There are a number of theories as to why people like to watch scary movies. Of course, some people don’t care for them, and the largest audience for frightening film fare tends to be older teens and people in their early 20s. There are more mature audience members who love the thrills and chills, however, and it’s led many researchers to question why. Some researchers believe that the films represent the decay of society, show the value of staying within societal norms, or allow people to feel fear within a controlled setting.
There are some people who view scary movies, especially gorier films, as a product of society in decay, and the increased interest or need for violence to be sated. This theory bears some scrutiny, and really in the end doesn’t hold much weight. Even the earliest societies had their “monsters” or stories of gods, men and beasts that committed unspeakable horrors. While Hannibal Lector may be nightmarish, so is the House of Atreus in Greek mythology, which references some horrific instances of cannibalism. Even the Bible has its giants, destruction of whole cities and, especially in the Old Testament, a wrathful God who may stomp on the people until his feet are wet with their blood. Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung called these early stories cautionary tales featuring wrathful revenge for those who ventured outside normal societal boundaries.
There’s something to the cautionary tale theory as it relates to movies. Many do seem to depict chaos that occurs when people venture outside of what is considered societal norms. They’ve also been used in the past, especially slasher films, to promote themes of how innocence may prevail. A huge criticism of John Carpenter’s film Halloween was that the only surviving character was virginal and sexually inexperienced. Wes Craven later makes play with this in Scream when teens recite the formula for what will get you killed in a horror film. One of the intrinsic slasher film values is “Don’t have sex.”
Yet scary movies aren’t simply cautionary tales. Others suggest that they are the man's way of experiencing fear in a controlled setting. Such an experience may prove enjoyable, since the fear can be controlled, and is limited to a fictional form of escapism that lasts for a couple of hours. Some see the enjoyment of these films as analogous to riding roller coasters. The thrill of the unknown elevates heart rate and boosts adrenaline, and since the “scares” pose no real threat, they can be processed, laughed about, and enjoyed. Real fear, which humans must face every day, is much more terrifying since it can’t necessarily be controlled, but the catharsis of watching a horror film may be a manner in which people deal with real and not imagined fear.
Some studies suggest that the real draw to scary movies is the feeling of relief when they are over. Other research, especially a 2007 study conducted by Eduardo Andrade and Joel B. Cohen, argues that the reason people like watching horror films is that they are a way to experience both positive and negative emotions simultaneously. At the same time, negative and sometimes absolutely horrific images play across the screen, the person watching the film is also experiencing positive emotions. This dual emotional state may reinforce the need to continue to watch horror films since it is an instance where it is acceptable to feel in two contrary states. Such an explanation might also account for why some people may enjoy films that are very sad.
Whatever the reason, watching frightening movies is likely to remain a constant cultural phenomenon. It has its roots in ancient cultures where oral tales of significant horror could certainly prove terrifying. Since films are a dominant cultural product, the ability for this medium to satisfy perhaps a primal need in some people to be scared is likely to continue.