It’s only a movie: Why we love being scared

Frankenstein's monster (actor Boris Karloff) in the 1939 film 'Son of Frankenstein.'
Frankenstein’s monster (actor Boris Karloff) in the 1939 film “Son of Frankenstein.”

Scary Town, USA — Moviegoers flock to the theater for a variety of reasons; some to experience an enchanting love story, others to laugh until they cry. Some brave souls, however, go to have their blood run cold and have the bejeepers scared out of them for 90 minutes.

October is the month for scary movies at the box office. Six of the 16 movies currently showing at the Provo Towne Center Mall are thrillers, horrors or mystery.

“First, it’s important to note that horror is a very personal cultural artifact; some things that would knock me out of my chair you would yawn through, and vice versa,” said Paul Simons, a horror film theorist.

Scary films range from outright frightful to laughably silly. Films may require movie-goers to finish watching the movie through their fingers (“Friday the 13th”) or rolling on the ground laughing as the credits roll (the “Scary Movie” series).

Simons noted three general guidelines for a scary movie:

“One, the more familiar the beginning of the film, such as its settings, characters and whatnot, the better … people can relate to what’s happening,” he said. “Two, when the normal gets thrown off balance it needs to be fast and extreme. And three, usually one or several tropes are needed to maintain the audience’s sense of reality. Recently this has produced a ton of ‘found footage’ films like ‘The Blair Witch Project.’ Another way to make the film seem more real is pacing; a good horror film will be expertly timed.”

Horror is a very personal cultural artifact, some things that would knock one out of their chair another would yawn through. Horror movies are getting more scarier as the time progresses, but just remember that it's only a movie. (
Horror is a personal thing — while one might fall out of their chair during a scary movie another might barely bat an eye. Horror movies are getting scarier as the time progresses, but just remember that it’s only a movie. (

Brandon Post, a senior studying media arts, mentioned the importance of the storyline in a scary movie.

“At the end of the day, each department of a film crew is subordinate to the story crafted by the screenwriter,” he said. “You could have the best visual effects, flawless acting and beautiful sound design, but if the story doesn’t resonate with the audience then the movie’s integrity suffers.”

The word “horror” can be traced to an Old French word meaning “to bristle with fear.” Simons listed possible physical effects from watching horror films such as “jumpiness, tremors of the extremities, pupil dilation, quicker respiration and in extreme cases the emptying of the bladder.”

“The horror genre is all about suspense and surprise,” Porter said. “It’s all about what information you tell and when. We set it up that there is an unstoppable monster then watch as character pawns get picked off one by one. The main goal in these movies is usually primal — they don’t want to die.”

Those who watch scary movies often watch them with a date or with a group of friends. Simons stated that scary movies make a great date night activity because “women have a tendency to lean into their date and hold their hand” and the guys will try to protect them and have a sense of accomplishment after the film.

So why do we love being scared so much?

“It’s not that thrill-seekers enjoy being ‘scared’; it’s really the feeling of mastery or accomplishment that comes with enduring each experience,” said David Rudd, Ph.D, former dean of the college of social and behavioral sciences at the University of Utah, in a news release for the Haunted Attraction Association.

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