A Study On Fear And Pleasure In The Horror Film

Personal note:
I’ve made my way through a lot of research and in reading these various sources I have noticed the trend of objectivity when dealing with their subject matter.  Since all writing is from a subjective and individualistic viewpoint I have decided to write to (you) the reader.  I do have a bias against me; I am a fan so therefore I will defend the horror genre till the end of time, so I thought my writing should reflect this.

A study on fear and pleasure within the horror film

            “Everyone is entitled to one good scare.” - John Carpenter's Halloween

            When I was five years old my brother and I sat down and watched Halloween 4: the return of Michael Myers, and when the film faded to black and the credits began to roll my brother and I finally regained pigment in our skin.  I have always thought the world of my brother and watching a ‘scary movie‘ with him was a big deal, so when we were watching Michael slice and dice Haddenfield to get to his niece I was unable to turn away - for fear of being caught.  I probably could have closed my eyes and he would have never known, but I was amazed at some of the images I was seeing.  I may have been scared before watching Halloween 4 but that film gave fear its name, I knew that I was petrified simply because I had watched a movie.  I made the connection between the film and the emotion; a rather simple statement now, but when you’re five, fear tends to be correlated with something indefinable, or for no reason at all.  Of course, like most kids growing up in the eighties I was told the first day I sat in front of ‘the babysitter’ that everything I saw was make-believe.  So I wasn’t under any disillusion when I saw Michael Meyers, but even though I knew it was fake it still evoked an emotional experience that I have been addicted to ever since.

            I might be able to pinpoint the moment in which I realized film holds a certain power over its viewers, but now I want to find out why I get pleasure from the horror genre.  Is there something innate inside us that finds gratification through dread?  Is it curiosity of the forbidden?  Is it the ability to live through our greatest of fears, such as death?  What is it that excites us when we see a decapitation, or one human eating another?  These are questions that have been stirring inside me for years.  So I began doing research, collecting different documentaries, books, and articles to find some satisfying answer to these queries. 

           “The horror film has consistently been one of the most popular and at the same times most disreputable of Hollywood genres...  It is restricted to aficionados and complemented by total rejection, people tend to go to horror films either obsessively or not at all.  (Robin Wood, The American Nightmare, p.13)”

     It was opening night of Rob Zombie’s House of a 1000 Corpses, a film that had been turned down by most distributors for being too gruesome.  It was said that it would never be able to receive a theatrical release, unless Zombie cut out the gore.  Lion’s Gate finally picked it up and allowed most of the scenes the other companies wanted Zombie to remove.  Finally after years of waiting, the most anticipated horror film of the last decade was at a theater near you.  

     You waited patiently to buy a ticket, overhearing bits and pieces that had been rumored in Fangoria, information was traded like baseball cards by other patrons waiting in line.  You finally got inside and were on your way to see what all the hype had been about.  You found a seat and again waited.  The theater lights dimmed and the projector started, you watched the worthless commercials for Pepsi and were told to join the Army, and then previews that enticed you to come back to the theater the following week.  Finally, the film begins and your heart is bouncing in your chest.  By the credit sequence, if you’re not completely excited to see an hour and a half of what could only be a Rob Zombie creation then you have never given in to the ultimate sensory experience that horror films can be.

            All films should be seen in a theater, because it is in that dark room that you can truly become a part of the film.  You engage with the film more often than not, because of the atmosphere inside the windowless room.  You sit in the dark with people all around you waiting to hear a campfire story, yet the film is individually yours to enjoy.  You stare at the images and listen to the soundtrack and through your own personal experiences, end up seeing a completely different film than the person sitting next to you.  In horror films it is the ability to “give in” to what your senses perceive, to fully understand the narrative.  No matter how often you tell yourself throughout the duration of the film that, “none of this is real,” by the end you have forced yourself consciously or unconsciously to believe in its reality in order to make sense of the story line.  This is one way in which we gain pleasure from the horror film; it is a cognitive pleasure that results from simply following out the narrative.  This form of pleasure is relative to all film experiences, not just the horror genre, so therefore it does not answer why horror, in particular, is so fascinating.

            “Reality is something that none of us can stand, at anytime.” - Alfred Hitchcock (The Listener, August 6, 1964:190)
            Horror films have depicted some of the most horrendous atrocities that have ever been seen by the human eye.  We’ve watched decapitations, stabbings, genital mutilation, flesh eating, humiliation, shootings, hangings, drowning in outhouses, humans being flayed, eyes gouged, chainsaws cutting through the handicapped, suicides, viruses, spiders crawling out of corpses and a myriad of other wretched deeds.  The list continues to grow since a rule of thumb within these movies is that it is never enough just to kill someone, that’s easy and boring to see.  As Steven Jay Schneider wrote in his essay, Murder as Art/The Art of Murder: Aestheticizing Violence in Modern Cinematic Horror, “When the human or near-human monster that populates many horror films turn murder into an artistic product, performance, or a combo of both, consumers of these fictions are once again encouraged, occasionally forced, to acknowledge a side of themselves they normally keep hidden, even from themselves - a side that enjoys, appreciates, and admires the display of creative killings.” (pp.190-1).”  To murder in a horror film has always been an art form, to display a kill that has never been seen before.  This is either to keep the genre fresh for economic reasons, or to compensate for the audience’s potential boredom.  Let’s face the facts, what other genre of film is put together at the lowest of cost to produce the most profit?  Horror films since the Universal monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein have been produced mostly independently with large financial success.  Audiences have consistently attended these films through the decades, each uprising of horror bloodier than the last.  This genre keeps its audiences on their feet, because once the viewers become bored, horror has the potentiality of dying.  This is why my hypothesis has always been: horror is a progressive genre no matter how influenced by the past it may be.  It continues to engage its audiences, either by making someone turn away, gag, or laugh, but no matter which reaction a person may have the fact that they are reacting is what the genre goes for.  Robin Wood says the genre is just for aficionados, and for those obsessive viewers that potentially believe they have seen all the great deaths already.  It is this mindset that comes with being a fan.  But as the years pass and computer generated effects begin to play a pivotal role in all films; there are no limits to the art of film murder.

            It has been hypothesized by Robin Wood and Roger Ebert that “any latter-day horror fan is tantamount to announcing that you too are a monster.”  Monster is a harsh label for a group of people who enjoy watching films that stimulate us intellectually, physically, and emotionally.  Isn’t that the whole point of film, to spark something within us that wasn’t previously there, to give us a new idea to ponder, to identify with one of the characters and feel what they feel, and even the highest goal a film could accomplish: to cause an audience member to walk out of the theater a completely different person.  There is no understanding that a film within the mystery genre usually involves a very methodically planned murder, and no one walks out waiting for the day that he or she, can become a methodical monster.  Yet, at the same time I realize the point they are trying to convey; how can you watch all that blood and gore, and enjoy it?  This is my question also.

            Noel Carroll is a leading film theorist who has been as influential to the study of horror films as Sigmund Freud has (which will be detailed later).  Carroll writes, “the disclosure of the existence of the horrific being and of its properties is the central source of pleasure in the genre; once the process of revelation is consummated, we remain inquisitive about whether such a creature can be successfully confronted, and that narrative question sees us through to the end of the story (pp.6-7 of Dark Thoughts).”  Personally I only see the cognitive aspect of the horror film as one of the pleasures that can be found within the genre.  As one of the pleasures it works on a deep level within us, there is a certain satisfaction in following out the narrative and giving ourselves to a story.  Carroll goes on to state, “curiosity is an appetite of the mind; with horror, that appetite is whetted by the prospect of knowing the putatively unknowable, and then satisfied through a continuous process of revelation, enhanced by imitation of proofs, hypotheses, counterfeits of casual reasoning, and explanations whose details and movement intrigue the mind in ways analogous to genuine ones (7).”  We watch the story unfold; usually with horror films it begins with a murder to grab the viewer’s attention.  The actual ‘thing’ that murders is not revealed until later, and when the viewer finally sees it; we try to explain its existence.  
            The original Halloween, begins in a point of view shot and it is not until a woman is stabbed we hear his name, ‘Michael.’  Then we are shown that it is an eight-year-old boy.  As an audience, we knew the creature by his name, now we try to figure out his motives for killing his sister.  As we try to figure it out, Donald Pleasance comes into the film to give his hypothesis of Michael.  Through him we are told that there was nothing behind that child’s eyes.  When he escapes we are already captivated by him and want to understand him even more, and through his babysitter killing spree we are able to somewhat comprehend his actions.  We don’t know why he is killing, but we know that he is after a certain 17-year-old (Jamie Lee Curtis).  This confuses us, and we want to know how it will end.  We are intellectually caught in the narrative and must satisfy our curiosity.  Carroll goes on, “pleasure is derived from the disclosure of the unknown and impossible beings, just the sort of things that call for proof, discovery, and confirmation.  Therefore the disgust that such beings evince might be seen as the price to be paid for the pleasure of their disclosure (7).”  To watch a horror film one must entertain the thought that, what is happening is real in order to follow the story.  So how do we actively detach ourselves from reality, and still have the ability to be enchanted by the horrific images on the screen?  It is not as if we close our eyes during the brutality then open them back up for the plot.  Everyone has a different reaction to what they see, but a lot of horror fans cheer at the ‘kill scene, ‘ I am usually one of those people.  It doesn’t mean that I believe in what I see, because if I believed in the images and cheered at the death that would make me Robin Wood’s ‘monster.’  So it means that there is definitely more going on in a horror film then a simple cognitive pleasure in following along with the plot.

            In Terror and Everyday Life: Singular Moments in the History of the Horror Film Jonathan Lake Crane writes, “When audience members engage with a horror film they are not enjoying the visions that respond to everyday fears; they are responding to atavistic terrors nearly as old as the reptilian brain (pg.25).”  Simply put, we are not engaged by a horror film that depicts a mugging, or the fear of not having a job, or the fear of dying lonely, but instead we are responding to fears that have been latent inside us since the beginning of the human species.  Freud wrote in, “The Uncanny” that when we see something horrible in a film what we are scared of is, “nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression (p.241).”  We can continue to say that maybe horror films satisfy some of our repressed needs or desires.  Thus, as we are cognitively deriving pleasure from the plot, we are also working out our demons by watching a blood bath. 
            I am not convinced with most of Freud’s theories.  Noel Carroll and Sigmund Freud are the two leading writers that have significantly changed the way horror films are seen by most theorists.  Freud’s sexual studies are probably the most useful when discussing horror.  Freud’s notion of the uncanny included horror films as mythic responses to pubescent angst.  James B. Twitchell continued further by writing, “as sexual desire grows or, more accurately, ceases to be successfully repressed or sublimated, the adolescent finds him- or herself overwhelmed by some very powerful and very mystifying urges.  Society answers this confusion with appropriate instruction in how to deal with nascent sexual desire via the horror film (pg.25 Terror And Everyday Life).”  Most parents have a tough time talking to their adolescent about sex, but the main point many parents try to make is, wait till your ready or older.  In horror films it has been a trend to kill off all of the extremely sexual characters and let the virgin destroy the beast.  For example, in Friday the 13th Pamela Voorhees kills every camp counselor on Crystal Lake because her son drown while two councilors were having sex.  In the end it is the repressed virgin who prevails and kills Jason‘s mother, proving virtue in chastity, which does not sound like Twitchell’s viewpoint.  Twitchell also writes, “all images of scary fiends are generated by society to calm adolescent anxiety over sexual maturation (12).”  To me this makes no sense, it is always the repressed teen who makes it out of the cabin alive, or the house, or the prom.  If anything, horror films request teens to not engage in drugs or sex, because the benefit of actually babysitting the kids instead of partying is you get to live.  Walter Evans, author of Monster Movies: a sexual theory, finds cinematic monsters to be a incarnation of ageless adolescent fears, Evans thinks this because teen fears, “arise from the monster’s overwhelming sense of alienation; totally an outcast, he painfully embodies the adolescent’s fear of being hated and hunted by the society he desperately wishes to join (pg.55).”  This theory seems to originate from the classic Frankenstein films, where all the monster really wants, is to be like everyone else.  This can also be seen in modern horror.  Jason Voorhees wanted to be just like one of the campers, but because of his deformities he was ostracized and drown when know one was watching.  He comes out of the lake a killer, seeking revenge for the misdeeds done to him and his mother.  Freddy Krueger, was seen as an outcast (Freddy’s Dead) and lead a very abused and repressed life.  He decided to victimize the children of Springwood to get the parents back.  This is in no way defending these monsters, but showing how a part of them reflects the way most angst ridden teenagers feel.  In Freud’s ’the uncanny’ he writes, “when we are frightened by a story or image, we are in fact, really haunted by either infancy or superstitious beliefs inherited from our “primitive forefathers (pp248-249).”

            Walter Evans says the monsters are our adolescent fears, and Freud says we can relate to horror films because they reach into our deeply rooted repression, but neither of these theories truly helps to identify why we want to see more.  Also by emphasizing Freud and unconscious repression, “we dismiss the possibility that horror films say something about popular epistemology, about the status of contemporary community, or about the fearsome power of modern technology (Crane 29).”  We forget that horror films are not only a form of entertainment, but like every film there is an attempt at social commentary.  This can be seen within the science fiction/horror films that were released during WWII that featured insects reacting to radiation.  These films showed the real life fear of the atomic age.  Then, during Vietnam a string of films, such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead, came out that retaliated against the war by saying that we ourselves are the monsters, not the country we were fighting.  “Through the dark glass of the horror film we can learn who we are (28).”  We can learn how destructive our species can be, and how we have the tendency to be horrifying ourselves.

            Some see horror films as destructive to our society, yet entertainment has revolved around blood and violence for centuries.  We are a destructive society, horror films reflect this, not evoke it.  “Watching a horror film is a reality check; it is the entertainment equivalent of flipping on CNN’s headline news for the latest tragedy or scanning monotonously bleak headlines over black coffee and an apple Danish (8).”  The pleasure of the horrifying almost seems like a part of us: we used to watch gladiators tested and killed, we’ve watched bullfights, extreme sports, boxer’s biting opponents ears off, car chases, and murderers declared not guilty.  “Each afford an arena for the performance of endeavor and struggle - a mise-en-scene for heroism fear and anguish in the face of mutilation and death, or its possibility, within a temporal frame, thus giving rise to suspense (27 Angela Curran Dark Thoughts).“ We are a violent society and always have been, is it so impossible to believe that we can take pleasure in fake violence?  Crane says, “living in a violent time has not diminished our taste for blood.  Instead of seeking relief from a surfeit of violence, many of us have opted to celebrate entertainment that makes a virtue of attempting to surpass any crazed act of real everyday slaughter (1).”  He believes it to be insane of us to enjoy watching fiction.  I have written a lot about engaging with the horror film, and how to engross yourself with it, but no matter how much you bond with the film it is still make believe and as an audience we know that.  Within a world of complete chaos, with the population rise, greenhouse effect, toxic waste, acid rain, cancer, deforestation, famine, natural disasters and extinction of plant and animal life; grisly visions of death are thrown at us from all directions, we are scared to breathe the air or turn on our microwave - we are scared to be alive.  This tends to desensitize us when it comes to the media, it often allows for entertainment in whatever form to become a cathartic and visceral experience.  We purge our fears by seeing fictitious characters slaughtered in various fashions, yet we as viewers are still able to walk out of the theater.  What is better than seeing our worst fears projected in front of us and living through them?  We are a society infatuated with death, it is the end, the great unknown, and doesn’t it serve a purpose to be captivated by it on the silver screen?

            I’ve mentioned the word, death; to die.  All of our fears spring from this one word.  Why do we want to find love and marry? So we don’t die alone.  Fear of water is fear of drowning, which is death.  Fear of spiders, fear of a bite, which could cause death.  Fear of failure, dying with regret.  Fear of commitment, fear of dying having only known the touch of one single person.  And so forth.  When we actively watch a horror film, we are participating along with the characters.  We shout don’t go in the basement, or get back up and run, grab the knife, hurry he is right behind you.  We don’t want them to die; we want them to survive.  When a character in a horror film, does everything you would have done in his or her situation, it is as though you have died.  In a film, we are able to vicariously live out our worst of fears and the deepest of our dark desires.  At the end of The Exorcist we all know we would have thrown ourselves out the window too.  We play along, the whole time knowing that it isn’t real, but also trying to envision ourselves in the character’s situation.  This is the fun of horror films.  When a character makes a choice we wouldn’t have, it serves them right to die.  Their stupidity allows for our intelligence.  This goes back to cognitive pleasures and following along.  Elizabeth Cowie suggests,

“That pleasure or satisfaction is dependant on the previous unpleasure in order for a recognizable change in the state of the subject, or organism to be experienced. If you consider the role of suspense in a narrative, we can see the way that a certain unpleasure leads to pleasure, for the suspenseful places us as subject to the anxiety of not knowing the outcome or effect of events already narrated and known.  The suspended answer initiates a path to pleasure in the answer to be known (pg29).”

A well-made horror film will keep the audience on the same roller coaster ride that the characters are on.  It keeps you guessing, how the next victim will die, who the next victim will be, what the monster is, or who will survive? 

            “Successful horror films succeed in horrifying both those who love the horror of horror films and those who loathe the horror, of horror films (pg26).”  To be horrified, or scared, or petrified, or even disgusted by these films means that the director did their job.  In an old campaign for Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left the ad read: To keep from fainting keep repeating to yourself, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie...  People were curious, and the film did really well because it sparked the viewers interest.  Everyone wanted to know how a film could make you faint, how bad was it?  Thus became another reason to see horror films.  It can be seen as an act of machismo; you use the fact that you’ve seen it to make yourself seem more invincible, as if to be scarred by a film is a sign of weakness.  As Mike Quarles writes in his book Down and Dirty: Hollywood’s exploitation filmmakers and their movies, “All of this longing to taste the forbidden fruit was nothing more than a child’s curiosity.  That and the desire to say, I’ve seen it (pg100).”  The rest of the ad campaign for Last House on the Left read: “Yes, you will hate the people who perpetrate these outrages- you should!  But, if a movie - and it is only a movie - can arouse you to such extreme emotion then the film director has succeeded.”  Movies are nothing unless they cause you to feel something, whether it is pain, fear, hatred, love, or lust it doesn’t matter.  If there isn’t any strong emotion created from the film, then it is just wasted celluloid.  Last House on the Left was shot like a documentary - set the camera up and allow the action to unfold.  This made it one of the most realistic horror films of all time.  In addition to my previous point of engaging and being right along side of the characters, I don’t feel anyone could have reacted differently than the girls in Last House on the Left.  They were tortured, raped, humiliated, and murdered.  They tried to run, they tried everything but the gang of villains always stopped them.  If we were in their situation, we would be dead too.  Which is along the lines of Freud, he once suggested, “that every anticipated real danger is accompanied by the fear that one will be unable to deal with it - thus there is anxiety about both the real danger and the anticipated helplessness, which may be more or less realistic (referenced in Elizabeth Cowie’s article The Livid Nightmare: Trauma, Anxiety, and the Ethical Aesthetics of Horror page 31).”  We all have fears, we are all afraid of something, in Last House on the Left nothing could be done on our part to save them, all we could do is watch.  It was uncomfortable and disgusting, but we as the audience lived through it to see justice served at the end.

            In some cases the monster in a horror film can be sympathetic or pitiable, we can understand his plight but also know he is horrifying.  Daniel Shaw author of the article “Power, Horror, and Ambivalence” argues that the monster can evoke a dual response in which viewers admire, the monster’s wielding of power even as they are repulsed by the evil the monster represents.  There is a constant duality we hold with the beast, we watch as it destroys without question or remorse.  He or she has no morals, no ethics, no life other than satisfying their psychotic urges.  We envy the creature; it is our id.  It is terrible and free.  Daniel Shaw also states, “the pleasure we glean from horror films comes from our dual identification with the threatening antagonist and human protagonists in such works.  The astounding feats of the monster or the human psychotic are what most attracts us to them, for they exhibit powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.  It is precisely for this reason that we revel in their penchant for wreaking immeasurable havoc.  Vicariously sharing in their superhuman acts, we are exhilarated and alarmed by our enjoyment of the forbidden (1-12).”  Watching horror films and identifying with the protagonist and envying the antagonist on some level is what makes horror such an interesting genre. 

            Bela Lugosi Jr. once said, “imaginary horror is a way to escape real horror.  It is a safe haven from real horror and takes your mind off of it (USA Today 25 Oct 2001).”  Movies have always been deemed as escapist entertainment, usually when you think about escaping you don’t think about going to Elm St. or seeing chainsaws and machetes, but it is satisfying to get aggression out of your system.  A horror film gets your heart going and pumps pure adrenaline through your veins.  You watch all the fear, paranoia, and death and all of a sudden your life isn’t as bad as you thought it was.  It is true that people use make-believe horror to compensate for real-life horrors. (Robert C. Solomon pg250)  Real life provides hurt, heartache, confusion, anxiety, and insomnia, (to name only a few) all of the same characteristics certain films portray.  When you feel crushed and defeated as a human being, horror films, at least for me let me know that things will be alright.  You live through the worst day of your life and all of a sudden the following days are brighter than you remember they have ever been.  This is what all films, but especially ones in the horror genre, have the ability to do.

            James Pennebaker a psychologist that specializes in trauma, found that those whom suffer trauma need to relive, speak, or write about the experience.  They have shown that writing or talking about one’s traumas allows them to “work through” it. (Opening Up: The healing power of confiding in others (new York: Guilford, 1996:252) Sometimes watching films that seem traumatizing can actually be used to get through your own troubles.  It is always good to know the worst case scenario, so we can take the best course of action.  The entire bases of horror seems to be built upon worst case scenarios, we view these films and know what not to do.  This all relates back to horror as being a cathartic experience.  We can come out of the theater shouting, “wow, that was great! or That was disgusting,” but also truly thinking about the outcomes of every discussion that was made within the duration of the film.  We can then think about our own concerns, and relate the message the film was trying to convey, to our own lives. 

“Fantasies make up for society’s prohibitions by allowing vicarious fulfillment.  Fantasies express libidinal drives towards satisfaction, the libido being that part of the self, which struggles against submitting to the reality principle.”  (Rosemary Jackson Fantasy: the literature of subversion New York: Methuen)

            By looking at different theories on why some people enjoy horror films, we can concur first and foremost that no matter what people hear or read they will either love or hate the genre.  With horror there is no in between, but for those of us who love it there are many unclear answers as to why.  We can either derive pleasure from simply following the plotline, or by watching our repression brought to life, or by disclosure of the unknown, or because it is art and art has a way of freeing us, or by catharsis, or the duality of liking and at the same time being disgusted by the beast, or to get away from reality, or to live through the horrific and survive, or by just the simple stimulation - whether perceived as good or bad - fear can cause.  Horror films are an art form, to create an intense environment in which people can derive pleasure from, takes immense talent.  In most of the films that are considered landmarks of Horror cinema there is more going on than just a bombarding of elicit images to cause distress.  These films show the unrest and repression that society has been dealing with for centuries.  Through symbols and metaphors they speak from our unconscious, and bring to our consciousness the fears that we have always been suffering from.  They help us deal with the terror that occurs everyday.  It gives fear a name, whether it’s Michael Myers or not.  It is the human tendency to let the boogeyman be our scapegoat, so we don’t focus on our own impurities or the darkness that is always right below the surface.           
            Whatever the answer to horror pleasure may be, it seems that in a world as insecure and crazy as this one, at least when you go to a horror film it makes more sense to you and is probably more believable than what is happening outside the ticket window.  I watch horror films to feel freedom from the everyday.  When I sit down in the cave of the theater, I expect to be shocked, disgusted, and if the film is well done maybe even traumatized.  Why do I like these feelings?  Maybe it is the simple fact that I am apathetic toward the real world, and need a fantasy realm in which to purge.  There is a sublime joy that comes with participating in a horror film for me, it doesn’t make me a monster, it doesn’t make me a disturbed individual, it doesn’t make me want to reenact the images I see, it just makes me feel good to know that I can have an intense emotional reaction toward a subject matter that is normally contained underneath the consciousness.

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