Horror Psych 101

I am not a movie buff or horror aficionado, but I am someone who loves to analyze, theorize, argue, occasionally play devil’s advocate, and especially rant. I also like to think that people want to hear my opinion and truly value it and accept it as truth.

Not really.


Point is, I like to think about things. And think. And think. And think. And occasionally the arguments and theories I develop in my mind make it to paper… well, virtual paper. And here we are.

So a pest friend I know has been bugging me to write something for some time now. I didn’t have anything to say (shock inserted here) until he posed the question of what truly frightens me. This question has had me thinking about fright and psychology as it relates to popular culture. You see, I grew up on horror movies. My mom called them “rah movies” because of the parts that made you jump – the parts that were the equivalent of someone sneaking up behind you, grabbing your shoulders, and yelling “RAH!” to startle you – the good parts that really got your heart pumping and pee flowing. I remember watching Child’s Play with her when I was in 1st grade. In 3rd grade, I saw The Exorcist and The Omen for the first time. Although I was able to get through these movies without nightmares, I did lock all my dolls and stuffed animals in my bedroom closet every night – after apologizing immensely to them – to ensure they would not smother or stab me in my sleep. After all, those furry paws couldn’t turn a doorknob, right? And being the good Catholic that I was/am/was/am, if I apologized for my wrong doings enough, I would be forgiven, right? Right?!? I would be pardoned – spared a gruesome death by fuzzy bear or baby doll. It made sense.

Back then, I didn’t realize or think about what made me feel so frightened and why it came after the movie, not during for the most part. But now that I’m old…er, the psychology behind horror has become clearer. My theory is that in addition to the type of horror portrayed – haunting, alien, possession, serial killer, etc. – the setting in which you watch the movie plays an equally crucial role in creating the fright one feels when watching. For example, watching a horror film in the middle of a bright, sunny, hot day does not have the same effect as watching that same movie on a stormy, dark, dreary night. Moreover, watching with friends lessens the anxiety you feel as opposed to when you watch alone. This may have something to do with our underlying desire to be macho- the alpha dog in the pack. Don’t show your fear, or you become vulnerable. Ahh… animal instinct. Isn’t it lovely?

The setting plays a role in how you feel after the movie as well. Being alone in a dark and quiet house after watching a horror film may cause you to hear and see things that aren’t really there. The dust bunny blown across the floor by a box fan suddenly becomes a gremlin or rat, the creaking of the house settling must be a psycho serial killer, ghost, or poltergeist, not the wind. Rational thought goes out the window. But, when the setting is less ominous, rational thought is easier achieved – or at least macho-ism cloaks it well. Our brains don’t turn off and void out what was just watched (or read). We continue to contemplate and rationalize (however irrationally) long after the credits roll.

Alright. Enough psychology. Let me share a little of my personal horror philosophy with you. What truly frightens me? The believable. If I think it could happen, then my adrenaline starts rushing. Pair that with suspense, long silences ending in a sudden “RAH!” moment, and whoa. Let me change my undies, because I think I may have peed a little. And don’t forget to leave the closet light on for me tonight because if you don’t, I may be killed in my sleep.

So, the breakdown: hauntings, poltergeists, possessions, and creepy psycho serial killers are my horror kryptonite. They get me (almost) every time. The catch is, it has to be paired with good cinematography, decent acting and directing, and the appropriate setting. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good campy horror film, but it doesn’t frighten – merely amuses and entertains. As for the other stuff – the vampires, mummies, gremlins, aliens, werewolves, etc. etc. etc. – not my cup of tea. Unless you wrote about it. You see, I love Anne Rice books. Love em. Not because they scare me – they don’t – but because she writes so beautifully that I want it to be true. I imagine that the characters in her books truly exist in the real world and that if I’m lucky, I may bump into them one day. Not in the turn me into a vampire or lusty kind of way, but just a casual “hey Rowan/Lestat/Michael/etc. How’s it going? Doing much magic or killing lately?” (Side note: I also love J.R.R. Tolkien. I believe in hobbits, trolls, and elves. I do. But they don’t scare me.) The one horror writer I can honestly say I do not love, is Stephen King. He describes everything to death. Part of my romance with Anne Rice is that her descriptions leave the reader the creativity to create the scene in their minds – thus making it more believable. Mr. King, on the other hand, lays out the scene for you, leaving little to the imagination. However, when his books are turned into movies, they do creep me out. Especially IT. “Georgie.. Want your boat, Georgie?“ Creeeeepy.

So there you have it. And I know you wanted it and believed it as fact. Or at least as truth. Don’t lie. It is the viewer that makes the horror – not the movie. The movies merely assists in frightening the audience, it doesn’t work on its own. So I suppose the movie acts as a tool in the fright game, but the audience’s mind, rational thought, and setting are the wheels that set the “rah” moment into action.

Kristen Dant