Theories are vast when it comes to why we watch horror films. Karina Wilson over at Horror Film History asks:
Do we derive basic thrills from triggering the rush of adrenalin which fear brings, or do horror stories serve a wider moral purpose, reinforcing the rules and taboos of our society and showing the macabre fate of those who transgress?
Within both purposes, the cinema offers a safe environment to experiences the thrills and the moral stories. Within the walls of a cinema complex, we may be in a dark and amongst strangers - but the long established cinema code of how we watch films is concrete. I personally find it a bit perverse going to the cinema to experience fear. But conversely, I love seeing a horror film for the second time with someone who hasn’t seen it before. There’s something quite deliciously delinquent about this experience. As Wes Craven put it:
I don’t think people like to be scared… They go to scary movies because they already have certain fears and the movies brings it out in a way that’s fun because you know you’re not going to get hurt…Something [gets] exercised, some terrible tension [gets] relieved momentarily and so it performs some sort of arcane service to the human psyche. Beyond that it is a mystery.
Further to these ideas, Paul Wells addresses the horror films in the context of the cinema in his book The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch. In this he suggests:
The frisson of the horror text for the audience is underpinned by the expressed desire to experience feelings which relate to taboo agendas and the limits of gratification.
This underpins the genres appeal. The audience knows what to expect from a horror film. It will take them to their emotional extremes and generate a physical reaction. It will challenge, subvert and manifest social anxieties of the time.
Maybe, it all comes back to the genius of Val Lewton. He was among the first filmmakers to investigate the unknown. Society has a deep-rooted fear of the unknown. Ultimately is the purpose then finding a way for the unknown to entertain?
Horror is an ancient art form. We have tried to terrify each other with tales that trigger the less logical parts of our imaginations for as long as we've told stories. From the ballads of the ancient world to modern urban myths, audiences willingly offer themselves up to sadistic storytellers to be scared witless, and they are happy to pay for the privilege. Theories abound as to why this is so; do we derive basic thrills from triggering the rush of adrenalin which fear brings, or do horror stories serve a wider moral purpose, reinforcing the rules and taboos of our society and showing the macabre fate of those who transgress?
Each generation gets the horror films it deserves, and one of the more fascinating aspects of the study of the genre is the changing nature of the monsters who present a threat. In the early 1940s, a world living under the shadow of Hitler's predatory tendencies identified a part-man, part-wolf as their boogeyman, whose bestial nature caused him to tear apart those who crossed his path. In the 1990s however, there was no need for a part wolf component: Jonathan Doe (Se7en 1994) and Hannibal Lecter (Manhunter 1986, Silence of the Lambs 1991, Hannibal 2001) were entirely human in their calculated and stylised killing methods. As we move on into the twenty first century, the ghosts and zombies are back in vogue as Eastern and Western superstitions converge, and once more we yearn for an evil that is beyond human. In an era of war and waterboarding, supernatural terror is more palatable than the…