Why We Love (and Need) Horror Movies


Author’s Note: Spoilers for several major horror movies that you should have already seen if you’re bothering to read a piece about horror movies.

Why do we love horror movies so much?

Horror has endured from when Nosferatu (1922) and Psycho (1960) first shocked innocent moviegoers to the recent revivals of Stephen King’s It and Pet Sematary. It’s a genre that consistently pulls in enormous box office numbers and doesn’t ever seem to wear out its welcome.

I have a theory about why we can’t stop watching horror movies.

DISCLAIMER: I am not an expert in horror movies (although, how amazing would that be?). These are my personal thoughts based on movie-watching experience that started with my first time seeing The Birds.

As messed-up as it sounds, I think horror movies are at their core about our human need to know that things will be OK in the end. 

G.K. Chesterton once wrote of Christianity that it “is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game …”

The horror genre in its purest form is structured in the same way. Horror works best within the secure fence of knowing everything will work out in the end for the character of pure heart. Everything imaginable can happen inside that fence, or house, or maze, but the audience has to know that its hero or heroine will survive the darkness. You have to justify putting your protagonist through such agonies by assuring your audience in the final image that he or she has come out on the other side that much stronger.

Horror movies are earnest and real, persisting as a genre in a postmodern world where too much of our attention is occupied by the ephemeral. They tap into something visceral and primal, the human need for survival, but they still call to our humanity and our need for something bigger than the physical world.

It’s telling when movies that ape the horror genre while not abiding by its rules don’t work. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! was marketed as a beautiful-woman-in-a-spooky-house horror flick, but it turned out to be a heavy-handed allegory about climate change. Audiences were not amused

Here is my list of classic horror elements:

  1. A hero who has come into the story with a pure heart and good intentions 
  2. A setting rooted in reality 
  3. An evil (often an exaggerated version of a real fear people have) that must be defeated or at least contained 
  4. Something HORRIFYING
  5. An ending where the hero of pure heart survives and the evil is contained for the present

“Something horrifying” can be either supernatural or next-level-evil from humanity. Examples: body-snatching in Get Out; possession in The Conjuring (and any other demon/exorcism horror flick); and desecration of a dead body and schizophrenia in Psycho.

There are of course some exceptions to the “hero survives / evil is contained” ending that reinforce the rule. Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods is self-aware commentary on the genre that ends in angry gods destroying the world, while Rosemary’s Baby culminates in the overtaking of the pure soul character through an element that’s even stronger: a mother’s love conquering all.

But the horror genre comes back to the classic structure over and over because it works. Everyone knows to root for Wendy in The Shining because she’s the innocent woman fighting to protect her son. Grace in last summer’s Ready or Not is an orphan seeking a real family (she just had the misfortune to pick one that has a history of murdering new in-laws). The deaf protagonist in Netflix’s Hush is trying to find some time to write without distractions, not realizing a psychotic killer has set his sights on her. She relies on her own inner strength and remembers that her loved ones need her as she fights to survive. 

Perhaps horror continues to pull in audiences because it offers catharsis. The hero is a stand-in for you, an ordinary person living in difficult circumstances. If he or she can survive a creepy murder house and come out on the other side, you can keep fighting your own everyday struggles. 

Horror movies with classic structure tell me that people can be thrown into disastrous circumstances and survive against all odds. In Get Out and Ready or Not, the heroes didn’t prepare in advance to fight a crazy family intent on ending their lives one way or another. They just stepped up when the time came, and because they never stopped fighting to survive – and because their motives for coming to said crazy family’s house were pure – they get to walk away in the end. The bad guys don’t. 

If only real life made that much sense.

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