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Why Do We Enjoy Horror Films?


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There has long been philosophical debates as to why people enjoy tragedies, why they seek out negative emotions for entertainment. I will look at a more modern approach to this question by discussing how modern philosophers explain our love of horror films, the scarier the better. The problem is that most people do not search for real forms of horror in their lives, so why is it that fictionalized horror, even when accompanied by seemingly real fear and disgust, is pleasurable?

There are two main branches of explanation, integrationist and co-existentialist. The integrationist theory states that the pleasure we get from horror films get comes directly from the fear and disgust. The co-existentialist theory claims the pleasure is not directly related to the negative feelings, we enjoy horror because the positive feelings outweigh the negative.

Noël Carroll presents a co-existentialist theory where it is curiosity which drives us to horror films and more specifically it is our curiosity of what we believe to be naturally, as apposed to logically, impossible. We find pleasure in curiosity, however to get this curiosity we need to be presented with an impossible being to be curious about. A being which will seem impossible to us is one that crosses over the boundaries we have used to classify nature like something that posses qualities of more than one type of animal, something that flies but also has multiple legs or something that swims but also crawls on land. Or something living and dead, bodies which are not complete, or bodies of which there is more to them that we would imagine like the possession of one body by another. These creatures will inspire awe and fascination amongst us but due to their nature they will also disgust us.

There is an exception to this and these are slasher films and other films which only really offer extreme violence and a bit of sex. Carroll thinks these are mainly films people go to as tests of endurance, and this explains why adolescent boys are the most persistent group to watch this type of horror.

In Carroll's theory it is the physically impossible nature of the monster that frightens us but this does not explain why we do not feel the same effect when watching fantasy films. These would seemingly satisfy curiosity without the negative feelings. This is better explained by an integrationist theory, in which we enjoy being scared. I think that people may prefer horror because it forces them to think not just of the impossible, but of the consequences that can arise if we do become too dependant on the beliefs our society gives us. People enjoy these negative results because they make us think in a different way to the positive results often shown in fantasy.

Carroll's argues that the reason people do not respond with disgust at monsters of fantasy, comic book superheroes or cartoons is that we look to the characters within the art-horror to see how we should respond. In ‘The Fly’ we feel sympathy when Veronica Quaife, the ‘Fly's’ girlfriend, does. In fantasy the nice monsters are treated as normal within an impossible world. This would cross over into non narrative art-horror such as paintings so that we do not fear a painting of a monster unless it is depicted in a way in which it implies we should be afraid. Carroll does not however, as pointed out by Levinson, explain why that must be the case and points out that if the characters wanted to be attacked or devoured then that would be even more disturbing for us.

Gaut, an integrationist disagrees with this and argues that the fact that people complain when a horror film is not frightening enough should be taken literally to mean that people do enjoy being frightened. Carroll thinks that they actually mean that they did not find the monster abnormal enough to provoke their curiosity and the one-to-one correspondence between curiosity and disgust is what makes easy for this to happen. It is also possible that the person that complains about the film in this way may really be saying this as a way to boast of their levels or endurance rather than as an aesthetic comment.

Gaut replies that the only reason we would not take the person at face value in their claim of wanting to have been more afraid is if there is indeed a paradox in this, and he believes there is not. Gaut thinks that emotions are value judgments, not just feelings, and so if we judge the monster as unpleasant but are not motivated to avoid it then we can enjoy it. Just as we would not want to be close to a wild tiger but can enjoy watching one in a zoo.

Gaut also criticizes Carroll's theory for not accounting for human-monsters. A film such as ‘Silence of the Lambs’ or autobiographical films may not classify as horror by Carroll's definition. I think that we also watch these films out of curiosity, but just not the curiosity of the impossible, rather out of curiosity into the dark side of human nature.

Gaut also argues that horror films are so formulaic that it is hard to believe people would put up with the disgust they feel in able to experience the same curiosity over and over again. Carroll's response is that people will find new types of narrative worth investigating in every film as they will not be identical, and that different monsters can be presented differently over time. Our idea of vampires has evolved as we have, the vampires of ‘Buffy’ are different to those of Bram Stoker, but both are monsters. Also people can get used to the elements which are meant to disgust just as they can get used to the physical impossibility of the monsters.

I think that Carroll's theory is good but his mistake is to assume that people only enjoy horror for one reason. Another argument for why we enjoy horror are Aristotle's catharsis, the idea that we will feel relief having released or come to find a deeper understanding of our emotions. This theory is echoed today in psychoanalysis. The problem with this theory in the Aristotelian sense is that we do seem to enjoy the whole of the film and not just the feeling of having watched the film. It is also true that a horror film watched whilst in a state of real fear will not help us feel better.

In the more psychological, Freudian sense, this theory can not work for every type of horror film. This is because psychoanalysts tend to think that the release needed is a release of *** emotion which is repressed in our society, for example ideas of incest, rape or other taboo *** practices. We do not want to admit to ourselves that we can enjoy them and so it is only in horror that we can allow ourselves the freedom to emotionally respond. By experiencing them through horror we will be able to tell ourselves that we are really disgusted. This theory works well for monsters like vampires or Freddy Kruger but not so well for creatures such as King Kong. John Mack argues that it is not just *** ideas but any primitive infantile fear that can be released in horror, such as the idea of being consumed by your parents.

Another theory has been put forward by Rosemary Jackson who claims that horror is there so that we can experience things which are not found in our culture. Monsters are representative of unspoken possibilities that exist but are not thought of because we mostly only think within the confines of our own society. Horror may show us how society can be different and so have a political message, this can be positive or negative. An obvious example is the case of horror being anti-feminist since it often features *** active women being killed. For example ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ has a naked women killed after having sex and later on in the film a bladed hand come up between the legs of a woman in the bath. This clearly implies thoughts of rape and violence.

I believe that Carroll's theory is a particularly good explanation for why we enjoy horror but believe he is mistaken in thinking that we enjoy horror for only one reason and theories could be right or wrong depending upon the context the film is watched in.

I am a postgraduate student of Philosophy of Physics at the University of Leeds and run


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