Cinematic Culture: Horror provides audiences with cathartic chills and thrills
(Megan Fu/Daily Bruin)
By Alexis Jones
April 22, 2022 4:47 p.m.
From lighthearted rom-coms to blood-curdling horror flicks, movies tend to follow a formula for storytelling made successful by the predecessors of their genres. Given the recurring character and narrative archetypes that characterize each genre, people have come to know and identify with these tropes by relating them to their own lives. In “Cinematic Culture,” columnist Alexis Jones breaks down the conventions of different film genres and explores their social and psychological impact on pop culture.
Monsters under the bed have never been more terrifying.
As ’70s and ’80s slashers have evolved into today’s elevated psychological thrillers, horror has been a grandstanding genre to derive pleasure from people’s greatest fears. No matter how foreboding a threat may seem, the promise of being scared continues to draw audiences into theaters. Tantalizing for their escapist quality, horror movies examine all types of scary and potentially transformative life and death circumstances, film lecturer Alex Franklin said.
“(In) true horror movies, … there is some sort of malevolent entity that is trying to do something bad to the heroes of the movie,” Franklin said. “Maybe there’s somebody or something that’s trying to kill you, but they can also just be trying to harm you in a way that you don’t want and will permanently hurt or impact your life.”
The driving forces of evil in all horror, Franklin said, can be broken down into three categories: man, beast or ghost. He said the malevolent entity of man is typically seen in slashers, where a human or something with human incentives and capabilities pursues the characters of these films. An all-encompassing classification, he said the beast can range from anything like animal creatures and monsters – such as vampires or werewolves – to those that used to be human. Ghosts, Franklin said, are supernatural entities that do not obey the laws of physics.
Whether it is to understand a killer’s motivation or the mythology of a beast or supernatural entity, Franklin said there are many different reasons people watch horror movies. For instance, he said they might enjoy the tension in anticipating what thrilling event could happen at any given moment. Film lecturer Bryan Wuest, who teaches the course Film and Television 114: “Film Genres: Horror Film,” said horror movies entertain because they deliver in their core intent to scare. From the comfort of their movie-watching environment, he said the genre allows viewers to feel that sense of dread without experiencing it firsthand.
“It’s like going on a roller coaster or skydiving,” Wuest said. “I don’t actually want to fall out of a plane, but I want to have that physical pretend. I want to have that pit in my stomach. Horror films (are) a place to safely experience a range of emotions that in real life would be very unpleasant.”
To understand how and why the brain experiences fear and anxiety when watching films of the genre, assistant professor of psychology Avishek Adhikari said people only want to be scared when they are in a controlled situation, as exemplified by seeing a horror movie. For anyone to enjoy the negative emotions brought on by these films, he said the most important part is the viewers’ suspension of disbelief that they are not in any imminent danger and what is on the screen is not real.
While horror delights in the thrill of the jump-scare, addressing contemporary terrors to relieve people’s anxieties could also be why they gravitate towards the genre, Wuest said. From politically-minded messages to the violation of social norms, Franklin said the themes touched on by villainous characters are relevant to popular culture. In addition to this, Wuest said horror movies also intrigue audiences since the villains allow people’s unorthodox, more repressed impulses to be expressed – which could explain their attraction to the genre despite its macabre nature, like watching graphic content despite how upsetting it can be.
But in terms of the plot, though the antagonists offer a way to express viewers’ hidden desires, one person always survives their attacks: the final girl. The most common character trope of the horror genre, Wuest said viewers not only sympathize with the female protagonist but ally with her as a representative source of strength and power, living through the worst conditions imaginable. From the approach of a psychoanalyst, he said the final girl is as equally valuable an icon as the monster because they are both vessels onto which audiences project their untapped curiosities.
Historically, Wuest said the monsters have been the central figure that connects the films in most horror franchises together – arguably because their motives are more interesting. But with the embodiment of female empowerment in the final girl characters, he said the narrative has shifted the audiences’ attention from the monsters to the victims. With both of these elements, he said the genre can give a voice to the different drives viewers have.
“Horror is so popular because it gives two sets of things,” Wuest said. “I want to make trouble. I want to be chaos, but I also want to survive.”