Psychology of Horror by Ethan Owen

By Ethan Owen
Copy Editor

Your heart is racing as you sit in the pitch black theater. The screen is dark, as the protagonist is hiding in a closet. Every heartbeat sounds like a knock at the door, something trying to get inside. It isn’t happening to you, yet you feel it all the same.

Although, for you, this experience is voluntary. Enjoyable, even. Why is this? Why do two people experiencing the same situation (albeit from very different perspectives) have such a varied display of emotions?

As we spectate these events, our brain releases fear hormones. It gives us the thrill of being in the situation, while knowing that we ourselves are safe. The thrill is ecstasy for some, and lovers of suspense and macabre will seek it out with each new release in the horror genre.

Horror comes in many types of mediums. A ghost story told around a campfire, an immersive video game recreating the feeling of being stalked by a xenomorph, a movie that retells the story of a famous serial killer. Books, shorts on the internet (often referred to as creepypastas), even haunted houses and other attractions.

The genre comes in multiple forms, although some are different than others. Written horror, for instance, is great for leaving your reader with a sense of uneasiness long after they finish the book or story. Your mind conjures up frights that stay with you for much longer than a movie villain would. Movies, however, can pull off jump scares, which can be effective if not overused. Campfire stories have the dimly lit forest as a backdrop, and video games have you make the decisions instead of following a character on screen.

Of the varied methods of telling horror stories, each appeal to different types of people for different reasons. Books attract people with active imaginations, letting their minds run free with whatever images the author has conjured up. Written horror stories can be ineffective in an inattentive audience, but to the right person they can be masterpieces. A well written horror story with a serious reader leaves behind echoes of the atrocities within; it makes you think long after you finish it.

Horror as a genre in video games is especially terrifying. The control you have opens up an entire new dimension of immersion, places you in the shoes of the victim in a very unnerving way. Take for instance titles like “Alien: Isolation,” which takes first person storytelling to a new level. In horror movies, you always know that the main character is going to be alright (most of the time). You worry about them, but you know deep down that they will be okay. In “Alien: Isolation,” the threat is very real as you try to outsmart an AI capable of tracking you through the gargantuan spaceship that the game takes place on. The AI takes the form of a xenomorph, stalking you through dank passageways.

You can almost smell the rust and mold, feel the saliva dripping down onto your shoulder. When it catches you, you get a front seat showing of being skewered with the monster’s tail or devoured whole. You watch this happen, and it feels real. The joy comes from success; every time the alien strides past the locker that you’re hiding in or gives up its chase. A sense of accomplishment, as you have just braved the challenges the game set for you, is what draws people to games like this.

Horror movies, classics of the genre. They have carried horror into the modern jump scares, suspenseful music, dynamic lighting. Movies deliver fear in a fashion that only they can, and a good horror movie can leave you so unnerved when you leave the theater that you have trouble putting the keys into you car door (just like oh so many of the protagonists of these movies). A scary movie is a jarring experience, causing many of the audience to cover their eyes in fear or have frightening dreams for the next week.

Viewing this spectacle in an actual theater is even more daunting, due to the ear splitting volume and dark atmosphere. Movies are the same every time you watch them, which can have its pros and cons. Of course, even if you know what is about to happen, you often find yourself screaming at the protagonist in a futile attempt to change their actions.

Some horror movies are meant to jump-scare you in multiple places, some set out to give you nightmares for the next three weeks. Some are simply to make you incredibly uncomfortable. No matter what feeling they leave you with, society has embraced the genre. Murder is now a spectator sport.

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