emerge from the screen, such was the novelty of such a depiction at the time.

In terms of industry regard, the reputation of horror has not been high. The American Academy of Motion Picture Arts, which awards the Oscars, has nominated only six horror/supernatural films for Best Picture, and only one has won the Award ( The Silence of The Lambs in 1992, which also won the award for Best Actress, Actor, and Director). Other horror films to have been nominated include The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975), The 6th Sense (1999), Black Swan (2010), and Get Out (2017). The latter also nominated for best comedy/musical at the Golden Globes and was winner of the Oscar for Best Screenplay. Industry recognition for horror film has tended to be reserved for technical achievements; hence, the Oscars awarded for best art direction and cinematography for Phantom Of The Opera (1943), best score for The Omen (1976), best visual effects for Alien (1979), and best-make up for An American Werewolf In London (1981) and The Fly (1986). The number of actors to have won an Oscar nomination for horror roles is low – Frederic March ( Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde , 1931), Ruth Gordon ( Rosemary’s Baby, 1968), Kathy Bates ( Misery , 1990), Natalie Portman ( Black Swan , 2010), and Hopkins are exceptions.

Despite the relative lack of formal industry recognition and professional respect, horror thrives. In 2017, the second cinema adaptation of the Stephen King novel IT (2017) generated $700.4 m in global ticket sales, making this the most financially successful horror film of all time based on recorded box office sales (its production budget was $35 m). The success led to a sequel released in 2019 ( IT: Chapter 2 ), which has achieved global ticket sales of $185 m in its first week of release. In 1989, two horror films had grossed over $38 m ( The Fly II and The Abyss , earning $38.9 and $89.8 m, respectively). In 2017, this number was 15, with IT leading and occupying 13th place in box office revenue. The Mummy occupied 23rd position, Resident Evil: Final Chapter the 30th position, Annabelle: Creation the 32rd, and Get Out the 37th ($255 m). Nine horror films earned more than $100 m in 2017. These numbers illustrate how successful and popular the horror film has become and that viewers’ appetite for it is rapacious.

This commercial enthusiasm exists against a backdrop of considerable fan enthusiasm for the genre, as evidenced by the number of major, significant genre-specific international film festivals which exist. These include the UK’s three Frightfest events, the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival in Catalonia, Toronto’s After Dark Film Festival, Screamfest and Fantasticfest in the USA, the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, Australia’s A Night of Horror International Film Festival, Amsterdam’s Imagine Festival, Argentina’s Rojo Sangre, Italy’s Ravena Nightmare Film Festival, Wales’s Abertoir, and several others. A number of print magazines devoted to horror is available (such as Rue Morgue, Diabolique, Scream , and The Dark Side ) as are various horror websites, online film streaming services (such as Shudder and Screambox ), and specialist satellite/Freeview TV channels such as The Horror Channel and SyFy . The TV company AMC airs and produces original horror content (and created Shudder ), and an Asian-based pay-TV horror channel is available called Thrill . Given the popularity of horror film, a useful question to explore is why people are attracted to this genre of film, given its distinctive nature, and why people are attracted to horror in the first instance, a question addressed in this review.

Historically, horror has formed a significant part of “Western” literary tradition since the Babylonian Gilgamesh and the English Beowulf . The Gothic tradition, a period that covers 1,760–1,820 features fiction in which the omphalos is their archaic themes, haunted castles, stylized period settings, a supernatural element in the story telling, suspense, and chaos ( Punter, 2014 ). Examples include Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto , Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, and The Italian and Lewis’ The Monk, among others. Although modern horror clearly has its roots and traditions in Gothic horror (and castles, spirits, and ghosts are well-documented tropes of horror films), very little modern horror film has been directly inspired by, nor has adapted, these works. Victorian literature has exerted a much greater and direct influence, as evidenced by the re-imaginings and remakes of films based on literary characters from this period, such as Dracula, Frankenstein (doctor and creation), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, Dr. Moreau, Dorian Gray, the monsters and protagonists in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and the trolls of Nordic literature. These figures have been interpreted and re-interpreted throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in different fictionalized forms – in theater, drama, radio, television, short stories, novels, and, especially, film.

Given the longevity of horror as a genre and its history in cinema, what is it that draws people to this particular genre and how does the genre create the psychological effects that it does? The study of individuals’ response to horror can be illuminating for several reasons. It may help us understand why people are attracted to a very commercially successful genre of film making but one which is seen as very distinctive and highly specialized. It may also help us to explain why some material that is perceived as being unpleasant and disgusting is appealing to some people more than it is to others. The study of horror film may also help us understand how emotions are generated and processed and may help us understand elements of fear (and the attraction of fear).

The current paper sets out to review the literature regarding the appeal of horror and why and how horror cinema exerts the effects that it does. Specifically, it will consider whether there are personality types or other individual differences associated with preference for, and enjoyment of, horror films; whether sex differences exist in the preference for, and enjoyment of, horror film; how fear of horror film develops and how coping strategies are recruited to manage the fear elicited by horror; the psychological and emotional consequences of watching horror and whether watching horror is associated with any adverse, short-term, or long-term psychological consequences; the behavioral responses reliably elicited by exposure to horror film; and the use of auditory stimulation to manipulate our response to horror. A number of texts exists that have discussed and addressed various aspects of horror and horror film, including the cinematic portrayal of the “mad scientist” ( Tudor, 1989 ; Frayling, 2013 ), the esthetics of horror film ( Sipos, 2010 ), the philosophy of horror ( Carroll, 2003 ), the process of horror fiction writing ( King, 2010 ), the use of sound and music in horror ( Hayward, 2009 ), and the marketing of horror films ( Hantke, 2004 ), among others. To the author’s knowledge, this is the first attempt to assimilate the psychology and related literature in a comprehensive review of our understanding of the enjoyment of horror film, the motivation to watch horror film and the effects of watching horror film. This review was based on keyword searches made via Google Scholar and PsycInfo between 2018 and August 2019 and included combinations of the words and terms “horror,” “terror,” “film,” “movie,” “cinema,” “fear,” “thriller,” “slasher,” “fright,” “gore,” “anxiety,” “the unknown,” “the uncanny,” “Gothic,” “blood,” “guts,” “scream/screaming,” “shudder,” shivering,” “trauma,” and “disgust/disgusting.” Material was also sourced from the reference sections of the papers obtained and of books where the topic was horror. The review begins with a definition of horror.

What is “Horror”?

The word “horror” derives from the Greek phryke (meaning “shudder”) and describes the physical manifestations of shivering, shuddering, and piloerection. In the fourth stasimon of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus , the chorus says after the protagonist blinds himself: “Alas, poor man, I cannot ever look at you … such is the shiver (phryke) you cause in me” ( Cairns, 2015 ). An exact and precise modern definition of horror, however, is difficult to determine. Horror has been defined as a “spontaneous response to shocking visual stimulus” (Ceirus, 2015) and as “a compound of terror and revulsion” ( Kawin, 2012 ). In Kawin’s interpretation, “imagined horror provides entry to the made-up world where fears are heightened but can be mastered … it accesses a core of fears we may share as humans, such as the fear of being attacked in the dark … it provides a way to conceptualize, give shape to and deal with the evil and frightening.” Horror, Stone (2016) argues, “confronts us with the disgusting and the fascinating simultaneously,” two aspects of horror returned to later. Horror, according to Marriott (2012) , is “the madwoman in the attic.”

One view of horror considers it to be of two types: horror, which is genuine and is designed to make us afraid because it is advantageous to our survival (e.g., fear arising from attack and being motivated to fight or flee), and “art horror,” which describes the imagined horror found in horror films ( Carroll, 1987 ). Carroll also argues that “horror novels, stories, films, plays and so on are marked by the presence of monsters of either a supernatural or sci-fi origin” (p. 52). In Carroll’s definition, it is the presence of a monster, which defines the essence of a horror film, as monsters do not exist within our conventional realm of understanding or reason; they defy science; they should not exist. Carroll views films that are typically classed as horror (e.g., Psycho ) to be of a different type (tales of terror) because “though eerie and scary, [they] achieve their hair-raising effect by explaining extreme psychological phenomena that are all too human.” This definition, of course, would exclude a significant number of obviously horrific horror films such as The Silence of the Lambs , Henry – Portrait of A Serial Killer , the Saw and Hostel franchises and other exemplars of the “torture porn” horror sub-genre and the cannibal films of the 1970s (e.g., Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox ). The view has also been challenged ( Gaut, 1993 ). “Slasher” movies, for example, are clearly horror films but do not necessarily contain monsters as described by Carroll (although some, such as Freddie Kruger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers, possess supernatural elements, and Freddie Kruger is an oneiric fiction). Also, Chewbacca and The Force defy the conventions of science, but Star Wars would not be classed a horror film.

Horror invariably includes an element of evil, channeled via a human, a creature, or a supernatural force, which has the power to change events causing disruption and instability and which must be challenged and defeated ( Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, 2016 ). If this force is not human or supernatural (ghostly, spectral), it is natural – plants, monkeys, ants, leeches, sharks, birds, dogs, bats, rats, bees, fish, earthworms, alligators, spiders, snakes, cockroaches, and dinosaurs have all been employed to create chaos and instability in horror films. Freud (1919/2003) referred to horror as the uncanny (a peculiar translation of “unheimlich, meaning “unhomely”): “the name for everything that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.” Horror films also invariably present a Manichean view of the world, where good battles evil (as is literally the case in films such as Dracula, The Exorcist, and The Omen ). There is a driving motivation to overcome “a pure and unmotivated desire to inflict suffering” ( Clasen, 2014 ). But horror film, despite the features that the genre shares, is not a unitary cinematic phenomenon and distinct sub-genres or branches exist which are characterized by similar features or styles of film making and storytelling. Often, these are post hoc classifications of films, which seem to share core features, and the classification can seem like an exercise in pattern recognition. There are films, which do not easily lend themselves to these classifications (and some may straddle boundaries). However, the most common and typical sub genres include gothic, supernatural/occult/parananormal, psychological horror, monster movies, slasher films, body horror/horror typified by extreme gore, exploitation cinema ( Cherry, 2009 ), and found-footage, which have a very specific technical film-making approach and its own identifiable tropes bequeathed from such films as Cannibal Holocaust (1980) but more demonstrably from The Blair Witch Project (1999).

Horror film is the only fictional genre, which is specifically created to elicit fear consistently and deliberately rather than sporadically or incidentally. Behaviorally, horror film can create shivering, closing of the eyes, startle, shielding of the eyes, trembling, paralysis, piloerection, withdrawal, heaving, and screaming ( Harris et al., 2000 ). It can produce changes in psychophysiology, specifically increasing heart rate and galvanic skin response (see below). Mentally, it can create anxiety, fear, empathy, and thoughts of disgust ( Cantor, 2004 ). One of the earliest empirical studies to examine the effect of watching horror or suspenseful cinema on behavior asked participants to watch three programs, which varied in suspense (high and low) and in outcome – where the film had a resolved ending or an unresolved ending ( Zillmann et al., 1975 ). The suspenseful programs with the resolved endings were better appreciated than were those with unresolved endings. However, similar – but smaller – results were also found for the unresolved endings (i.e., appreciation levels were high if the program was suspenseful). Cantor (2004) asked students to write about their experiences of horror films and analyzed 3 years’ worth of the students’ papers (530 in total). Approximately 46% of the sample reported experiencing sleep disturbances after the event and 75% reported having experienced anxiety. The four most frequently cited causes of frightening experiences were the films, Poltergeist (5.5%), Jaws (4.3%), Blair Witch Project (4.2%), and Scream (3.2%). There were some film-specific anxieties – respondents would express fear of swimming in lakes and oceans, uneasiness around clowns and televisions, and avoidance of camping and woods.

Behavioral change has also been examined experimentally. Hagenaars et al. (2014) , for example, asked 50 participants to watch neutral, pleasant, or unpleasant film clips while “standing on a stabilometric platform.” This device measures a person’s motoric behavior as participants engage in some exercise or task. They found that when participants watched unpleasant films, the participants would freeze, show reduced body sway, and heart rate deceleration. The reduced body sway was found early on in the viewing of the unpleasant material (1–2 s after stimulus onset) suggesting that the behavioral effects of watching horror are immediate. The study is one of the few, methodologically well-controlled studies of behavioral response to films designed to elicit strong emotions (pleasant or unpleasant) and demonstrated empirically how exposure to certain types of film affects physical behavior and, in this specific example, how certain types of film inhibit motor behavior.

People’s enjoyment of horror can also be affected by priming. Cantor et al. (1984) found that providing adults with information about the types of events they were about to see in four horror films increased the degree of fright and upset that the participants experienced. Neuendorf and Sparks (1988) extended Cantor et al.’s study by presenting 121 attendees of two horror films ( The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead ) at a US cinema with three levels of warning – the low warning involved the transmission of basic information such as the film’s name, the release date, and its R rating; the moderate warning involved all of the low information plus a description of the film’s content; the high warning included both of these plus a statement about a graphic scene in the film (e.g., a paraplegic being sawn in half by a saw-wielding maniac). If individuals reported being previously afraid of the specific types of content mentioned by the experimenters, these “cues” significantly predicted overall fear when prior experience of the film and anxiety was controlled for (fear was measured via questionnaire rather than behaviorally). There was no significant correlation between a trait known as sensation seeking (see below) and liking and enjoyment of either film. There was a correlation between prior experience and enjoyment for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre suggesting that viewers repeated their viewing because they enjoyed it the first time. Viewers’ anxiety level predicted the fright generated by Night of the Living Dead , as did fear cues. The greater the experienced anxiety and the fear cues, the greater the experienced fright. The availability of spoilers – the reveal of key scenes and plot points in a work of fiction in advance of viewing – appears to have little effect on the positive enjoyment of horror film or the experience of suspense ( Johnson et al., 2019 ).

Our behavioral reaction to horror tends to be consistent, although there is not much research that has explicitly investigated this response. The next section considers some of the reasons why people watch horror film and considers some of the dominant theories and models in interdisciplinary research that have been proposed to explain our enjoyment of horror film. It considers first some of the most salient ways in which horror film sets out to frighten viewers including sound.

Sound in Horror

In addition to the visual and verbal (dialogue) impact of horror, perhaps one of the most significant elements of horror film is auditory. To this end, some authors have argued that “horror is primarily a sound-based medium” ( Kawin, 2012 ): The creaking door, the scream, the shriek of an owl, the hiss of a cat, the squelching of a head as it meets a sledgehammer, the ringing of a phone, the bang of a falling object, and the crack of a branch in an otherwise quiet forest at night are all auditory devices deigned to make viewers and listeners afraid and to create suspense.

One of the most successful, and the most common, auditory tropes in horror is the use of a loud sound after a prolonged period of silence – the so-called “jump scare.” Often the sound is unconnected with what is on screen, but a loud noise might accompany a reveal, such as a face (an example from the genre would be a character opening a mirrored bathroom cupboard door, then closing to discover the reflection of another person standing behind them, with accompanying loud noise or musical note). A distinction is sometimes made between diegetic sound (which the characters can hear) and non-diegetic sounds (which is external to the characters, such as incidental music). Famous examples of the latter are the stabbing and screeching sound of Bernard Herrmann’s violins during the shower scene in Psycho, John Williams’s double bass that precedes the appearance of the shark in Jaws, John Carpenter’s “stings” and soundtrack in Halloween, and the foreboding chorus in The Omen. Carpenter has noted that when his film was screened without a soundtrack to a film executive “she wasn’t scared at all. I then became determined to ‘save it with music’” ( Hayward, 2009 ). The high strings and low bass of Psycho were influences on Carpenter and Dan Wyman’s score and its 4/5 signature leitmotif, as was the use of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells from the opening of The Exorcist.

Some examples of diegetic sounds in horror film include the bangs and creaks caused by entities that are invisible to the actors on screen; one horror film that relies less on gore and blood and more on the potency of audition to increase suspense is The Blair Witch Project with its use of nocturnal wails, screams, and creaking branches. The use of sound to amplify horror can be identified in many early horror films – Ruben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931), for example, which includes the first use of the sound of a human heartbeat in film, is familiar for the creation of the “Mamoulian sound stew” of noise, and sound used to generate suspense and excitement in the film.

The second most common auditory influence in horror cinema is the use of music and soundtrack. Research suggests that different styles of music can affect the emotional perception of what is seen in film, regardless of the content ( Bullerjahn and Guldenring, 1994 ), and this accompaniment allows us to interpret what we see in the context of this music ( Gorbman, 1987 ). In horror film, music even has its own trope or leitmotif – the tritone or diabolus in musica (“the devil in music”) otherwise known as the Devil’s tritone ( Lerner, 2010 ) and can be heard in Beetlejuice, Hocus Pocus (1993), and The ‘Burbs (1989).

Some types of music are designed to be unpleasant, be perceived negatively, and to create tension, and there are many examples of this design in horror film, as discussed earlier. Discordant music has been associated with activity in different brain regions to those found when listening to harmonic or pleasant music; these regions include the right parahippocampal gyrus and precuneus and bilateral orbitofrontal cortex ( Blood et al., 1999 ) and may suggest that these regions are involved in mediating our auditory response to some aspects of horror film. Frightening music has been associated with changes in monoamine receptor activity in the caudate nucleus and right amygdala (decreases) and in the neocortex (increases) in 10 men ( Zhang et al., 2012 ). This study did not include a comparison film clip, however, so the conclusion that can be drawn from it is limited.

The most well-used auditory (and visual) device in horror film is the startle reflex (SR), and this tends to be provoked by the jump scare referred to earlier – the sound of a bump, a sudden burst of noise, some dialogue, or music ( Baird, 2000 ). The first known example of a startle effect in horror film is seen and heard in The Cat People (1942) when the sound of a bus door opening occurs just when the viewer is expecting an attack, but the film cuts to this noise and the shot of the door opening. A more recent example can be found in Fatal Attraction where a child’s scream and the whistling of the kettle in the reveal of the boiled rabbit overlap. In the same film, Glenn Close’s character’s resurrection in the bath provides another example of the jump scare that employs an auditory device.

Under laboratory conditions, a startle reflex (SR) is produced by delivering 50 ms of 95 db of white noise at unpredictable intervals, while eyeblink is measured. The stimulation is not always auditory and can be visual or tactile. The acoustic startle reflex describes an in involuntary eyeblink, measured at the orbicularis oculi muscle via EMG, in response to this noise. The startle reflex can be potentiated when individuals anticipate danger ( Grillon et al., 1993a , b ; Bublatzky et al., 2013 ; Bradley et al., 2018 ) and when pleasant stimuli signal threat ( via conditioning) ( Bradley et al., 2005 ). This is called affective modulation of the startle reflex, and the startle potentiation is thought to reflect a person’s emotional reactivity to threat. When people watch fear-related or violent films, the blink magnitude (SR) is larger than when people watch films with sexual content ( Jansen and Frijda, 1994 ), neutral content ( Koukounas and McCabe, 2001 ), or sad content ( Kreibig et al., 2011 ). The startle reflex is also greater when people watch unpleasant slides – and smallest when people watch pleasant slides ( Vrana et al., 1988 ) – and when people listen to unpleasant music ( Roy et al., 2009 ). Roy et al.’s study, however, includes a very small sample of 16 participants.

The SR is higher when people recall fear-related sentences than when recalling neutral sentences ( Vrana and Lang, 1990 ) and is higher when people are exposed to negative stimuli than positive or neutral stimuli ( Cook et al., 1991 ), and this is referred to fear-potentiated startle ( Grillon et al., 1993a , b ). Women’s SR tends to be higher than men’s when stimuli are disgusting ( Yartz and Hawk, 2002 ). Fear, however, is the stimulus that creates the greatest SR ( Bradley et al., 1999 ) and people with specific phobias show potentiated SR when phobia-related stimuli are viewed. Some studies find that a SR does not occur to some types of negative stimuli such as mutilation or surgery ( Stanley and Knight, 2004 ). The startle effect is a highly replicable behavioral phenomenon and can be reduced with the administration on anxiolytics and when lesions are made to the amygdala ( Hitchcock and Davis, 1986 ; Angrilli et al., 1996 ; Davis, 2006 ). It would be instructive to study whether those high and low in empathy or sensation seeking (see below) and whether individuals who like horror film and those who dislike horror film would generate different SRs.

Why do People Watch Horror?

Suspense and resolution of suspense are two important components of horror and our response to horror film. Suspense refers to the build up to threat, the tension created prior to the manifestation of threat, and the resolution/elimination of threat. It has been defined as “acute, fearful apprehension about deplorable events that threatens liked protagonists” and “an experience of uncertainty whose hedonic properties can vary from noxious to pleasant” ( Zillmann, 1996 , p. 108). The tension created during the feeling of suspense can arise from events, which signify conflict, dissonance, and instability ( Lehne and Koelsch, 2015 ). One theory of horror enjoyment, Zillmann’s (1980 , 1996) excitation transfer theory, argues that we derive our enjoyment of horror film from this feeling of suspense (this theory might also explain the enjoyment of non-horror film, which involves the invocation of suspense). When a threat is resolved, our negative affect converts to euphoria and suspense ends. The vital aspect of the theory is that enjoyment is derived from the degree of negative affect built up during exposure to the horror film and from the positive affect/reaction that results from the resolution of the threat. If the resolution does not occur, then residual negative affect will lead to increased dysphoria. If there is no suspense but a complete certainty about what will happen, suspense is replaced by dread ( Oliver, 1993a , b ). Very few studies have tested the theory, although limited reviews provide some support for the model ( Hoffner and Levine, 2005 ). Zillmann et al. (1975) showed children animated cartoons that varied in suspense and measured participants’ facial expressions, physiological arousal, and cognitive responses. They found that liking of the film increased as suspense increased. Liking was especially great when the threat was overcome, but the relationship between fear and liking was not examined in the study.

Individuals high in empathy will express more negative affect regardless of a successful resolution to the threat in the film ( Zillmann et al., 1986 ; Hoffner and Cantor, 1991 ; Sparks, 1991 ). Zillmann’s model has some difficulty accounting for the motivation to watch and for the enjoyment derived from horror films in which the sympathetic characters are (1) dispatched and (2) where the story does not end happily ( Hoffner and Levine, 2005 ). There is also evidence that enjoyment of horror may not be affected by the availability of resolution and that unresolved horror is perceived as just as enjoyable as resolved horror ( Hoffner and Cantor, 1991 ).

An alternative model to Zillmann’s suggests that enjoyment is associated with the presence of destruction, excitement, and unpredictability in films ( Sparks, 1986a , b ; Tamborini et al., 1987 ; Tamborini and Stiff, 1987 ). This model, the uses and gratification theory of film consumption ( Katz et al., 1973 ; Palmgreen, 1984 ), argues that the enjoyment and seeking out of material are determined by their specific need for stimulation and the satisfaction they derive following the achievement of gratification. Some research suggests that certain personality types and individuals who are high or low on some psychological traits may seek out horror or violent material for gratification but that the material itself may not always provide this satisfaction (see the Individual Differences section below). Sensation seeking, verbal aggression, and argumentativeness, for example, have been found to be positively correlated with enjoyment of horror and violent films, but these are not consistent predictors of liking for horror/violent material ( Greene and Krcmar, 2005 ).

Zillmann (1980) has argued that a positive outcome for the protagonist and a poor one for the antagonist are the key predictors of satisfaction with a film. If neither occurs but a threat is removed, this would also lead to a satisfactory experience, but the experience would be diluted. A positive outcome is, however, necessary for the “cognitive switch from dysphoria to euphoria” (p. 148). There is no consistent evidence to support this view and the success of films where the threat is still very much present in some way at the end of a horror film (e.g., The Exorcist, The Omen, Friday the 13th, and so on) and even in thrillers such as Basic Instinct and Presumed Innocent, suggests that this explanation may not account fully for why we watch and enjoy horror.

It has been proposed that arousal itself might be self-rewarding – the act of watching horror provides us with a thrill regardless of the resolution and we like and enjoy the film for this reason ( Tamborini, 1991 ). The pleasurable experience of arousal motivates us to continue watching in order to sustain that level of arousal, as Berlyne (1967) suggests. Sparks and Spirek (1988) , for example, found a positive correlation between skin conductance (a physiological measure of emotional arousal) and self-reported arousal in people who watched a clip of A Nightmare On Elm Street , suggesting that the arousal we report also correlates at the physiological level, although whether the psychophysiological changes determine the arousal or the cognitive and emotional arousals (the interpretation of the material) determine the psychophysiological changes is an argument, which dates back to James.

Individual Differences in Response to Horror

Carroll (2003) asked, “How can horror audiences find pleasure in what by nature is distressful and unpleasant?” Some research has attempted to answer this question by studying the type of individual who enjoys and likes horror. Some of the personality traits and cognitive/affective traits that have been implicated in horror preference and/or enjoyment of horror include sensation seeking, empathy, theory of mind, need for affect, the dark tetrad, and personality. Other individual differences include age and sex (considered later). Unless a person expresses an interest and liking of horror, the response to graphic violence tends not to be positive. Weaver and Wilson (2009) , for example, assigned 400 people to one of three groups who watched either clips from five television programs showing graphic violence, clips with the violence sanitized, or clips with the violence removed. The non-violent programs were regarded as more enjoyable than the violent versions, a finding which is consistent with earlier research indicating that removing the violent content from a film does not reduce the film’s enjoyment ( Sparks et al., 2005 ). A meta-analysis of the enjoyment of media violence (not horror film specifically) found that greater selective exposure to violence (i.e., choosing to watch violent media) leads to a reduction in the enjoyment of its content ( Weaver, 2011 ). The implication of this finding appears to be that even though individuals may seek out exposure to violent media, they do not often enjoy what they find. In addition, participants may vary according to the degree of material they are routinely exposed to. When graduate nursing students and psychology students were shown videos of graphic medical procedures, for example, the nurses expressed less disgust and fear but more sadness ( Vlahou et al., 2011 ). Both groups, however, showed evidence of psychophysiological arousal (measured via Galvanic Skin Response) in response to watching the procedures.

Sensation Seeking

The most widely studied trait in the research on horror is sensation seeking. According to Zuckerman (1994) , sensation seeking is the “seeking of varied, novel, complex and intense sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal and financial risks for the sake of such experiences” (p. 27). It peaks in the teenage years and declines thereafter ( Zuckerman, 1988 ). Zuckerman’s measure of sensation seeking describes four related but different factors: (1) thrill and adventure seeking; (2) experience seeking; (3) disinhibition; and (4) boredom susceptibility. In the original conception of the model ( Zuckerman, 1979 ), individuals thought to be high sensation seekers would experience much more positive emotion when highly aroused and stimulated and would seek negative stimulation to maximize their arousal because this stimulation was intense. A negative stimulus (such as a horror film) might, therefore, be interpreted by a person high in sensation seeking as being very positive; but a person low in sensation-seeking would find the stimulus unpleasant. High sensation-seeking individuals would also be less vulnerable to the experience of threat in these films ( Franken et al., 1992 ).

All four factors of the sensation-seeking scale have been found to predict enjoyment of horror film to some extent, but some factors are better predictors than others. For example, disinhibition was found by Edwards (1984) to be the strongest predictor, followed by experience seeking, thrill and adventure seeking, and boredom susceptibility. Edwards reported a positive correlation between high sensation seeking (in general) and interest in horror film. Tamborini and Stiff (1987) found a positive correlation between liking for horror and a combination of the sensation-seeking factors. Zuckerman and Litle (1986) found that frequency of horror film attendance correlated with disinhibition, thrill and adventure seeking, and boredom susceptibility, but in men only. The sex difference in this study highlights an important constraint on the model, and that is, individual differences (such as sex) may interact with sensation-seeking type to predict viewing, preference for, or enjoyment of horror film (see below). Cantor and Sparks (1984) found that sensation seeking was positively correlated with the enjoyment of frightening films in men and women. However, components of sensation seeking predicted enjoyment differently – thrill and adventure seeking were the best predictor for men, whereas disinhibition was the best predictor for women.

Other studies have reported no positive correlation between sensation seeking and liking and enjoyment for horror films ( Neuendorf and Sparks, 1988 ). Aluja-Fabregat (2000) found that disinhibition and psychopathy – a personality trait which describes a charming, remorseless, callous, and manipulative personality type – correlated with curiosity about morbid events in 470 eighth graders in Catalan. Sensation seeking correlated with consumption of violent films and consumption was associated with psychopathy, specifically in boys.

In a study of the enjoyment of fear experiences in video gaming, Lynch and Martins (2015) found that in their sample of 269 18–24-year-old players, men reported more enjoyment of violent video games and played more games and played more often. Sensation seeking and enjoyment were positively correlated, with high sensation seekers reporting less frequent fear (although p = 0.05) and low empathizers enjoying the violent games more. Low empathizers also played more but did not play more frequently. Resident Evil was the most commonly played game, and the game’s inclusion of zombies and surprises was cited as a cause of fear and fright. Agency in such games, however, appears to be important to the experience of the medium. When players were either asked to watch or to play a horror computer game (Konami’s “ PT ”), players showed increased heart rate and galvanic skin response (emotional arousal) compared to participants who watched ( Madsen, 2016 ). There were no differences between the two groups in self-reported fear.

While sensation seeking might be strongly associated with enjoyment of horror, it may not be the strongest predictor of attendance at horror films. Tamborini and Stiff’s (1987) study of 155 people (78 men; average age 21 years) attending a horror film in a US Midwestern city reported that men and younger participants scored the highest on the sensation-seeking scale, but that men and women attended for different reasons: men attended because they sought sensation and to experience the destructive nature of the horror while women attended because of they wanted to experience a just ending. More important than sensation seeking appeared to be participants’ expectations of the film: The greatest predictor of film attendance was not sensation seeking but a desire to experience a satisfying resolution (especially by women) and to see destruction (men).

Also of note is that there is evidence that sensation seeking is related to the startle potentiation described earlier. Lissek and Powers (2003) found that people low in sensation seeking (as measured via the thrill and adventure-seeking subscale) produced the typical startle potentiation during the viewing of threatening (vs. neutral) images but that those high in sensation seeking showed equal levels of startle to neutral and threatening images. One explanation for this finding is that high levels of sensation seeking are related to low levels of reactivity to threatening images. Because high sensation seeking involves a degree of sensory overload, less stimulation is required for a startle potentiation to occur and those scoring high in sensation seeking show less fear startle potentiation.

The literature on sensation seeking, therefore, suggests that this trait and specific components of it, especially disinhibition, may predict enjoyment of horror film, but this prediction does not apply to men and women consistently (a conclusion considered in more detail in the section on sex differences below). The literature also highlights a limitation in this – and other areas – of the horror research literature in that samples are often heterogeneous, the film selections are heterogeneous, and sample sizes tend to be small. These limitations are returned to at the end of the review.

Empathy is a multidimensional concept whose components have been defined in different ways but which in general are reflected in two types: a cognitive component (e.g., perspective taking) and an affective/emotional component (sympathy and concern for others and sharing of negative affect). One model suggests that empathy comprises a wandering imagination (a tendency to fantasize and daydream about fictional situations), fictional involvement (transposition of oneself into a story), humanistic mentation (a sensitivity to the emotional welfare of others), and emotional contagion (a susceptibility to be influenced by the emotions around oneself) ( Tamborini et al., 1990 ). Zillmann has proposed a three-factor model of empathy in which emotional behavior arises from the interaction of between these dispositional (a “response-guiding” mechanisms, which result in motor reactions to a stimulus), excitatory (“response-energizing” mechanism, which enables immediate arousal), and experiential (the conscious experience of the first two). Davis (1983) , who originally developed the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, argued that empathy was not a unitary or binary concept but was best considered as a set of constructs, which involve our reactions to others but are distinct from each other. These constructs included perspective taking, a fantasy scale (which measures the degree to which a person transposes themselves into the feelings or actions of fictional characters), empathetic concern (which measures the degree of sympathy felt for others), and personal distress (a description of unease or distress experienced in interpersonal relationships).

There is evidence that each component can predict enjoyment of horror film, with low empathy consistently associated with greater enjoyment. In one study ( Tamborini et al., 1990 ), 95 young people in same-sex pairs watched clips from two 1-h documentaries or two full length horror films ( A Nightmare on Elm Street and Boogens ). The study found that tendency to daydream and fantasize predicted the ability to sense the feelings and actions of the films’ characters. Those scoring high on the wandering item, fictional involvement, humanistic mentation, and contagion scales described above found graphic horror less appealing. Those scoring low in empathy preferred graphic horror. People low in fearfulness also prefer graphic horror ( Mundorf et al., 1989 ). Hall and Bracken’s (2011) study of 199 undergraduates found that fantasy empathy (but no other type) predicted narrative transportation (immersion in a text/film or “getting lost” in a story) and was associated with increased enjoyment of the film, although not necessarily horror film exclusively.

In a variant of this procedure, Tamborini et al. (1993) asked participants to watch a pleasant (a comedy) or an unpleasant ( Videodrome ) film, with a confederate. To evoke empathy, after the film, the confederate said they were distressed because they thought they were going to be thrown out of school and asked “what am I going to do?” If there was no reply, the confederate left. If they received a reply, the responses would be rejected. Those participants scoring high in fictional involvement and empathetic concern provided more comfort and more social support. Those who watched the horror film, however, provided less support than did those who watched the comedy. While providing a potentially useful contribution to the study of how people respond to horror and the effect of this on our interaction with others – the greater the empathy, the greater the responsiveness to others’ distress – the sample size is small ( N = 21).

Empathy has also been associated with less enjoyment of suffering displayed in frightening films but with more enjoyment of danger, of excitement, and of happy endings ( Hoffner, 2009 ). People high in enduring negative affect have been found to experience more distress and less enjoyment of suffering. Those who had prior exposure to frightening films enjoyed danger more and enjoyed happy endings less.

Classifying participants according to the degree of empathy and sensation seeking has not been the only approach that has been taken to determining the types of people who watch and enjoy/prefer horror. Johnston (1995) , for example, notes that not all audiences respond to horror in the same way, as this section has demonstrated and has typologized viewers and their motivations to watch into three types: (1) resolved-ending types; (2) thrill watchers; and (3) gore watchers. Resolved-ending types enjoy film with a satisfying, definite closure; thrill watchers enjoy being frightened and empathize with the principal characters; gore watchers watch because they enjoy the destructiveness in film. The typology is based on some of the research reviewed here. A prediction that can be made from this typology is that thrill watchers will have higher levels of empathy and adventure seeking, whereas gore watchers will be low in empathy and fearfulness but will be high in adventure seeking and will seek out high arousal ( King and Hourani, 2007 ). Research suggests that gore watchers are curious about the ways people are killed, are vindictive (they require satisfaction that characters receive their just desserts), and are attracted to blood and guts (gore) in film ( King and Hourani, 2007 ). Gore watchers are more likely to be men, to identify with the killer in films and are less likely to identify with the victim.

King and Hourani identified types of watchers from 229 individuals and showed them four horror films. Half the sample saw the films with a traditional ending (in which the evil antagonist is destroyed) or with teaser endings (in which the evil antagonist is revived/resurrected). The traditional ending was more entertaining than was the teaser ending, but it was especially enjoyable and entertaining for high gore and thrill watchers than low gore and thrill watchers. Traditional endings were less distressing and more frightening for high than low gore watchers and were regarded as being more frightening by high thrill watchers. High thrill watchers found the teaser ending version of the film to be less scary than did low thrill watchers. High gore watchers regarded the teaser to be more predictable than did low thrill watchers. The traditional ending was considered to be less predictable by high gore watchers than by high thrill watchers and by high thrill watchers than by low thrill watchers. Very little research exists on this typology, however.

Although individual studies indicate a relationship between empathy and horror enjoyment, a meta-analysis of studies investigating the enjoyment of mediated fright and violence has found that empathetic concern and personal distress were negatively correlated with enjoyment, but correlations for personal distress were not consistent ( Hoffner and Levine, 2005 ). The authors note that the inconsistencies may be attributable to differences in the content of the film employed in these studies, and this is a problematic issue common to the field: There are no consistently chosen materials in either nature, content, length, age, or narrative. What is noteworthy, however, is that Hoffner and Levine’s review found that the strongest effects (reported in two studies) were for studies, which included horror films, and those films depicted torture ( Johnston, 1995 ) or brutal horror with no positive resolution ( Tamborini et al., 1990 ). When these studies were removed, the correlation between empathy and enjoyment became non-significant. The authors note that the other four films measured participants’ enjoyment of horror film as a genre (rather than their enjoyment of specific horror films or acts of graphic violence), and this methodological limitation in the literature is returned to the conclusion of this paper.

Need for Affect

A different form of individual difference – need for affect – may also mediate horror film preference and enjoyment, but the literature is limited. Need for affect ( Maio and Esses, 2001 ) is based on the assumption that we are motivated to seek interesting or positive experiences and avoid unpleasant ones. Need for Affect (NfA) is measured via a questionnaire, which comprises two subscales: the tendency to approach and the tendency to withdraw. People who prefer sad films experience more enjoyment when watching sad films, for example, because they regard viewing sad films as an enjoyable and a gratifying experience; their need for affect is satisfied by watching sad films ( Oliver, 1993a , b ; Oliver et al., 2000 ; Maio and Esses, 2001 ). Few studies have explored the relationship between NfA and horror film viewing. One study asked 119 attendees (mean age = 23 years) at a German cinema how likely they would be to watch United 93 or the 2006 horror film remake, The Omen ( Bartsch et al., 2010 ). Participants with higher NfA approach scores experienced more intense emotions and experienced more negative emotions such as anger, fear, and disgust. United 93 evoked more negative emotions than did The Omen . Higher NfA withdraw scores were associated with a more negative evaluation of emotions. Controlling for personality did not affect these results significantly. While NfA is little studied in horror, one possible research question that could be explored is whether preference for film genres correlates with NfA; no study to date has systematically examined this relationship.

Other Personality Traits

Other personality traits thought to be implicated in horror film preference or enjoyment include the Big Five, the Dark Tetrad, and repressive coping style. Dark personality traits are those which express some abnormal, sinister, and unpleasant aspect of behavior. Four such traits are Machiavellianism, Narcissism, Psychopathy (described earlier), and Sadism. Machiavellianism (the enjoyment of power and the manipulation of power) has been found to correlate with enjoyment of horror, and the correlations between these two variables are stronger than the correlation between Machiavellianism and sensation seeking ( Tamborini and Stiff, 1987 ). High psychopathy scores have been associated with preference for graphically violent horror movies ( Weaver, 1991 ), and individuals scoring high in callousness and who habitually express little or no emotion show reduced facial expressions of sadness and disgust when watching violent films ( Fanti et al., 2017 ).

A repressive coping style is characterized by the repression of negative affect caused by stressors ( Weinberger, 1990 ; Sparks et al., 1999 ). Sparks et al. investigated repressive coping style and enjoyment of horror film stimuli in 59 individuals. Based on a median split, 30 repressors and 29 non-repressors were identified and were asked to view a 25-min extract from When A Stranger Calls (in which a babysitter receives frightening phone calls and discovers that the calls have been coming from inside the house she is in). Women in general expressed greater negative affect than did men, as expected (see section below), but the repressors in general showed greater physiological arousal during the film than did non-repressors. An interesting pattern emerged across the course of exposure. Physiological arousal was similar for both groups at the beginning of the first two sections of the movie and then diverged in the final three sections as the suspense increased. No explicit analysis was provided of the psychometric response to the film (how much it was liked, how frightening it was, and so on). The study suggests that those who repress negative affect may nonetheless show high levels of physiological arousal during exposure to frightening films. What is less clear in this study is the relationship between this phenomenon and enjoyment of the film. It is also based on a very low sample of participants, and little subsequent research has focused on this particular personality trait/style.

Despite being the most commonly accepted model of personality, the Big Five has been the focus of very little published research in the context of horror film enjoyment and consumption. The Big Five proposes that personality is comprised of five core traits along which individuals differ. These traits are Conscientiousness, Openness to Experience, Extraversion, Neuroticism, and Agreeableness. One study employing a version of the Big Five found that a trait described as Intellect/Imagination (defined as a proclivity to engage in imaginative activity) was the strongest predictor of horror media consumption ( Clasen et al., 2019 ). There was a small but statistically significant and positive correlation between extraversion and frequency of horror media use, using horror media with others, enjoying horror media with others and being more scared with others. Agreeableness was positively correlated with being easily scared by horror media, using horror media with others, enjoying horror media with others, and negatively correlated with being more scared with others. People high in conscientiousness were less scared after using horror media, and people high in emotional stability were found to be less easily scared than those low in emotional stability, a finding which was also reported by Reynaud et al. (2012) , who found that psychophysiological arousal was greater in participants who were high in neuroticism when they watched a film designed to elicit fear. The number of participants in Reynaud et al.’s study, however, was small.

The finding regarding agreeableness contrasts with research on violent video game playing where people lower in agreeableness have been found to be more frequent violent video games players; individuals who score high in extraversion and openness and low in neuroticism have also been found to be more frequent users ( Chory and Goodboy, 2011 ). Low agreeableness is a significant predictor of enjoyment of the horror film genre but not exclusively – it is also a significant predictor of enjoyment of parody, animation, neo-noir, and cult genres across different media including books, television, and film ( Cantador et al., 2013 ). While the findings of Chory and Goodboy (2011) are informative, they are limited in terms of the measurement of response to horror film specifically because the stimuli used were not specifically horror film. A similar limitation can be found in Clasen et al.’s (2019) large Mechanical Turk study of 1,070 participants which asked participants for their responses to and perceptions of horror media generally, not horror film specifically. The study also administered a variant of the Big Five personality inventory and a variant of the sensation-seeking scale (Hoyle et al.’s (2002, Brief Sensation Seeking Scale) not normally administered in research examining the relationship between personality and horror film. Although research on violent video games might help understand some of the correlates between use frequency and personality trait, it should be acknowledged that violent video games are qualitatively different stimuli to films. Films are a passive experience – viewers are unable to influence the action they see on screen – whereas gaming is specifically an active experience where the player engages with what they see and are expected to do so as this is the principal motivation for gaming. Horror films and horror games are not equivalent stimuli, although they share many characteristics and elements of content.

In conclusion, the literature studying the relationship between personality and horror film consumption has been limited in number and scope. Two studies have reported a correlation between low agreeableness and preference/enjoyment of horror media, and one has not. It is noteworthy that in one of the studies reporting an association, agreeableness was the only trait to be significantly associated with horror media use. This aspect of personality may be worth exploring further.

Sex Differences

The most consistent individual difference predicting individuals’ response to horror film is biological sex: men and boys enjoy frightening and violent visual material more than do women and girls ( Zuckerman and Litle, 1986 ; Harris et al., 2000 ; Hoffner and Levine, 2005 ). Correlations between intensity of “scary media” or horror and the enjoyment of horror in men are consistently positive ( Hoffner and Levine, 2005 ). Men enjoy horror media more than do women, are less scared by horror media, use horror media more, and show a greater preference for frightening horror media ( Clasen et al., 2019 ). One of the earliest experimental studies of sex differences investigated the role of social comparison in individuals’ response to horror. Zillmann et al. (1986) asked 36 men and 36 female undergraduates to watch horror films ( Nightmares , Nightmare on Elm Street ) in the presence of a same-age, opposite-sex companion who either expressed control, indifference, or distress during the film. Men enjoyed the horror more and found it less boring and more satisfying and frightening than did women. Men expressed more distress if the female companion expressed distress (but engaged more with them than with a masterful woman) and less if the female companion was masterful. Zillmann et al. also manipulated initial appeal of the companion (high and low). Women enjoyed the films more in the company of a man with high appeal, but women’s appeal had little effect on men’s responses. Women engaged more with masterful than with distressed men. Cutting violence from films can increase enjoyability and decrease arousal in women (but has no effect on men): women regard these films to be generally more disturbing than do men ( Berry et al., 1999 ).

Male undergraduates experience less distress and anxiety than do women when watching horror film ( Sparks, 1991 ), and women find film clips depicting sadness and fear more unpleasant and distressing; they also show greater arousal to fear clips than to clips depicting compassion ( Davydov et al., 2013 ; Maffei et al., 2015 ). The findings reflect a more general sex difference in that women, in general, report greater fear and anxiety than do men. Women have been found to express more fears, more severe fears, and greater fear of repulsive but harmless animals ( Tucker and Bond, 1997 ), a finding that applies cross-culturally ( Arrindell et al., 2004 ). Anxiety disorders are more commonly reported by women than men ( McLean and Anderson, 2009 ), and women appear to be more susceptible to variety of anxiety-related disorders such as panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, and agoraphobia ( Kessler et al., 1994 ). The exception to this pattern is fear of bodily injury, social stimuli, noise, or enclosed spaces, where no consistent sex differences have been reported ( McLean and Anderson, 2009 ). Disgust sensitivity – the degree to which individuals find stimuli repulsive – also tends to be higher in women, and this phenomenon might provide an explanation for the sex difference in the fear of animals – and horror film ( Connolly et al., 2008 ). This is considered in more detail below. Women and girls, for example, are less likely to enjoy violent media when blood and gore portrayed are described as extreme, rather than mild or moderate ( Hoffner and Levine, 2005 ).

The sex difference is not only reported in the horror genre but also across a number of cinematic genres. One study of 150 undergraduates in Germany ( Wühr et al., 2017 ) asked participants to indicate which types of films they believed that men and women would generally prefer. In a second study, participants were asked to indicate the films they themselves preferred. In the first study, men were regarded as preferring action, adventure, erotic, fantasy, historical, horror, sci-fi, thriller, war, and western films, whereas women preferred animation, comedy, drama, heimat, and romantic films. Both sexes liked crime and mystery equally. In the second study, women expressed a preference for drama and romance, and men preferred action, adventure, erotic, fantasy, horror, mystery, sci-fi, war, and Western films. Animation, comedy, crime heist, history, and thrillers were liked by both sexes.

Enjoyment and liking of the degree of explicit (graphic) horror also appear to show sex differences. Men tend to prefer very graphic horror material more than do women ( Hoffner and Levine, 2005 ). Men also report watching more violent television and attend more horror films. One explanation for this finding has been proposed by gender socialization theory ( Zaslow and Hayes, 1986 ), whereby boys and men are socialized to not be afraid and to not make expressive shows of fear, whereas girls are not constrained by such expectations and can “express their sensitivity by being appropriately disturbed” ( Hoffner and Levine, 2005 ). Such an explanation is probably locked in a prison of its own time in the sense that it is unclear whether such attitudes still exist now, at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Sex differences have been reported in the context of other behaviors such as the identification with a film’s character. Tamborini et al. (1987) asked 44 male and 50 female undergraduates to rank their preference for two different versions of 13 films (12 of which were fictional). In one version, the victim of graphic violence was male; in the other, the victim was female. One theory of horror enjoyment discussed earlier (the uses and gratification perspective; Rubin, 1994 ) argues that our reasons for watching horror and the benefit and gratification we derive from it will determine whether we identify with a victim or an aggressor ( Johnston, 1995 ). Viewers who identify with a female victim are usually more likely to experience distress ( Zillmann and Cantor, 1977 ) and are not satisfied by happy endings ( Tannenbaum and Gaer, 1965 ). Oliver’s (1993a , b) study of 96 16-year-old high school students found that there was a correlation between gore watchers and enjoyment of retribution (liking to see victims get what they deserve). Participants’ high punitive sexual attitudes have been found to be positively correlated with higher ratings of enjoyment; men prefer horror films in which the female rather than the male is the victim, but there is no significant association between enjoyment and the films’ portrayal of victimization of sexual characters, of women, or of women expressing their sexuality.

Tamborini et al. (1987) found that participants’ recent and past viewing of horror film strongly predicted enjoyment of graphic horror in general. However, the responses to men and women as victims in the film interacted with other viewing preferences. For example, men’s enjoyment of pornography was correlated with preference for graphic horror, which depicted female victimization but not male victimization. Preference for graphic horror correlated with disinhibition, moderately for boredom susceptibility and experience seeking, and not at all for thrill/adventure seeking. Sensation seeking in general did not predict preference for graphic horror. Women regarded the films with female victims to be higher in violent content than films featuring male victims; the opposite pattern was found in men. Boredom susceptibility was a good predictor of preference for graphic horror in men. No one factor was a strong predictor of graphic horror preference in women when the victim was male. Deceit and boredom susceptibility predicted graphic horror preference when the victim was female. Physiological arousal (measured via GSR) has also been correlated with enjoyment of horror after men finish watching a film ( Sparks, 1991 ).

A retrospective study of 233 psychology students (125 men) asked participants to recall details of a date they had been on as a teenager/young adult during which they watched a frightening film ( Harris et al., 2000 ). The participants reported that the films most commonly seen were Scream, Scream 2 , I Know What You Did Last Summer, and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer . Men were younger when they watched the film (16.7 vs. 17.6 years), and the study found some notable and significant sex differences: Thirty-one percent of women reported looking away from the screen, whereas only 7% of men did. About 61% of women reported feeling anxious, whereas 44% of men did; 34% women reported that it had increased their imagination (men – 1%); 19% of women said they feared sleeping alone afterward (men – 8%); 67% of women said their heartbeat were faster (men – 53%); 56% of women said they became very jumpy (men – 31%); 41% of women were amused and entertained (men – 59%); 55% of women held onto their date (men – 21%); 32% of women screamed (men – 6%); and 26% of women felt disgusted (men – 10%). Men gave more positive reactions than did women, and women gave more negative reactions than did men, and women reported more sleep disturbances than did men. About 80% of women reported being somewhat or very afraid (men – 46%), and 18% reported not being afraid or being a little afraid (men – 51%). This study also measured empathy and found a positive correlation between overall empathy scale scores and negative reactions but not between negative reactions and any one specific subscale. There were some associations between negative reactions and empathetic responses. Low empathetic concern, for example, predicted sleep disturbance. Higher boredom susceptibility was associated with fewer negative reactions and with increased liking but not with sleep disturbance. Women who scored high on empathy were more likely to be scared at the time of the study (i.e., they were more likely to express fear as adults) than were low-scoring women or men generally.

In a similar study, Hoekstra et al. (1999) asked 202 introductory psychology students to describe their reactions (especially fear reactions) when they recalled the frightening movies they watched as children. The mean age at watching was 10.8 years, a similar finding to Cantor (2004) . Female participants as adults liked slasher films less than did male participants as adults – of the 14 categories included, this was the least liked by women. The most liked genre by women was romantic comedy; by men, action and adventure. Men reported choosing to watch horror more often than did women. Both sexes noted fear-related changes after watching films as children but not during the film, with women reporting more negative reactions during the watching of the films when they were girls. The earlier their exposure to horror films as children, the greater was the sleeping disturbance they experienced afterward. The behavioral measures indicated the typical sex differences reported earlier: more girls than men hid their eyes (64 vs. 26%), held someone (35 vs. 6%), and were jumpy (65 vs. 45%).

In terms of the enjoyment of specific content, one study asked participants to rate a 10-min horror film in which the sex of the victim and sexual content was manipulated ( Oliver, 1994 ). The context of this study concerned the types of victim and protagonist in slasher films. An earlier content analysis of 10 slasher films found that a third of sex scenes concluded with the death of a character ( Weaver, 1991 ). Women, however, are not more likely to be killed. In an analysis of 56 slasher films, Cowan and O’Brien (1990) found that men and women were equally likely to be killed off. Women were more likely to be survivors, a cliche that has its own term in horror film: the Final Girl. More screen time is devoted to the deaths of women than men, however, and non-surviving women are more likely to be promiscuous, wear revealing clothes, appear nude, use sexual language, and undress and engage in sex when they are killed. Non-surviving men appear to be identified only by their use of sexual language. Oliver (1994) found that sexual portrayals of victims were associated with increased viewer enjoyment, especially in men. These films were also regarded as more frightening.

As discussed earlier, one possible explanation for women’s reaction to horror may be their disgust sensitivity. Women in general report greater disgust sensitivity than do men. Disgust is a protective response to a direct threat to survival, such as contamination, lesions, sores, or disease ( Krusemark and Li, 2011 ). People high in disgust sensitivity show higher levels of disgust toward low, moderate, and severe facial disfigurement ( Shanmugarajah et al., 2012 ). Individuals with anxiety disorders are more prone to be disgusted, especially those who are anxious about contagion ( Olatunji et al., 2017a , b ). People who are exposed to disease primes are more likely to judge themselves to be less extravert and open to experience ( Mortensen et al., 2010 ), and people distance themselves from contagion or symptoms of contagion ( Neuberg et al., 2011 ). Women’s disgust thresholds for imagining incest, reacting to images of insects, seeing open sores, feces or dirty clothing, and statements about death and sex are significantly lower than those for men, and women are less likely to work in environments in which pathogen exposure is likely ( Al-Shawaf et al., 2018 ). Women’s sexual disgust and pathogen disgust are higher than that for men, but their moral disgust appears to be no difference. This elevated sense of disgust sensitivity in women may partly explain why they enjoy horror film less than do men.

The literature on sex differences in response to, and preference for, horror film provides the most consistent finding in the field that men and boys prefer and enjoy horror film more than do girls and women. One possible explanation for this, besides differences in empathy, may lie in differences in higher-order traits such as anxiety proneness and disgust sensitivity. This possibility, and the evidence for it, is discussed in a later section.

Horror Films and Mental Health

While a typical person’s response to horror film is fear and anxiety, some studies have suggested that exposure to horror films can lead to abnormal stress or distress reactions requiring psychological or psychiatric intervention, a condition called cinematic neurosis ( Ballon and Leszcz, 2007 ). The rarity of these case studies and the details they present – Ballon and Leszcz found only seven such case studies – suggests that the individuals’ behavior arise because of causes unrelated to the horror film and that the horror film was a catalyst for provoking an underlying and pre-existing pathology that would have been provoked by any, other relevant stimuli. The pattern of behavior has echoes in Freud’s (1919/1971) account of seventeenth century “demonological neurosis,” whereby depression or psychosis arose from experiencing the death of a father and individuals made a pact with the Devil to relieve their distress.

According to Johnson (1980) , at least a quarter of horror film viewers had experienced “stress-type” reactions, although this is likely to be within the confines of the normal stress reaction that horror is specifically designed to evoke. Many of the studies reported are case studies, lacking in control participants and largely anecdotal. In a typical example, Horowitz and Wilner (1976) observed that after the release of The Exorcist in 1973, individuals lost “control over thought and emotions,” experiencing “denial and numbing … extremes of anxiety, tension and impaired relationships.” The Exorcist is the source of a number of abnormal behaviors reported by individuals responding extremely to horror film.

Bozzuto (1975) described four adults who developed abnormal stress behavior within a day of watching the film; participants reported insomnia, excitability, hyperactivity, irritability, and decreased appetite. The symptoms dissipated after seven sessions of psychotherapy. Mathai (1983) reported the case of a distressed 12-year-old boy who felt that when somebody touched him, they would go right through him and that when sitting on a chair, he would fall through it. Prior to presentation, he had watched The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers with two of his siblings. Waking from his sleep, he saw “an awful face with bulging veins staring at him.” Hamilton (1978) reported the case of a young woman who had seen The Exorcist and presented with “acute unremitting anxiety and a pervasive fear of being alone especially at night” and refused to go to work. She felt that the “Devil was in a young girl” and “she dreamt of the Devil with a penis in his mouth” (p. 569).

Five of the cases identified by Ballon and Leszcz (2007) cited The Exorcist as the cause of their distress. The other two were Jaws and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers . Robinson and Barnett (1975) reported the case of a 17-year-old girl who had watched Jaws and experienced anxiety and sleep disturbances consequently. She was found the next day jerking her limbs, screaming about sharks. Turley and Derdeyn (1990) reported the case of a 13-year-old boy who became “addicted” to horror films, particularly A Nightmare On Elm Street . One study found that two 10-year-old boys experienced anxiety for up to 8 weeks after watching the TV program Ghostwatch ( Simons and Silveira, 1994 ). Symptoms included fear of ghosts and of the dark, refusal to go upstairs alone, nightmares, sleeping with the light on, and panic attacks. Ballon and Leszcz (2007) reported the case of a 22-year-old unemployed woman with three children who were at 23 weeks’ gestation but felt possessed and had flashbacks of watching The Exorcist . According to the authors, all of the cases of “cinematic neurosis” they reviewed involved individuals who had experienced a recent loss (or potential loss) of a family member about whom they were ambivalent. Individuals also held strong religious or cultural ideals, and their behavior included recalling imagery from the films they had seen. The films also appeared to have some personal meaning to the individuals.

Sparks (1989a , b) found that around half of the women and the quarter of the men surveyed in his study reported enduring fright after watching horror. Women appeared to be particularly affected ( Sparks et al., 1993 ) with around half of the women subsequently avoiding such films, 68% perceiving specific rooms as anxiety provoking (compared with 10% of men), and 43% reporting nervousness. Harrison and Cantor (1999) found that 90% of their sample of 136 young people (average age – 20.6 years) had experienced a film that was so frightening that the experience had lasted beyond the viewing of the film. More than 50% of the sample reported sleep disturbances and eating problems.

The rarity of such extreme emotion distress requiring psychiatric intervention suggests that horror film, while designed to evoke fear and panic, has no significant long-term consequences than can impair an individual’s mental, social, and occupational function and that those individuals who do report this impairment in functioning have other characteristics or have undergone other experiences, which may underlie the condition they report. While there is no evidence that exposure to horror films has adverse or sustained effects on mental health in individuals with no pre-existing mental health issue, there is evidence that watching horror films can lead to self-reported short-term anxiety and disturbed sleep.

Development of Fear and Horror Liking/Avoidance

Children express fear to horror, just as adults do, and they also express enjoyment of horror and graphic violence, just as some adults do, and some have argued that this interest peaks at adolescence ( Twitchell, 1989 ). The form of the stimulus children fear appears to change as they develop, with unfamiliar or threatening versions of concrete objects the source of anxiety in infancy and imaginary and symbolic stimuli the source of fear in the pre-school years. Fear stimuli become more concrete and realistic when children are at school age ( Hyson, 1979 ). Bauer (1976) found that drawings of imaginary feared objects decreased with age (from kindergarten to age 11 or 12), whereas depictions of realistic injury increased. Fright reactions occur to violence, injury, or physical danger ( Cantor and Wilson, 1988 ).

Early Childhood

An early study of children’s preferences for scary movies found that 24% of 43 7–8-year olds and 13% of 46 11–12-year olds reported having nightmares, and younger girls reported more fears than did younger boys ( Palmer et al., 1983 ). Younger boys liked scary films more than did younger girls. About 40% of the younger children liked scary programs; 65% of the older children did. Seven percent of older children and 28% of younger children disliked scary films; 68% of younger children said they avoided scary TV shows, whereas 11% of the older group did. Cantor and Reilly (1982) found that 11–12-year olds reported avoiding frightening TV and films more than did 15–16-year olds, and Cantor et al. (2010) found that the most common content causing fear in 219 8.5-year olds was the supernatural (imaginary/fictional monsters) with someone being hurt the next most common. Having a television in the bedroom was the best predictor of fright severity, and the average age of exposure to stimuli was 6.6 years; 67% were able to provide the name of the show. Seventy-one percent could not stop thinking about the experience; 52% worried about it; 36% reported shaking; 59% did not want to sleep alone; and 56% had nightmares. When another sample ( N = 164) was asked why they watched, 40% said it was because they wanted to and 40% because someone else was watching. A study of 314 7–12-year-old Dutch children’s response to TV-induced fright found that interpersonal violence was the most fear-inducing content and fantasy the least; the films, which caused the greatest fear, had been intended for adult audiences – Gremlins, IT, Commissaris Rex, and The X Files ( Valkenburg et al., 2000 ). Girls experienced more fear than did boys but fear in both sexes declined with age. Girls physically intervened and used social support and escape more than did boys. Cognitive reassurance was the most common coping strategy, and social support was the least common.

How children cope with horror has been the subject of some research on child development and horror because of the potentially harmful psychological consequences of exposure to frightening stimuli. Cantor and Wilson’s (1988) review of the effect of horror stimuli on children’s behavior concluded that two methods of coping were generally employed. Non-cognitive strategies were those which did not involve the processing of verbal information and which might involve desensitization (the gradual exposure to the fear stimulus); cognitive strategies were those whereby children were encouraged to think about the source of their fear as a means of coping with the stimulus. There is evidence that desensitization is successful ( Wilson and Cantor, 1987 ). For example, children (5–7 and 8–9 year olds) who had been gradually introduced to a videotape of snakes showed less fear when watching the snake pit scene from Raiders Of The Lost Ark . A similar effect was found in a study of 5–7- and 8–11-year olds in which participants played with a rubber tarantula and later saw a scene from Kingdom Of The Spiders ( Wilson, 1987 ), and in a group of kindergarteners and 5–6-, 7–8-, and 6–9-year-old children who were exposed to photographs of worms and then saw a frightening film featuring worms. The children who had been previously exposed to the creatures enjoyed the film more than did those not exposed; exposure to live worms reduced the fear evoked by the film in boys ( Weiss et al., 1993 ). Cantor et al. (1988) found that 3–5-, 6–7-, and 9–10-year-old children’s fear of the Hulk in The Incredible Hulk could be reduced if children saw a TV program, which showed the making of the TV series, and how the make-up of Lou Ferrigno (the actor who played the Hulk) was applied. Children of different ages become afraid at different stages of the TV program and the Hulk’s transformation ( Sparks and Cantor, 1986 ): 3–5-year olds became more frightened after the transformation, whereas 9–11-year olds became more frightened before the transformation. Cantor et al.’s finding is also anecdotally illustrated in the preface to Englund (2009) . Here, Wes Craven (the director of A Nightmare On Elm Street ) describes filming Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger in Elm Street) explaining that he was the actor who played a character so that the video could be sent to a distressed child who found Krueger very frightening.

Younger children (4- and 5-year olds) appear to benefit from adopting more physical strategies such as holding on to a blanket/toy or eating/drinking ( Wilson et al., 1987 ). The reasons for the success of this strategy might be the provision of relief from anxiety and the provision of tactile contact in linguistically developing children or by the occupation of working memory, which reduces the cognitive resources available to think about and process fear stimuli. Proximity to a parent is perceived as being the most successful fear-reduction coping strategy in young children ( Wilson et al., 1987 ). Very young children (under 2 years) experience less fear through covering their eyes; in 3–5-year olds, this behavior increases fear ( Wilson, 1989 ).

Cognitive strategies, such as talking about films and programs with parents or other adults, have been found to be effective ( Cantor and Wilson, 1988 ). By far, the most common type of cognitive strategy employed by parents is reassuring children that the stimulus children are afraid of does not exist ( Cantor and Hoffner, 1990 ), although this is likely to be successful in older children but not in younger children (4–5 years; Cantor and Wilson, 1984 ). Explaining that the source of fear is not likely to be harmful is also successful in older (8–9 year old) children ( Wilson and Cantor, 1987 ). Wilson and Cantor’s study, which involved informing children that most snakes were not poisonous and telling them about the behavior of snakes, found that these instructions increased fear in 5–7-year olds. Verbal explanations may be ineffective in younger children who are less likely to discuss horror materials with their parents. Cantor et al. (1986) found that none of their 3–7-year-old children discussed a film with parents, but 43% of 8–12-year olds and 50% of 13–18-year olds did. However, verbal priming prior to seeing the film can sometimes increase the child’s emotional response to what they (see Cantor et al., 1984 ). If children are informed that a film has a happy ending, they report less fear ( Hoffner and Cantor, 1990 ; Hoffner, 1997 ). Introducing probability information about events prior to watching a film such as telling children the likelihood of an event occurring appears to have no effect on 5–9-year olds’ emotional response ( Cantor and Hoffner, 1990 ). If children rehearse verbal information (e.g., “this tarantula cannot hurt people; they are not poisonous”), older and younger children respond less emotionally to a film about tarantulas ( Wilson, 1987 ). Children also regard the spiders as less dangerous after being given these instructions.

Two physical means of coping with frightening stimuli studied in children are blunting (avoiding threat or transforming a threat by distraction; looking away, for example) and monitoring (being action oriented and attending to the threat). Sparks and Spirek (1988) found that high blunters and low monitors were less physiologically aroused by horror films than were high monitors and low blunters suggesting that underlying physiology might predict or predispose individuals to react in a given emotional way to frightening stimuli; Sparks (1989a , b) also found that low monitors were less negative about horror when given information about the film but this information had no effect on blunters. A study of 228 14–15- and 15–16-year olds examined the role of blunting and monitoring on coping with scary films ( Hoffner, 1995 ). Hoffner investigated empathetic concern (EC, other-oriented) and personal distress (PD, feelings of anxiety/discomfort in response to suffering) by examining four coping methods – interpersonal comfort (IC), distraction (D), momentary avoidance (MA), and unreality. Davis and Kraus (1997) had previously reported that high empathetic concern was associated with less loneliness and unsociability; high personal distress was associated with shyness, poor interpersonal functioning, and social anxiety. Empathetic concern was found to encourage altruism, whereas personal distress prompted people to reduce their own emotion expression ( Batson, 1987 ).

Hoffner found a series of interesting results. A belief that something was unreal was the most common coping strategy, followed by interpersonal comfort and momentary avoidance; these were used more than was distraction. About 50% of the sample considered unreality and momentary avoidance to be effective; 26% considered distraction to be effective. The study found that boys preferred scary films more than did girls, a finding consistent with the literature, that girls reported more empathetic concern and personal distress, that personal distress correlated with empathy and with monitoring and blunting, that these correlated negatively with liking for scary films, that blunting predicted use of distraction and unreality, that monitoring was more widely used and was more effective, that monitoring and blunting were associated with increased interpersonal comfort, that girls were more likely to use momentary avoidance and interpersonal comfort and consider them more effective, that people who reported using one strategy were more likely to use all four, that empathy, but not personal distress, was associated with greater use of reality, IC and personal distress were associated with increased use of distraction, and that higher empathy scores were associated with greater use of Unreality. People who liked horror were less likely to use distraction, unreality, and momentary avoidance as coping strategies, which suggest that coping is related to the dislike of horror – it is something that must be done to mitigate the effects of something that is disliked. If people thought the coping strategies worked, they enjoyed the films more.

Hoffner also noted that participants who reported finding scary films and television to be violent were likely to use all four coping mechanisms; those who found the material to be realistic were more likely to report using distraction, unreality, and interpersonal comfort as coping mechanisms. Material featuring blood and gore was more likely to lead to the use of momentary avoidance. Girls reported using momentary avoidance and interpersonal comfort more than did boys and considered these to be more effective strategies than did boys.


As children enter adolescence, their reasons for seeking out horror develop and change – they will watch to be thrilled, to rebel (because parents have prohibited them), or to enjoy gore because they are interested in how people die ( Oliver, 1993a , b ). One study of 220 13–16-year-old boys and girls examined their motivation for watching slasher movies ( Johnston, 1995 ). Reasons for watching included gore watching, thrill watching, an increased feeling of independence bravery, and problem avoidance. Thrill watching and independence were positively related to positive affect; positive views of slashers were associated with high gore and thrill watching and gore watching predicted preference for graphic violence. Boys were more likely to watch graphic horror because they were motivated to seek out gore, and they were also more likely to identify with the killer than were girls; girls were more likely to identify with the victim. A larger survey of 6,522 10–14-year-old US adolescents in 2003 found similar sex differences: watching violent films was associated with being male, older, non-white, having less educated parents, and having poor school achievement ( Worth et al., 2008 ); teenage boys in another study who were regarded as aggressive and excitable found violent cartoons to be as funny or thrilling ( Aluja-Fabregat and Torrubia-Beltri, 1998 ). Both boys and girls who found violent cartoons funny and thrilling also scored higher on neuroticism, psychoticism, and sensation seeking.

Aging and Horror Enjoyment

The majority of the research on the development of horror preference and response to horror film has recruited children and adolescents as participants. There is very little research on how horror film and horror media in general are perceived as individual’s age and approach caducity, a paucity that is also reflected in humor research. There is some, but not much, research on how older people respond to horror, and this suggests that the preference for horror declines with age ( Tamborini and Stiff, 1987 ; Hoffner and Levine, 2005 ). Clasen et al. (2019) , for example, found a negative correlation between age and enjoyment of horror media and horror use suggesting that both decline as we age. As Clasen et al. concede, however, their sample was clustered around the 35-year age. The average age of those who agreed that they strongly liked horror media was slightly lower than those who disagreed (33.5 vs. 36.5 years). They also note that since sensation seeking also declines with age, this might explain the reduction in enjoyment and seeking out of horror with increasing age post adolescence.

The literature from developmental research mirrors the findings from that in the adult sex differences research in that boys prefer, and seek out, horrifying/scary material more than do girls. Children tend to express greater fear to different types of stimuli and content depending on the age of the child. There are also differences between boys and girls (and between age groups) in the types of coping strategies they adopt during and after watching frightening television and film material. Cognitive strategies, in particular, have been found to be effective with talking about film content and explaining that “monsters” do not exist or that the characters can actually cause no harm being the most effective.

What Causes Fear?

One of the principal purposes of horror film is to induce fear. The nature of fear and its etiology has a long history in psychology, and various models have been proposed, which have attempted to explain why we become afraid and to what types of stimulus. One model, for example, has proposed that we have evolved a “fear module,” a theoretical construct, which comprises a number of domain-specific programs and which is “preferentially activated … by stimuli that are fear relevant in an evolutionary perspective” ( Öhman and Mineka, 2001 ). Fear, it is argued, motivates us to escape and escape very quickly from potential threat and threats to survival ( Mineka and Öhman, 2002 ). The module has four features: it is selective, it is automatic (when encountering fear-relevant stimuli, it responds without mediation), it is encapsulated (i.e., it relies on proven strategies to deal with threat), and it is underpinned by specific neural behavior ( Öhman and Mineka, 2001 ). It is considered to be an adaptive mechanism for allowing us to avoid physical danger rapidly ( Schaller and Neuberg, 2012 ). In the context of horror film, this is, of course, counter-intuitive as horror film viewers who enjoy horror may not wish to escape the horror and deliberately and proactively approach and seek it, and those that do not enjoy horror and who may serendipitously watch horror engage in other withdrawal behaviors such as shutting the eyes or holding on to a companion (they may also leave a cinema or turn off a screen). What occurs during horror film viewing is the willing acceptance that the film will induce fear and that a contract is reached between the medium’s manufacturer and the viewer that this is what is to be expected. The questions that then arise are whether there are specific stimuli or situations, which horror films deploy or recruit which are more likely to induce a fear response and, if so, what are these stimuli and why do they have this effect.

Mineka and Ohman’s conceptualization draws on the (controversial) notion that there are some stimuli to which we are evolutionarily predisposed to fear – that evolution has rendered us more afraid of some objects and situations – and there are stimuli to which we have become socially or cognitively conditioned to fear (e.g., examinations, being in objectively non-threatening social groups). The latter stimuli pose no immediate and real physical threat to survival (i.e., they are not fatal), but the former may potentially present this threat by endangering or causing death, may generate threat, and, therefore, make us more alert to our environment, and these stimuli and situations were experienced by “pre-technological” humans ( Seligman, 1971 ). These stimuli and situations were those which once posed threats to our ancestors and that we, therefore, developed an evolutionary disposition to avoid or to respond with fear, a form of selective association. Guns, for example, are not fatal unless used, and our exposure to them is limited; guns are not phobic stimuli and seeing photographs of guns – or seeing guns – does not elicit significant fear, and not the degree of fear that stimuli to which we are evolutionarily predisposed to fear evoke. A person pointing a gun at us, however, with the intention to fire or with the threat of the intention to fire is clearly a direct threat but not one that is evolutionarily created.

One of most common phobias is arachnophobia, and spiders have been a staple of horror films since the 1950s, although only 0.1–0.3% of spider species are venomous ( Gerdes et al., 2009 ) and conditioned fear to spiders is very difficult to extinguish ( Davey, 1994 ). Individuals are faster at detecting images of spiders and snakes among innocuous stimuli than they are innocuous stimuli placed in an array of threatening stimuli ( Öhman et al., 2001 ). This predisposition facilitates vigilance (occasionally, over-vigilance and we see threat in ambiguous situations) to sources of threat or danger with greater attention paid to some stimuli ( Clasen, 2014 ; March et al., 2017 ). It is a self-protection and survival-enabling mechanism motivating us to confront (and, therefore, remove the potential source of threat) or flee (thereby, removing us from the context in which a threat could result in endangerment).

Fear is related to expressions of disgust, and the literature on phobia suggests that the strength of fear for phobic objects is closely related to disgust sensitivity but not trait anxiety ( Davey, 1994 ) such that people who express abnormal fear of an object also show high degrees of sensitivity to disgusting stimuli but are not dispositionally, highly anxious. A specific phobia, which appears to be qualitatively and quantitatively different from others and is relevant in the context of horror film, is the fear of blood or blood-injection-injury phobia ( Wani et al., 2014 ; Brinkmann et al., 2017 ). This accounts for 3–4% of phobias and is characterized by fear of blood withdrawal, medical intervention, and seeing others’ blood ( Brinkmann et al., 2017 ). Vasovagal syncope (fainting due to low blood pressure and heart rate caused by exposure to a stimulus) is seen in 75% of phobic individuals – there is a short increase followed by a decrease in heart rate. Individuals experience fear, anxiety, and disgust and avoid or decline medical treatment because of the strength of their phobic reaction ( Wani et al., 2014 ). This extreme experience may explain why some people feel squeamish at the sight of blood in horror: blood is unique as a stimulus, which evokes a strong fear or disgust reaction.

Neuropsychology and Horror Film

Fear is the most widely studied emotion in science because it can be easily conditioned, studied, and observed in non-human organisms. There is a substantial literature, which has attempted to explain fear conditioning and learning through reference to its underlying neuropsychology, and much of this work has been conducted on non-human species ( LeDoux and Hofmann, 2018 ). In humans, much of our understanding of the neurology of fear has derived from neuroimaging research and studies of brain injury. One of the brain regions involved in fear recognition and experience is the amygdala ( Martin, 2008 ; March et al., 2017 ), and a considerable literature exists examining the role of this structure in the conditioning and maintenance of fear.

No study has specifically examined the effect of exposure to horror film on brain activation, although hundreds of studies have examined the effect of exposure of fear-related stimuli, including films designed to induce fear, on brain activation measured via MEG, PET, fMRI, and EEG. Many studies have examined the consequence of brain injury on the fear response, and one study is especially relevant to horror film as it examined the effect of bilateral amygdala injury on responses to fear-related stimuli in a film-related context ( Feinstein et al., 2011 ).

In this study, a 44-year-old woman with normal IQ and language showed impaired fear conditioning, impaired recognition of fear in faces, and impaired social-related fear. Feinstein et al. attempted to induce fear by taking her to the pet shop where there were snakes and spiders, walking her through a haunted house, and having her watch horror films. Although she verbally indicated avoidance of the spiders she physically approached them and asked 15 times if she could touch one; at the haunted house (a visitor attraction), she volunteered to lead a group of visitors, did not hesitate in walking around, and was not scared by the monsters (she scared the actors). None of the 10 horror film clips elicited fear (other film clips designed to elicit other emotions successfully elicited those emotions) and she asked for the name of one so that she could rent it. She recognized that most people would be scared by them. This is only comprehensive study of the effect of region-relevant brain injury on the perception of horror films and horror-related stimuli in a single-case study, and while single case studies need to be interpreted cautiously, the study does provide the opening for other studies to confirm the role of these structures in horror appreciation. One possible extension of this study would be to examine whether amygdala reactivity is associated with enjoyment of horror film (those with highly reactive amygdalae may fear or enjoy horror more than those with less reactive amygdalae) or whether the amygdala becomes increasingly active with greater stimulation, and the intensity of the experience correlates with the increase in activity while watching.


The current review sought to determine why people watch horror film and how exposure to horror film affects behavior. Based on the literature from various disciplines, the following conclusions can be reached: (1) low empathy and fearfulness are associated with more enjoyment and desire to watch horror; (2) specific dimensions of empathy are better predictors of people’s responses than are others, but these dimensions are inconsistently predictive; (3) empathetic concern and personal distress are negatively correlated with enjoyment of horror involving torture; (4) there is a positive relationship between sensation seeking and horror enjoyment/preference, but this relationship is not consistent and may depend on the component of sensation seeking; (5) men and boys prefer to watch – and enjoy and seek out – horror more than do women and girls; (6) women and girls report experiencing more fear and anxiety generally than do men and express greater anxiety and fear when watching horror than do boys and men; (7) this sex difference may be attributable to women’s typical higher disgust sensitivity and anxiety proneness (both of which are inter-related); (8) women report more empathetic concern than do men, and this may be another explanatory mechanism; (9) no study to date has systematically explored disgust sensitivity as a mediator in horror enjoyment and preference, but the evidence would suggest that the former will predict the latter; (10) older children are more afraid of concrete objects/stimuli when very young but of symbolic stimuli when younger; (11) individuals tend to prefer horror less as they age, but there is little literature on this topic; (12) children use various coping strategies to overcome horror film-related fear and the success of these depends on the age of the child; (13) physical coping strategies are more successful in younger children; (14) priming with information about the feared object helps reduce fear and increase enjoyment when children watch a film featuring the feared stimulus; (15) the startle reflex is amplified in the presence of threatening stimuli; and (16) little is understood about the role of neuropsychology in the response to horror film generally although the understanding of the structures and regions of the brain implicated in fear and fear conditioning is well documented; the amygdala is likely to be involved in the reaction to (and enjoyment of) horror.

Limitations and Future Directions

The conclusions in the previous paragraph are based on a very limited set of data. The studies from which such data have been drawn have varied in sample size, methodology, and materials, and these are three clearly identifiable and major limitations in this field. Hoffner and Levine (2005) have highlighted similar limitations in their meta-analysis. The type and selection of stimuli used in behavioral studies of horror film and researchers’ definition of what constitutes a “horror” or “graphic” horror film has led to a literature, which renders making generalizations about horror’s effects difficult, the summary above notwithstanding. Studies have used a variety – although a very restricted variety – of horror films over 30 years of research, and the films share little in common apart from being classed as horror film. The Silence of the Lambs, Cannibal Holocaust, The Babadook, Saw, The Blair Witch Project, Psycho, Dracula , and The Devil Rides Out are all horror films, but each has distinctive mechanisms of evoking fear and disgust based on story, film making, plot, characters, sound, performance, visual effects, credibility, and use of music. No one study can fully take into account our response to horror because not all horror films are the same ( Oliver, 1993a , b ), and this limitation needs to be more clearly recognized and addressed in future work.

Hoffner and Levine (2005) have concluded that the nature of the media content in these studies can explain the failure to find homogeneity in the correlations between enjoyment of horror media and empathic concern in their meta-analysis. As noted earlier, when correlations were found for empathy and horror enjoyment, the most consistent correlations found were in those studies in which victimization formed the dominant aspect of the horror stimuli. When these studies were removed, the correlations for the remaining studies fell to almost zero. These studies measured participants’ responses to the enjoyment of horror film as a genre (or response to a drama with a likeable victim), rather than their responses to specific horror films or their experience of watching specific horror films. Hoffner and Levine’s analysis identifies at least two limitations in the field noted here: the heterogeneity of the material used as stimuli in experiments, and the nature of the question asked in these studies (for example, whether the question is: do you enjoy this specific film/film clip? or Do you enjoy this genre of film?). The former limitation can be easily resolved via empirical research. Studies, for example, might examine the role of the nature of the character, the narrative drive of a film (point of view), the esthetics of the film, a film’s use of music, the number acts of violence, and the types of acts of graphic violence and the perpetrator of the violence, the characteristics of the perpetrator, and the victim (their attractiveness, age and sex, for example), a film’s use of color and the use of specific tropes and techniques (such as found-footage and types of horror film). This is not to say that some of these elements have not been studied – this review and others have described studies in which they have – but there has been little research which has examined these elements systematically and methodically, and some elements have not been explored at all.

The issue of self-report – and self-report based on very small samples – is another possible limitation in that authors rely on individuals’ subjective reports based on their impressions and perceptions, and these reports are based on responses to standard questionnaires or questionnaires developed by the authors. This is an issue for any research, which aims to determine how people think and feel and is currently the most effective way of measuring people’s responses. It is possible to study non-verbal measures (such as movement, EEG, brain activation, GSR, and so on), but these are indirect, correlational measures of what an individual might be thinking or feeling. Motor behavior, however, may be a very informative indicator of response to horror, as some of the studies reviewed here suggest.

Given the current accessibility of film and media generally via smartphones, as well as internet-ready TVs and, of course, computers, one topic of research that has been little studied is whether the medium affects the perception and enjoyment of horror films. Filmmakers may bemoan the viewing of material on a smartphone that was designed for a screen that is 1,000 times larger, but it would be instructive to examine whether screen size affects people’s esthetic, emotional, and cognitive response to horror. Screen size and its effect on the enjoyment of displayed material have been relatively well-studied (see, for example, Grabe et al., 1999 ; Lombard et al., 2000 ; Rigby et al., 2016 ). In the context of horror, however, it is hypothesizable that increased screen size leads to increased visibility and that this would result in a stronger fright reaction because more of the horror can be seen and seen more clearly. It is also possible that the augmentation of the screen would also augment the sound (an auditory-sound illusion) so that bigger screens might affect our perception of horror because of this visual illusion.

There is also scope for further research on coping with the effects of watching horror film and of mitigating the fright if the experience is considered too intense or too unmanageable. Of course, individuals could choose not to watch or could chose to watch selectively if they are in front of the screen. But there may be more imaginative strategies that might be adopted such as the introduction of non-visual, non-verbal, and non-auditory stimuli (e.g., scent). It is possible that the presence of a pleasant scent might alleviate some of the fright generated by horror film if such alleviation is required (either because it distracts or because it creates or elevates positive mood). There is some evidence that this might be possible ( Martin, 2013 ), and this is a question that merits pursuit. Wes Craven’s film, The Last House On The Left , utilized a similar, if non-olfactory distraction technique in the tagline for the film, which was “Keep repeating, it’s only a film…it’s only a film…”

The majority of the studies reviewed here has included mono-cultural samples, and the current review was unable to uncover any cross-cultural research on horror enjoyment or preference. An understanding of the cultural influences on film preference (especially horror) and the individual differences that may underpin them warrants investigation given that certain genres of horror appear to be more popular and appear more often, in specific cultures: Different cultures place different emphases on certain types of content and Japanese horror with its emphasis on ghosts, the supernatural is an obvious example ( Balmain, 2008 ; McRoy, 2008 ). Others have argued that the European horror film is distinct from other types of horror film and has a specific “esthetic” ( Allmer et al., 2012 ). There is a considerable literature on the difference between collectivistic and individualistic cultures with research suggesting that the psychological responses of individuals from each type of cultural background are different ( Matsumoto et al., 2008 ; Alotaibi et al., 2017 ; Gendron, 2017 ). In the field of horror film perception, experience, and enjoyment, it could be hypothesized that individuals from collectivistic cultures might respond differently to horror (and victims in horror) than do individuals from individualistic cultures – specifically individuals from collectivistic cultures may express greater fear compared to those from individualistic cultures – and this is an hypothesis that can be easily tested.

With interest and appreciation in horror increasing, the scope for undertaking research into horror film has never been more timely. There is still much to discover and still much to understand. Horror, said Adorno in another context, was beyond the scope of psychology. The research would suggest that the weight of evidence is on the side of one of horror’s innovators. Without psychology, Dario Argento once said, the horror film does not exist.

Author Contributions

The author confirms being the sole contributor of this work and has approved it for publication.

Conflict of Interest

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


The author would like to thank Dr Charlie Allbright, Phil Hughes, and four reviewers, especially reviewer 2, for their detailed and thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this paper, and to Edward Lionheart for planting the seed for this review.

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Keywords: horror, terror, fear, film, cinema

Citation: Martin GN (2019) (Why) Do You Like Scary Movies? A Review of the Empirical Research on Psychological Responses to Horror Films. Front. Psychol . 10:2298. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02298

Received: 07 February 2019; Accepted: 25 September 2019; Published: 18 October 2019.

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Copyright © 2019 Martin. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

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Fear is one of the most basic and important human emotions. At very beginning of movie history in 1895, when the audience first saw the Lumieres Bothers' The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station on the big screen, almost the entire audience tried to escape from the theater. The image of the approaching train caused fear. To intensify feelings of fear in the audience, film artists use sound, lighting, timing, motion and other stylistic devices. Among the wide range of film genres, especially horror movies aim to trigger a physiological and psychological response of fear in the audience. Within the genre, horror films differ widely from each other based on their time period, sub-genre, and regional differences including religious and cultural motifs. There many different ways of investigating how horror movies accomplish to terrify and horrify an audience, for example, via an analysis of plots, characters, and dialogue. This thesis examines what constitutes the different cinematic...

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Horror Movie Analysis and Its Approaches

Refraining from discussing the merits of horror as a genre, the choice of the most optimal analysis method appears complicated. To regard horror movies analytically, it is worth considering that they are, at large, a projection of fear or anxiety, which are the main target of their appeal. Adult audience tends to be afraid of things coming from the domain of rationality. Horror movies find a way to compile the rational and irrational, using the metaphor and symbolism of the supernatural, the incognoscible.

There are several approaches of horror film analysis, including, but not limited to the analysis of sexuality, the psychoanalytical approach, etc. Although each of these approaches provides an in-depth perspective, the following paper is devoted to discussing what it regards as the most optimal one, which is the socio-political and socio-cultural.

As said, there is quite an extensive body of approaches that can be adopted when analyzing horror movies. To conduct a competent analysis, one might start by applying diachrony, linking the ideas from the horror movies’ past to their present. Such analysis might require additional research to establish the place of a particular movie within the timespan of horror movie history. On the other hand, such approach speaks in broad terms about individual matter, and the analysis can turn out to be overly evasive and vague.

Considering that horror movies often incorporate elements that have to do with sexuality, including the one that is commonly regarded as perverted, sexuality analysis can prove sufficient to understand the message. Such analysis is particularly applicable to movies with increased presence of naked flesh and torture. Erotic imagery and the imagery of violence serve as an attention grabber to sharpen the audience’s perception and communicate the message in the most efficient way (Pinedo 347).

From another perspective, the analysis of sexuality is not applicable to movies where such imagery is not abundant. Another approach includes applying psychoanalysis, particularly the Freudian one. Psychoanalysis of the horror movies does not necessarily concern sexuality, but rather, the fears that the viewer experiences as a child and sees them projected in the movies’ visual and sound effects (Dumas 28).

Among those, the fear of madness in general can be enlisted, as well as some other fears and pervasive thoughts that might overwhelm the viewer from time to time. Some horror screenplay moves and features can be explained and clarified through the lens of, say, Oedipus complex or the fear of castration. Also, the archetypal characteristics of some of the characters tend to correspond with archetypes that invade the viewers’ nightmares (29). On the flipside, the psychoanalytical approach to horror movies is likely to drift entirely into the realm of psychoanalysis, ignoring the movie message and its technical components.

It appears that, to conduct a competent study, it is worth applying as many approaches as possible. On the other hand, as it was stated above, horror as a genre largely amounts to projection of fears, including those that are experienced by the audience as a society, as a culture. Art is inseparable from the posture of affairs in which it is created, either societal or cultural, or the personality of the creator which is, again, influenced by their status quo. Just as any form of art, horror movies are produced within a certain timeframe with its socio-political situation, ideological demands, and common concerns (Sharrett 71).

Such analysis, therefore, appears the most optimal since it helps reveal societal fears in broader – and at the same time, more focused – terms, in terms of discursive practices. At that, socio-cultural and socio-political approach incorporates the discourses of psychoanalysis and sexuality analysis since the disorders that cause anxiety in observers can be applied to the society as well. There are examples of societies becoming violent and suicidal, of children murdering their mothers (66).

Such actions can be analyzed from the point of Freudian methodology – the infamous Oedipus complex, for one – but the socio-cultural approach implies these to represent fears that encompass the culture; particularly, the fear of destruction of the seemingly solid nuclear family value. Zombies can be referred to as a vampire sexual fantasy in reverse, as a mockery of the society’s hype about the vampire sexuality (64). On the other hand, what the rise of undead represents in cultural and political respect is the fear of the collapse of the global society, especially on the aftermath of the millennium with its nuclear and apocalyptic concerns (65).

To conclude, entertainment culture reflects what the society is currently interested in. Horror movies as a segment of such culture speculate on the society’s fears and anxieties. The messages embedded in such films can be analyzed from diverse viewpoints but it is the socio-cultural and socio-political approach that can be argued to be the most optimal for horror film analysis. Such conclusion can be made on account that it not only regards screenplay and effects through the prism of common societal concerns but also incorporates other approaches, creating the fullest perspective of analysis.

Works Cited

Dumas, Chris. “Horror and Psychoanalysis: An Introductory Primer.” A Companion to  the Horror Film . 1st ed. Ed. Harry M. Benshoff. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley & Sons, 2014. 21-37. Print.

Pinedo, Isabel C. “Torture Porn: 21st Century Horror.” A Companion to the Horror  Film . 1st ed. Ed. Harry M. Benshoff. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley & Sons, 2014. 345-361. Print.

Sharrett, Christopher. “The Horror Film as Social Allegory (And How It Comes Undone).” A Companion to the Horror Film . 1st ed. Ed. Harry M. Benshoff. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley & Sons, 2014. 56-72. Print.

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Article Contents

I. introduction, ii. out of the ordinary, part 1, iii. bad timing, iv. hello, cruel world, v. out of the ordinary, part 2, vi. knowing where you are, vii. conclusion, being in a horror movie.

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This article takes as its starting point a recurring complaint in the popular reception of horror movies: that the characters in them behave foolishly. I argue that such complaints fail to recognize that the horror genre exploits a fundamental tension in fiction, between the perspective on a fictional world offered to its audience and that available to its characters. This distinction is highlighted in horror, which often depicts characters with everyday expectations facing extraordinary threats. Horror characters are frequently taken by surprise, and even the better prepared can be thwarted by the malevolence of the generic world. The extent of characters’ misfortunes can resemble deliberate persecution, self-consciously flaunting authorial manipulation. I draw on Todorov’s notion of “pan-determinism” and suggest that a more sinister variant operates in horror. Occasionally, a character’s experiences can help equip them to survive; I argue that this can be inflected politically in films where the malevolent horror world is placed alongside forms of real-life persecution and abuse. Critical attention to the world of horror, and how it is understood from both the outside and within, can clarify the connections between different theoretical understandings of the genre and bring out important but overlooked generic conventions.

On a 1980 episode of Sneak Previews , Roger Ebert described Terror Train (Roger Spotiswoode, 1980) as “an exercise in gruesome stupidity.” For Ebert, it was the characters in the film that exemplified this quality: “everybody in the movie is stupid and they’re also either dead or covered in blood.” Reviewing Nightmares (Joseph Sargent, 1983) for the New York Times , Janet Maslin identified foolish characters as a recurring problem for the horror genre: “Nothing spoils a horror story faster than a stupid victim.” ( 1983 , 14) It is a commonplace of popular commentary to note that horror characters behave in careless and self-endangering ways. More recent examples include such online articles as “The 15 Dumbest Horror Movie Characters” ( Evry 2013 ) and “23 Very Dumb Decisions Characters Made In Horror Movies That We’re Still Mad About” ( Hayes 2019 ).

Is this fair? Do we sometimes judge horror characters too harshly? No doubt some horror movies have their characters behave unwisely for no better reason than to move the story in the desired direction. Others may be attempting to discourage us from getting attached to characters who will soon die messily. However, we should not treat every horror movie character who runs upstairs rather than straight outside, or fails to think too carefully about where their friends have gone, as laziness or contrivance. Inappropriate expectations for character behavior can be a barrier to understanding horror movies and appreciating their achievements.

When we watch a horror film, we learn about its depicted world and the dangers that its characters face. Even if we are not shown everything, ours is usually a privileged view. In fiction, it is important to distinguish between the depicted perspective of the characters and that encouraged in the audience. Noël Carroll argues that the latter is most accurately described in terms of “pro-attitudes that we have for others rather than emotional states we share with them” ( Carroll 2006 , 2, emphasis in original). Carroll’s view is supported by the extent to which various genres of fiction rely on a clear separation between what the audience and the characters are experiencing. Bertrand Evans observes that, in his comedies, “Shakespeare’s dramatic method relied heavily on arrangements of discrepant awarenesses” ( 1960 , viii) between the characters and the assumed audience. Many techniques used in horror depend on such arrangements. An obvious example is suspense. Discussing a “suspense technique” employed in The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963), Aaron Smuts remarks that “the film puts us in a superior but helpless position where we are incapable of applying our knowledge” ( 2003 , 169). To respond appropriately to a horror movie, as with most forms of fiction, we need to recognise the differences between our position and that of the characters.

My focus here is less on the much-debated appeal of horror than on a basic precondition for that appeal. Whether we define the attraction of horror in terms of the cognitive pleasures of narrative ( Carroll 1990 , 184), a “unique way of exploring the nature, effects, and attractions of evil” ( Freeland 2007 , 56), an ambivalent fascination with monstrous power ( Shaw 2001 , 2), or any of the other explanations that have been offered, differences between audience and character perspectives remain foundationally important.

It is easy to make casual assumptions about how fictional characters understand what happens to them and how they should act on this. These assumptions tend to be based on considerations from outside the fiction. Our non-fictional knowledge and experience are a necessary component in our comprehension of fiction, for example, in providing background details that it would be inappropriate or cumbersome for the work itself to make explicit. As Kendall Walton states, “We are usually entitled to assume that characters have blood in their veins, just because they are people, even if their blood is never mentioned or described or shown or portrayed” ( 1990 , 142). However, our ordinary expectations will also be routinely modified or superseded:

Ordinarily the fact that fictionally a character has human parents implies, in accordance with familiar laws of nature, that fictionally the character is human and not a frog or an insect or a rhinoceros or a pumpkin. But this implication is blocked in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros , Kafka’s Metamorphosis , and numerous fairy tales.” ( Walton 1990 , 45)

As Walton’s examples suggest, our usual assumptions can be altered or made irrelevant by the features of an individual work and by the wider conventions that it invokes. We are given reasons to adjust our expectations; some of these reasons can come from a work’s genre, a context that is usually available to the audience but not to the characters.

Different genres, and individual films within them, establish different standards for how characters act, what they know, and the control they have over what happens to them. Actions and attitudes that are presented as effective in one genre can be disastrous in another. As Carol Clover puts it, “If Rambo were to wander out of the action genre into a slasher film, he would end up dead” ( 1992 , 99). Presumably, in this hypothetical instance, Rambo would not be aware that he had crossed over into a slasher film, or indeed that he was a movie character at all. When audiences watch a film of any genre, they are normally assumed to be aware of this and to have chosen to do so. A reasonably informed audience will have knowledge and expectations of a fictional world that the characters inhabiting that world cannot access. Deborah Thomas argues that “For characters in comedic films to know that they are safe, they would need to be aware that they are characters in a comedic film” ( 2000 , 12). Fictional characters are rarely granted this level of insight.

Examining how the workings of the depicted world are shown to us in horror movies, and how the characters seem to understand their world, can help to provide a clearer understanding of the fictional behavior that has been derided by reviewers and commentators. This has implications not only for the interpretation of horror films, but for their evaluation, in that it can help to refine the standards by which we judge plausibility, coherence and significance in horror. Attention to these and related matters can also highlight connections between apparently disparate perspectives on the genre, and diverse examples within it.

The horror genre frequently plays on the tensions between characters’ assumptions and the worlds they inhabit, putting characters with expectations more suited to the ordinary world into extraordinarily malevolent situations. In a scene from The Boogeyman (Ulli Lommel, 1980), two teenage couples are grilling hotdogs on the shore of a lake. Andy (Stony Richards) and Jenny (Katie Casey) decide to leave, and Andy takes a box of utensils to his car. In the car, a supernatural force lifts a skewer from the box and stabs Andy through the back of the neck. When Jenny arrives, the force pushes the car door shut, propelling her face-first into Andy and impaling her on the skewer protruding from his mouth. To Caroline (Claudia Porcelli) and Peter (Ernest Meier), still on the beach, it appears that Jenny and Andy, joined at the mouth, are merely kissing. The survivors drive off without investigating further.

It is reasonable to ask why Peter and Caroline don’t check on their friends. If Jenny and Andy are kissing, it is oddly static and protracted; Peter even remarks that he has “never seen a kiss this long.” They have also apparently given up on loading the car; at the end of the scene, we see their remaining possessions left on the beach. From the other characters’ perspective, however, what else can they be doing but kissing? This is the only rational explanation for the sight of Jenny and Andy in the car, their faces together. What has actually happened is so improbable that it would not occur to Caroline or Peter as a possibility. Andy and Jenny had previously gone off to a derelict beach house to make out, so the supposed kissing is also consistent with their behavior as a couple. After Jenny is skewered, the car is only shown in long shot, emphasizing how little of the pair, beyond their general position, can be seen from a distance. This provides a useful reminder of the difference between what the characters can see and what we have been shown.

The two young couples are only in The Boogeyman for this one scene. Unlike the main characters, they are not involved in an ongoing encounter with the supernatural. They have just blundered, by chance, into the path of a malevolent entity. Their frame of reference for making judgments and inferences is presumably based on familiar, everyday events, not elaborate spectral violence. Caroline and Peter’s perspective reflects that of many horror characters: accustomed to ordinary, unremarkable circumstances, they are confronted with an exceptional, dangerous situation. In this case, they survive despite their obliviousness; in many cases, characters are less fortunate.

Jeremy Saulnier, director of Green Room (2015), in which the main characters are a touring punk band, explains their behavior in terms of an encounter with the unexpected:

The band members are not idiots. They’re just real people. When you see a wrap-up of real life news stories or incidents where there are humans trapped in [a] pressure cooker environment or things go wrong where there’s chaos, people behave in very stupid ways. We’re used to having our cinematic selves, the characters we watch, having some kind of skill set. They take some kind of leap and evolve so rapidly to our traditional heroes or heroines. We’re used to that. But when you just let people be people, it’s a flailing clusterfuck. ( Hall 2016 )

Saulnier promotes the apparent authenticity of his approach, emphasizing that his characters behave like “real people”. What generates the “flailing clusterfuck,” however, is not character behavior alone but the disjunction between ordinary expectations and extraordinary circumstances. This disjunction is frequently exploited in horror movies, and some of the harsher judgments of horror characters may arise from it. Many kinds of extraordinary circumstance are conventionally accepted in mainstream fiction film, and have been throughout its history:

…in a context where people are known to burst into song on the tops of trolley-buses, with the full support of invisible orchestras, or spring down hillsides actively pursued by bouncing boulders, or drag wild leopards determinedly up the steps of Connecticut jails (and I would be the last to suggest they cease exhibiting such fine accomplishments), the concept of credibility needs careful definition. ( Perkins 1972 , 120)

There is more potential for confusion, however, when extraordinary circumstances are brought into deliberate conflict with expectations formed under more ordinary conditions. It can be easy to place too much emphasis on the latter and assume that horror characters are foolishly or implausibly oblivious. It is important to distinguish the depicted expectations of the characters from those encouraged in the audience.

One way in which the mismatch between characters’ expectations and the situation they are facing can be highlighted is in the timing of their encounters with the extraordinary. In her discussion of “body genres,” Linda Williams observes that,

…the fantasy of recent teen horror corresponds to a temporal structure which raises the anxiety of not being ready, the problem, in effect, of ‘too early’. Some of the most violent and terrifying moments of the horror film genre occur in moments when the female victim meets the psycho-killer-monster unexpectedly, before she is ready. The female victims who are not ready for the attack die. This surprise encounter, too early, often takes place at a moment of sexual anticipation when the female victim thinks she is about to meet her boyfriend or lover. ( 1991 , 11)

Williams is referring to deaths like that of Annie Brackett (Nancy Loomis) in Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). Annie gets into her car and Michael Myers (Nick Castle) appears from the back seat and chokes her before slashing her throat. Like Andy in The Boogeyman , Annie dies in the front seat of her car, surprised from behind. Both killings also happen at what Williams refers to as “a moment of sexual anticipation.” Annie is going out to collect her boyfriend, while Andy and Jenny, already established as a sexually enthusiastic couple, are planning to take advantage of the absence of Jenny’s parents at home.

The sexual anticipation is important in Williams’ argument; for her, the killing is “a symbolic castration which often functions as a kind of punishment for an ill-timed exhibition of sexual desire” ( 1991 , 11). While the connection with sex may be significant in many slasher movies, the “too early” temporality that Williams identifies—the sudden, the abrupt, the premature—occurs across a wider range of circumstances in horror. Horror characters frequently find themselves in situations for which they are not ready, or which escalate rapidly in ways impossible to anticipate.

In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), Kirk (William Vail) enters a house to ask if he can borrow some gasoline. Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) emerges, bashes Kirk on the head with a mallet and drags him away. Much of the impact of this moment comes from its abruptness. The encounter becomes an attack almost instantly—the first blow is struck seconds after Leatherface appears in the doorway—and the attack is almost immediately lethal. Kirk may not have been behaving perfectly—entering a stranger’s house uninvited, teasing Pam (Teri McMinn) on the front porch—but being murdered with a hammer is horrifically out of proportion with anything he has done. It is a drastic escalation, apparently out of nowhere.

The scene, the first in the film to feature Leatherface, provides a lot of information quickly. Leatherface’s grotesque appearance is shown only briefly; there is one medium shot among the longer shots from the hallway, but its fleeting duration and the motion of the camera deny us time to take in the details at a comfortable pace. The editing and camera movement combine with other elements, including Leatherface’s squealing and grunting and Kirk’s convulsions between the first and second hammer blows, to create an impression of chaos and agitation. Kirk could not possibly be ready for what he finds in that house; he is overwhelmed sooner than he can react. To emphasize this, the sequence is kept short and intense.

Williams’ “too early” temporality is a characteristic approach across modern American horror. The temporal dimensions of genres are a productive area for comparison. Williams suggests this by distinguishing the “temporality of fantasy” in each of her three “body genres”: horror, pornography, and melodrama ( 1991 , 9). Williams focuses on these genres’ characteristic moments and associated emotions, but we can also consider the temporal relationships between characters and the generic worlds they inhabit. A character in a Western would presumably inhabit the same generic world even if the film were set a year earlier or a week later. In contrast, the horror world seems to appear more suddenly and impose its logic on more ordinary situations. The reality on which the characters’ expectations are based is overtaken by something unexpected.

My emphasis so far has been on unprepared characters, whose unexpected encounters with the monstrous can be described in terms of Williams’ “too early” temporality. However, we need to consider the logic of the wider horror world, which gives rise to such encounters. To explore this further, I will turn to some examples of characters who are more aware of the threat they are facing and have a chance to respond.

Toward the end of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Dwight H. Little, 1988), after the masked killer (George P. Wilbur) has ravaged the town of Haddonfield again, Rachel Carruthers (Ellie Cornell) and Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris) take the sensible step of leaving the area. Some local men drive them out of town in a pickup truck. Once they are on the road, Michael Myers, who has been clinging to the truck unseen, climbs up and kills the men, leaving Rachel and Jamie to face him alone once more. In the next film in the series, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Dominique Othenin-Girard, 1989), Michael (Donald L. Shanks) is lured back to his family home using Jamie, who is his niece, as bait. Deputy Charlie Bloch (Troy Evans) is posted as protection. When he hears Michael stab Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) downstairs, Charlie sets up a rope ladder so that he and Jamie can escape out the window. Michael breaks into the room, loops the ladder around Charlie’s neck and hangs him.

In both examples, characters take practical measures to avoid a threat. Rachel and Jamie try to extricate themselves from a dangerous location, while Charlie has the foresight to bring the ladder so that he and Jamie will not be trapped upstairs. These efforts are laudable and contribute to the presentation of the characters as sympathetic. Any admiration gained, however, would be heavily qualified, as the characters’ actions do them no good whatsoever. It is as if their efforts are cruelly dismissed by the world they inhabit.

The world of the horror genre often seems actively malevolent; reality itself seems hostile. Characters’ attempts to escape are often futile, and their attempts to fight back can backfire disastrously. In The Strangers (Bryan Bertino, 2008), James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) shoots his friend Mike (Glenn Howerton) rather than one of the masked home invaders. In another film featuring masked home invaders, You’re Next (Adam Wingard, 2011), Erin (Sharni Vinson) rigs a trap over a doorway. The trap is eventually triggered not by an invader but by a police officer arriving at the scene.

In several of my examples, characters make the mistake of treating horror threats too much like real-life problems. Accustomed to an existence in which such problems are the norm, the characters do not seem to recognize that they have entered a different world. In the horror world, practicality, preparation and decisive action can often be useless, or even counterproductive. There are some exceptions to this—as we shall see, certain kinds of real-life awareness and experience can occasionally serve horror characters better—but pragmatic problem-solving often seems to invite cruelly ironic results. Actions that might be effective in ordinary circumstances (the kind, we assume, in which the characters’ expectations were formed) are shown to be inadequate.

The tribulations of horror characters extend beyond everyday misfortune; we frequently see an almost gleeful multiplication of difficulties. In two slasher films released the same year, The Prowler (Joseph Zito, 1981) and Friday the 13 th   part 2 (Steve Miner, 1981), the “Final Girl” character ( Clover 1992 , 35) is hiding under a bed with the killer nearby, when a rat crawls under with her. The heroine must keep her already-strained composure as the rat moves around near her face. It is not clear whether one film borrowed the idea from the other or each came up with it independently—they appear to have been made at around the same time ( Curran 1980 , 12, 12; Deakin 2010 )—but in both cases, this comically nasty escalation was judged to be fitting. The scenes add gratuitous difficulty to a life-and-death situation; the appearance of the rat is so inconvenient that it seems less unlucky than actively spiteful.

Who is being spiteful here? It is easy to slip into anthropomorphism when describing the world of a horror movie. Films and their fictional worlds do not have independent intelligence or agency. We are aware, however, that the films we watch are made by people. Daniel Yacavone’s more expansive conception of a film’s world—encompassing more than just the fictional reality it depicts—is better able to accommodate such dimensions:

…the inescapable fact […] is that salient aspects of a film world as experienced are to varying degrees reliant on viewer awareness not only of the existence of a filmmaker (as the cinematic ‘world creator’) in the abstract but also, often, of the authorial acts, intentions, and experienced ‘presence’ of a particular director in his or her film. ( 2015 , 14)

The nature, degree, and timing of a horror character’s misfortune are decided by filmmakers. These decisions are not (usually) part of the fiction, but our awareness that the film is a product of them, even if we may not know exactly what they were, can inflect our understanding of incidents within it. Events can seem to result from deliberate agency even when they have no such cause in the fictional world. For many works, it is preferable to avoid such implications; it will be important for some narratives, for example, to portray events as happening by chance. Other works, however, emphasize a sense of deliberateness extending beyond the actions of conscious individuals. In The Fantastic , Tzvetan Todorov refers to

… a generalised determinism, a pan-determinism : everything, down to the encounter of various causal series (or ‘chance’) must have its cause, in the full sense of the word, even if this cause can only be of a supernatural order. ( 1975 , 110)

From a perspective of pan-determinism, everything happens deliberately, with a specific cause and purpose. These can be identified explicitly, or operate in a more generalized way, as the workings of fate and destiny are often depicted. Todorov associates pan-determinism with the literature of the fantastic, but we can see a malevolent variety at work in many horror movies.

A horror movie will usually have its central threat: a monster or killer. In Carroll’s influential conception of the genre, monsters are considered an essential component ( 1990 , 37). However, even in films with a clearly defined figure of menace, the depicted threat is not always limited to this figure; the wider world can seem to have its own hostile agency. This more pervasive malevolence does not need a specific identity. Outside the fiction, we may be aware that the filmmakers have chosen to portray their characters’ predicaments as severe and inescapable, but fictionally, this threat belongs to the world itself.

Tenebrae (Dario Argento, 1982) is especially explicit in depicting a wider world of threats unrelated to its two killers. The deaths of Elsa Manni (Ania Pieroni) and Maria Alboretto (Lara Wendel) are both preceded by apparently random encounters with other dangers. Elsa is grabbed through a fence by an old man and chased to her front gate. Once she is in her apartment, the man appears again at her window but can only watch as Elsa is attacked by the first killer (unidentified at this point in the movie). The scenes leading up to the killing of Maria expand on the previous instance and reinforce the motif of incidental threats. Maria is attacked by a dog, which chases her to a house belonging to Christiano Berti (John Steiner), later revealed to be the first killer. The dog is unusually persistent; it jumps over several fences to continue its pursuit, even stepping back from the tallest fence for a run-up. Its behavior seems more like deliberate human cruelty than animal aggression.

Maria finds apparent safety in the killer’s lair. When Christiano returns, she tries to climb another fence; it breaks, and she falls almost at her pursuer’s feet. The killer and his actions are placed in the context of a larger world which seems to be similarly vindictive, thwarting Maria’s escape at every turn. The two pre-murder encounters also share a similar structure. Both Elsa and Maria are first attacked through a fence and manage, temporarily, to fight their attacker off mid-chase. Both the old man and the dog reappear at a window once the victim is indoors. The parallels between the two incidents suggest that they are presented as part of a pattern—not just random occurrences, but the way of the film’s world.

Tenebrae emphasizes its logic of malevolent pan-determinism through the accumulation of coincidences. Maria’s murder relies on a series of unlikely events. She only ends up at the killer’s house because she is chased by an abnormally tenacious dog. She only discovers that the house belongs to a murderer because he left the key in a side door leading to the workshop where he keeps files documenting his killings.

The film makes no attempt to conceal or justify the improbability of such occurrences; they are instead highlighted. In the scene before Maria meets the dog, the killer goes out to stalk his next intended victim. As he leaves the house, we are shown the key in the lock, accentuated by a cut into a closer shot and the motion of the swinging keyring. When the killer is watching his chosen target, he checks his pocket and realizes that he left the key behind. This is intercut with further shots of the forgotten key, the ring still swinging. The key is emphasized before its place in the events leading to Maria’s murder is revealed, as if it were significant all along. The film’s pan-determinism turns apparently trivial details into components in inexorable processes.

Among the most pronounced examples of malevolent pan-determinism in horror movies can be found in the Final Destination series, in which fate catches up with characters who have previously escaped death. The characters die in freak accidents, brought about by elaborate chains of events. In Final Destination 3 (James Wong, 2006) for example, Ashley Freund (Chelan Simmons) and Ashlyn Halperin (Crystal Lowe) are burned alive in tanning beds. The condensation from Ashley’s drink drips into the electrical supply unit, causing the power to exceed safe limits. The temperature rises, triggering the air conditioning, which blows a hat stand over. The hat stand knocks a shelf off the wall, which falls onto the lid of Ashley’s tanning bed. When Ashley pushes on the lid, the shelf slips and wedges itself between the two beds, trapping both women as the tanning lights keep getting hotter. Yuri (Alexander Kalugin) is locked out of the tanning studio and cannot intervene, as the weight of the door has flattened the tube of sunscreen he used to wedge it open.

The Final Destination films emphasize the intricacy and improbability of these events; the accident set pieces are the series’ signature. Arguably, though, these films, and other examples like Tenebrae , are amplifying a more widespread horror tendency. The use of coincidences and turns of fate reflects the genre’s roots in melodrama and the gothic. Even Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) relies on multiple chance occurrences to get Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) to the Bates Motel. First, Marion has the opportunity to steal the $40,000. Then, the anxious tone of much of her journey is established when her boss (Vaughn Taylor), whom she had told that she was going home with a headache, sees her on her way out of town. This motivates Marion to drive until she has to pull over to sleep, which attracts the attentions of a highway patrolman, the first character to mention staying at a motel. Finally, it starts raining heavily; the driving conditions incline Marion to follow the patrolman’s suggestion and the Bates Motel happens to be the first that she sees.

These examples suggest that it may not always be possible to distinguish definitively between supernatural and non-supernatural horror. For Carroll, non-supernatural horror is not horror at all. His theory controversially excludes examples like Psycho because Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is “not a monster. He is a schizophrenic, a type of being that science countenances” ( 1990 , 38). For a work to qualify as horror, Carrol requires not only the presence of the supernatural, but the supernatural specifically in the central monstrous figure. Matt Hills proposes replacing Carroll’s “entity-based model” of horror with “a primarily event-based one” ( 2003 , 139). Hills cites examples of horror films, including The Haunting and The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999) in which,

…either a) […] the issue of whether a monstrous agency is at work remains open, since narrative events indicating this may be imagined or coincidental, and/ or b) where a monstrous agency cannot be reduced to any given ‘entity’ (i.e., where it is represented as a transcendent force not defined by limits of embodiment, spatiality, temporality, or by recognisably ‘theological’ explanation). ( Hills 2003 , 146)

Hills’ argument seems to shift from claiming that “ events are in fact the only necessary and sufficient conditions of art-horror ” ( 2003 , 143, emphasis in original) to presenting his event-based approach as an extension of or complement to Carroll’s theory; he specifically refers to Event Horizon (Paul W.S. Anderson, 1997) as “providing an instance of entity-based horror being supplemented by event-based horror.” ( 2003 , 152) Nevertheless, Hills usefully highlights the benefits of broadening some of Carroll’s requirements. If we recognize that “disturbances of the natural order” ( Carroll 1990 , 16) need not be specifically located in the monster or killer and can be found elsewhere, Carroll’s conception of the genre can encompass more works that are usually recognized as horror.

The criterion of the supernatural, more broadly construed, can still be helpful in highlighting the extraordinary qualities shown or suggested by many human monsters in horror. Carroll already points in this direction, acknowledging examples in which, “though nominally the antagonists belong to our everyday world, their presentation in the fictions they inhabit turn them effectively into fantastical beings” ( 1990 , 37). If Carroll can argue that Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and its sequels are horror films because their monsters “seem too smart and innovative to be sharks” (ibid.), then a similar case can be made for something like Halloween , in which Michael Myers survives being shot six times and falling from a balcony. Such a feat may not be medically impossible, but it is enough of a departure from ordinary-world expectations to “breach the norms of ontological propriety presumed by the positive human characters in the story” ( Carroll 1990 , 16). This breach is compounded by the implication that Myers’ survival is somehow linked to his malevolence; the two should be unrelated, but the narrative context makes it seem as if Myers withstands damage in order to continue killing.

Even if a human antagonist is not capable of anything obviously out of the ordinary, they will often inhabit a world that seems to skew toward cruelty and mayhem. For Robin Wood, this is part of what gives The Texas Chain Saw Massacre “the authentic quality of nightmare”:

I have had since childhood a recurring nightmare whose pattern seems to be shared by a very large number of people within our culture: I am running away from some vaguely terrible oppressors who are going to do dreadful things to me; I run to a house or a car, etc., for help; I discover its occupants to be precisely the people I am fleeing. This pattern is repeated twice in Massacre , where Sally ‘escapes’ from Leatherface first to his own home, then to the service station run by his father. ( Wood 1986 , 90)

Nothing that Leatherface and his family do is scientifically impossible, but their hostile endeavors are repeatedly aided by coincidence. Their victims are brought to them by chance; when these victims try to escape, their route leads them back once again.

A depicted world that resembles a more actively malevolent version of the ordinary world may indeed be more effectively menacing than one in which there is an obvious supernatural entity. In her discussion of The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), Cynthia Freeland relates this extension or distortion of the ordinary world to the uncanny:

Watching it, we feel strange and displaced; our sense of the world and its basic structures, and our ordinary ways of dividing things into good or evil, become unhinged. Such a feeling is at the core of why the film belongs to the horror genre. To feel we are not at home in the world, or to glimpse the truth that it might be evil in its core, is horrifying. ( 2007 , 56)

The horror that Freeland describes comes from a shift away from ordinary expectations. Watching the film, we can see the extent of this shift and adjust our expectations as events progress. Many horror characters, being more directly involved in those events, are not in the position to make the same adjustments. Supernatural horror films frequently feature sceptics and non-believers, characters who refuse to accept the phenomena that we in the audience have often been clearly shown. If the presence of the overtly supernatural is difficult for many characters to recognize and assimilate, the ambiguously or borderline supernatural, or even simply the unlikely, may be more so. Many horror characters are overtaken by circumstances for which they are not ready. To return to Williams’ “too early” temporality, we could say that horror characters are new to the hostile world in which they find themselves. Even if it is where they have lived their entire lives, it becomes something threatening and unfamiliar.

Whether reality is transformed or some hidden aspect of it merely revealed, the horror world is experienced by its characters as something unexpected. Horror films often address a knowledgeable audience, drawing on their awareness of generic conventions and precedents. Conversely, horror characters rarely know that they are in a horror film.

Of course, there can also be characters with prior knowledge of unusual threats. However, these Van Helsing figures are still often caught off-guard, for example in Halloween , when Dr. Loomis is waiting for Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) outside the hardware store. Loomis looks nervously around, but only in front of him and to each side. Meanwhile, behind him, Michael Myers drives past in a stolen car. The shot is composed so that Loomis is in the foreground; we cannot see what he is looking at, but we can see the road. Loomis misses what is presented as obvious to us.

Loomis’ ignorance in this moment is displayed so prominently that it feels like a gag. Something similar could be said of, for instance, the earlier example from The Boogeyman , where Peter and Caroline assume that Jenny and Andy are kissing and leave them to it. In both cases, the gap between the information available to audience and characters creates an arguably comic tension. As already noted, Deborah Thomas argues that comedic characters show a relative lack of awareness of the kind of world they inhabit ( 2000 , 12); Thomas also suggests that the narrative worlds of comedy are often further removed from “the world in which we live” ( 2000 , 22) than those in her other principal category of melodrama. In these respects, at least, many modern horror movies correspond more closely to Thomas’ conception of the comedic.

While horror films often rely on the contrast between the malevolent world depicted and the world to which the characters are accustomed, some also include characters for whom this contrast is less pronounced. Even if they have never previously encountered such unusual dangers, these characters may be more familiar with persecution, unfair odds, and a lack of protection. As this description suggests, characters like this can bring out the political resonances in horror material. A famous example is Ben (Duane Jones) in Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968). The film’s only black character, Ben emerges as its hero through his courage and resourcefulness. R.H.W. Dillard describes him as “an intelligent and vital man caught in bad circumstances” ( 1973 , 19). Dillard also refers to Ben as “a working man”; this inference seems to come from Ben being “good with his hands” (ibid). Ben is undoubtedly practical; this is highlighted in his repurposing of furniture to board up the windows of the house in which much of the film is set. However, the origins of his skills remain ambiguous. Ben arrives in a pickup truck, a working man’s vehicle, but it is subsequently revealed that he found the truck at a local diner and is not wholly confident driving or refueling it. While, as an African American man in the late 1960s, Ben is more likely to be from a working-class background—between 1966 and 1968, only 15% of black Americans identified themselves as middle class ( Besharov 2005 , 9)—we are given few definite indications of his employment or socio-economic circumstances.

However, as the lone black character in an otherwise white group, Ben does come from a different social world. The film does not presume to define the nature of this difference, but there are repeated hints in Ben’s interactions with the rest of the group that his everyday experiences have differed from theirs in important ways. Matthew Eng argues that Duane Jones’ performance

…sneaks in subtextual insights about the lived, concessionary realities of being a Black man in America that are unexpressed in the words of Romero and cowriter John Russo’s screenplay. ( 2021 )

Eng’s examples are from Ben’s interactions with Barbra (Judith O’Dea), but his disagreements with Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) over the best ways to remain safe suggest something similar. Harry is dismissive of Ben’s preferred strategy, repeatedly calling him “crazy” and “insane,” and Ben quickly recognizes that Harry will not be persuaded. While Tom (Keith Wayne) persists in trying to reason with Harry, Ben gives up on his cooperation. The impatience with which he urges Tom to “just let him go” reflects the urgency of the situation but also suggests that Ben is accustomed to having his authority treated as illegitimate.

The film presents Ben as the more dynamic figure, in contrast to Harry’s stubbornness. While the casting of Jones as Ben is said to have been “colour blind” ( Dyer 1988 , 59), the ethnicities of the two actors emphasize a difference in backgrounds which may inform their difference in attitudes. Ben recognizes that the situation is precarious and that resources need to be protected: “…if I stay up here, I’m fighting for everything up here, and the radio and the food is part of what I’m fighting for!” Harry responds with outraged entitlement: “We’ve got to have food down there; we’ve got a right!” While Ben retains some faith in social support systems, saying at one point that “Sooner or later someone’s bound to come and get us out,” it does not seem unduly speculative to suggest that he might be more practiced in fending for himself, without all the protections that a middle-aged white man like Harry can take more readily for granted. For whatever reasons, Ben is better equipped to function from the less assured position in which horror characters often find themselves.

This aspect of Night of the Living Dead connects to Nicholas Whittaker’s recent reflections on black horror movies. Whittaker proposes that,

…what these films are showing us is not that black people are horrifying, but that blackness is horrifying: that being black is horrifying ; that it feels scary, to be black. ( 2021 , emphasis in original)

Whittaker’s remarks suggest larger parallels between the experiences depicted in horror movies and the real-life experiences of black people: “black horror presents us with the horror of black life.” (ibid.) However, Whittaker considers this insufficient on its own, arguing that much of the value of black horror comes from its ability to provide

…the emotional register that most dutifully captures what antiblackness is, where that entails accepting its incomprehensibility , its monstrosity in addition to its danger. This is what these films offer: a rare opportunity to truly feel the weight of antiblackness , to truly grasp it : namely, by realizing that we cannot truly grasp it , that it feels too big to grasp, that it outstrips our capabilities. ( Whittaker 2021 , emphasis in original)

Whittaker stresses the specific context of antiblack oppression, but the wider conception of horror underpinning his arguments resembles that advanced by Freeland in relation to “uncanny horror” ( 2000 , 216), “natural horror” ( 2007 , 65) and “art-dread” ( Carroll 1990 , 42, 42; Freeland 2004 , 193). Like Whittaker, Freeland emphasizes the importance of the incomprehensible in horror. She identifies, for example, an “ultimate resistance to logic” in The Birds ( 2007 , 67). For both Freeland and Whittaker, this capacity to elude a full or satisfying explanation is part of what distinguishes horror from other ways of depicting danger and threat:

Horror is not just fear of the dangerous; it is fear of the fundamentally unknown and crucially, unknowable ; it is fear of that which we cannot fit into any concept. ( Whittaker 2021 , emphasis in original)

However, while this characterization of horror works well for films that emphasize the uncanny, or highlight certain political resonances, many horror movies offer apparently adequate explanations for the threats that they present. To return to a previous example, it is made clear in the Final Destination series that characters who escape an accident in which they were destined to die will fall victim to other accidents instead, dying in the original intended order. This is scientifically impossible and rather bizarre, but perfectly comprehensible. The pan-determinism at work in many horror movies expands the range of causes that can have effects in the fictional world. These causes can be strange and surprising, but can also often be made understandable within the story.

The incomprehensibility to which Whittaker refers comes not from horror movies, but from real life; horror movies provide an effective way of articulating it. Drawing on Afropessimist theories, Whittaker argues that black people, in America and elsewhere, inhabit

…a world where reality (namely, the reality of antiblack violence, which ultimately structures reality in a more general sense) is unmoored from reasons or explanations. As such, reality becomes unintelligible, (un)structured by the fundamental incoherence of gratuitous violence. ( 2022 , 30)

In my argument, I have stressed the fundamental differences in perspective between fictional characters and non-fictional audiences. Whittaker’s argument reminds us that, despite this, horror movies can still provide powerful ways to evoke forms of real-life experience. Unlike Whittaker, I would not argue that the incomprehensible is an essential component to horror, but I acknowledge it as an available approach within the genre, and among the most effective. Even if we should not always expect horror characters to behave as we would, the genre can be used to highlight aspects of the non-fictional world that are overwhelmingly monstrous.

The ending of Night of the Living Dead functions in this way. As if to confirm that facing a horror movie scenario is less of a drastic change for Ben than it is for other characters, he is finally killed not by the living dead, but by members of a local posse who mistake him for a ghoul. With Ben’s death, the threat in the film shifts from the supernatural to the everyday. The shooting of a black man by a group of white police and civilians, and the subsequent burning of his body, bear an uncomfortable resemblance to real-life racist violence. This is emphasized by the use of stills over the end credits, so that the disposal of Ben’s body appears to have been documented in journalistic photographs. Ben survives the horror world (again, we see the shifting temporality of horror here—its generic world can appear, and also sometimes recede unexpectedly) but is still not safe when the ordinary world reasserts itself.

Another film in which a character has been prepared for the extraordinary malevolence of the horror world by more familiar forms of cruelty and injustice is the recent version of The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell, 2020). Having escaped an abusive relationship, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) is so cautious and vigilant that she appears paranoid. Her paranoia is shown to be justified, however, as Cecilia is stalked and persecuted by Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the man she had previously escaped, who has developed a high-tech suit that makes its wearer invisible.

Cecilia’s heightened awareness, caused by trauma, is treated reflexively; it is almost as if she knows that she is in a horror movie. This is suggested partly through the film’s persistent identification of Adrian both with its own camera and with cameras more broadly. He takes pictures of Cecilia while she is sleeping, and his invisibility suit is made up of hundreds of tiny cameras that also act as screens or projectors. The most direct connection, however, is expressed through the repeated depiction of Adrian’s unseen presence through a mobile, roaming camera. The moving camera, depicting the killer’s point-of-view as he stalks his victims, has established associations in horror, especially in slasher movies, following the distinctive use of Steadicam in the opening of Halloween . Hypersensitized by Adrian’s past abuse, Cecilia quickly suspects that he has returned, and several times her awareness of his presence resembles awareness of the camera itself. This is initially ambiguous, with Cecilia looking in different directions and the camera moving around her, as if trying to avoid her gaze, but becomes more overt as the film progresses. In the scene outside the psychiatric hospital, Cecilia looks to each side before her eyes settle on something directly in front of her. The film then cuts to an apparently empty space, in which Adrian (or possibly his brother and co-conspirator Tom [Michael Dorman]—it is not always clear who is using the suit at which point) then becomes visible. Cecilia seems to find her persecutor by finding the camera.

At the end, having used a second invisibility suit to kill Adrian, Cecilia walks up the steps from his house. Once again, her eyes move to one side and the other, before looking almost straight at the camera. She holds the look for a moment and then closes her eyes, at which point the film ends. This concluding shot of Cecilia conveys both confidence and relief; her gaze is strong and direct, but she can finally relax her vigilance. She retains her awareness, but it is no longer so strongly associated with Adrian. The removal of this vindictive, highly personal threat marks the end of Cecilia’s experience as a horror movie character.

Cecilia in The Invisible Man and Ben in Night of the Living Dead are characters that we are encouraged to admire. Part of what is presented as admirable is their ability to function in circumstances that perplex and overwhelm other characters. Their appeal may also be reinforced by the simple fact that their perspective is closer to ours in the audience. However, a separation is still maintained between our understanding and theirs. While Cecilia seems closer than the other characters in The Invisible Man to knowing that she is in a horror movie, this is never pushed to the point of full awareness. This would require the film to adopt a different register, with wider ramifications.

To know for certain that you are a fictional character in a horror movie would surely be the source of its own kind of horror. A rare example is the ending of In the Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter, 1994). Amid an unfolding apocalypse, John Trent (Sam Neill) enters a cinema playing a film called In the Mouth of Madness , an adaptation of the mysterious novel whose author he had previously been investigating. The film that John watches is explicitly connected to the film in which we see him; they share not only the same title but, according to the poster outside the cinema, the same director, writer, and production company. What we see of the film-within-a-film consists of previous moments of action and lines of dialogue involving John. John’s response to seeing that his own life is a horror movie, which he is somehow able to watch, is first to laugh manically and then to wince and throw his head back in despair. Like Cecilia, John ends the film with his eyes closed. Here, however, it is not a moment of repose, in which the protagonist no longer has to endure being a horror movie character, but rather an indication that knowing that he is a horror movie character is more than he can endure.

The ending of In the Mouth of Madness is an unusual example; horror movie characters are rarely confronted directly with their fictionality and the nature of their generic world. Access to such knowledge is usually restricted to a film’s audience. This distinction, which I have been trying to stress throughout my argument, is fundamental to the experience of most fiction. The malevolent worlds depicted in horror movies highlight the contrast particularly starkly; we observe these worlds from a safe distance, never fully inhabiting them ourselves. This has been acknowledged in theories of horror, and of fiction more broadly. Distinctions like those made by Carroll between “natural horror” and “art-horror” ( 1990 , 12) and by Walton between “genuine fear” and “quasi-fear” ( 1990 , 196) seek to define the difference between how we might experience the horrifying in life and in fiction.

If we have the privilege of being able to enjoy in fiction what would be unconscionable in reality, we also have the responsibility of treating these fictions appropriately. First, we must recognize them as fiction, and acknowledge that our viewpoint on the worlds they depict is likely to be quite different to the viewpoints that are possible inside these worlds. Further, we must recognize horror as fiction of a specific kind that provokes some expectations (for example, about the likelihood of multiple, targeted threats) and downplays others (for example, about the usefulness of most forms of prior knowledge and preparation). Acknowledging such distinctions can help us not only to avoid being overly harsh in our judgments of movies and their characters, but also to be more responsive in those areas where we are not asked to suspend our real-life concerns.

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