The Psychology of Terror in the Cinema

According to the psychology of terror, fear is not a particularly pleasant feeling. Rather it is the natural and cultural response that the human being has to respond to situations perceived as dangerous or threatening.

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According to the psychology of terror, fear is not a particularly pleasant feeling. Rather it is the natural and cultural response that the human being has to respond to situations perceived as dangerous or threatening. Therefore, it is a sensation that is usually avoided. So, why are there currently films designed to scare us? And the most unusual of all, why do some people consider them fun and even pleasurable?

The answer to these questions is in the films themselves that seek to generate fear. Horror movies are made with the human psyche in mind. Taking advantage of human instincts, stimulated excitement in the face of danger and playing with culturally constructed fears. Therefore, through the psychology of terror we will see why it can be pleasant to feel that fear that seeks to awaken horror films.

We are all afraid

We have all felt fear at some point in our lives. We have felt vulnerable in the face of danger or simply distressed when thinking of potentially threatening situations. All this because the human being is encoded instinctively to react to danger, either by fleeing or confronting him directly. All this with the aim of increasing the chances of survival.

However, the trigger of fear changes depending on the culture of each individual. Although there are some elements that are constant. The human being is usually afraid of three things: death, the unknown and imposed loneliness. This without denying that there are personal triggers of fear, such as phobias, which are often psychological and social constructions.

It is from these instinctive responses and cultural constructions, in which the filmmakers use to generate fear in horror films. But, this still does not answer why we decided to watch horror movies. This will be answered below.

Why do we like horror movies?

Horror films, to be liked, must keep a certain balance between fear and pleasure. To achieve this they have to follow certain narrative techniques. Techniques that take into account both the psychology of terror and human physiology.

Therefore, the fear created in horror films can not be as real and visceral as real fear. Being more concrete, the viewer feels fear, but without escaping from that which causes fear because in his heart he knows that he faces a fiction. Some more frequent narrative techniques to achieve this effect are:

  • The movie must have enough tension, suspense and mystery. All to generate certain expectations in the viewer, and in this way guarantee their interest until the end of the film.
  • The spectators must feel empathy and compassion for the protagonists of the horror movie. When the protagonist suffers a misfortune the spectator must feel a certain degree of identification with him … Likewise, when the protagonist passes something good the spectator must alleviate himself.
  • The antagonist must be hated and despised by the spectators. The enemy of the film should not generate empathy, rather the opposite. The viewer must feel that everything negative comes from the antagonist and for this reason does not deserve to succeed in its objectives.
  • Ensure that what is shown in the horror film seems unreal or unlikely. For the viewer to be clear that what happens in the film is not real. In this way the viewer can draw the distinction between fiction and reality of which we spoke before.
  • Try to make the end of the horror movie happy or at least satisfactory. That in spite of all the misfortunes shown in the film and the adversities suffered by the protagonist, there is a satisfactory closure or that balances the balance.

The psychological theories used in horror movies

But narrative techniques are not enough to make a horror film a success, they must also use some psychological theories taking advantage of some notions of the psychology of terror.

The most basic of all is positive conditioning. In spite of all the evils that plague the protagonists of horror films, the relief that is felt when they are saved produces a pleasant effect on the spectators. This effect is what most viewers look for when watching a horror movie.

Also some horror movies use the pleasure of punishment. In a study conducted in 1993 it was established that many people enjoyed horror movies, such as Friday the 13th (1980) or Halloween (1978), because they believed that the characters who died killed deserved it. All this satisfying standards of morality of some spectators.

According to the psychology of terror, films that seek to generate fear use much of the unconditioned stimuli that generate fear or shock in human behavior. These stimuli can be loud noises, sudden movements and show extremely strange and amorphous things in unexpected situations.

Finally, we must consider that the effectiveness of horror films depends on the personality of the viewer. There are people who seek to be excited when watching a movie, while others prefer to be relaxed. So horror movies are not for everyone or for all times.