A helpless college student walks apprehensively to a door at the end of a dimly lit hallway. She reaches for the door, which opens with a creak, and steps into the dark. Suddenly, a deranged psychopath jumps out of nowhere and bludgeons her with an axe. The audience screams and the cycle continues.
This is America’s addiction to horror movies.
The thrill of fear attracts millions of movie-goers to the theaters every year. Last year alone, more than 40 million people bought tickets to get terrified by movies like Saw V and I am Legend.
Since the early 20th century, horror films like The Hunchback (1910) have entertained and frightened audiences with their depictions of monsters ostracized by society. With the birth of special effects, producers began focusing on depictions of the supernatural, such as zombies, aliens and demons.
Horror films are usually classified under three categories. There are the horror-of-personality films like Psycho and Halloween, which often show tragic and tormented characters who take their anger out on society, usually on unsuspecting teenagers. Then there are the demonic horror flicks like The Exorcist that usually resemble many couples’ first year of parenthood with a lot of unearthly screaming and projectile vomiting. And who could forget the Armageddon movies like Dawn of the Dead, with hordes of hungry zombies hobbling after a few survivors?
Coping with the frightful scenes
People deal with fear from movies in many ways. Some scream, cry or use the “fear filter” of covering their eyes and ears. “I get really nervous in a scary movie,” said sophomore Kylie Miller. “I bite my nails, scream, jump and hide behind my coat.”
Others, like senior Stacey Person, try to find the humor in the horror to make it seem less scary. “When the scary part comes, I just laugh,” he said.
The adrenaline rush from watching a suspenseful scene attracts millions to the theaters and is part of what psychologists call the “fight or flight” response. Your heart starts pounding in your ears and you grip the arms of the theater chair, sticky from spilled Pepsi. Some people even run out of the cinema.
Local clinical psychologist Susan Toole, Ph.D., thinks part of the appeal is that people can experience fear in a controlled environment. “They aren’t in a true situation, so it’s almost like they can master that fear,” she said.
Toole also thinks America’s culture has become used to excessive amounts of violence on TV and in movies. “Sometimes people get addicted to the adrenaline rush of fear.”
Enjoying the relief at the end — if you can
The thrill of the fright is clearly the main attraction of horror films. “It’s like when you first ride a rollercoaster,” said senior Tonea Pope. “There’s that feeling when you get out where you think, ‘I want to do that again!’”
The best part for some is the relief as the end credits roll in and the suspense rolls out. But for most, the fear doesn’t stop there. “Afterwards, when you’re trying to go to sleep, you hear every noise in your room,” said sophomore Briahna Shifflett.
After seeing a horror film, a person’s mind is usually still in a mode of apprehension and fear, so everyday things that people might never pay attention to become surefire signs of a “slasher” at the door. Take the branch tapping against the window in the wind. Could it be a mutant zombie coming to eat your brains?
Many, including Shifflett, had trouble getting the recent horror hit, Paranormal Activity, out of their heads when it was over. “Oh, my God!” Shifflett said. “That scared the crap out of me!”
Even though they are dismissed as “B movies” and get a bad rep from many critics, there seems to be something in those “slasher” horror films that America loves. It could be the thrill and the action or the gore and violence. But it could always be those loveable and familiar horror villains like Hannibal Lecter or Leatherface.
Or that masked-ax man behind you right now.