The Psychology Behind Why We Watch Horror Films

'A Nightmare on Elm Street'
'A Nightmare on Elm Street'
Horror films have delighted audiences for over a century, from Georges Méliès' terrifying depiction of the demon Mephistopheles in The House of the Devil (1896) to the feral children in Mama (2013). 

Much time has passed, and though the monsters and themes have changed and evolved, one constant has left filmmakers and filmgoers alike wondering -- why do we like horror films? John P. Hess of Filmmaker IQ breaks down the psychology of scary movies, from our fascination with being scared, psychoanalytic theories, and an explanation as to why it's good to get the bejesus scared out of you.

I have smooshed a child's face before (on accident of course -- kind of,) because he showed me a picture of Pennywise the Clown when I wasn't expecting it. I am terrified of clowns. Give me zombies, vampires, serial killers, or the Devil himself, but clowns -- I will involuntarily smoosh a kid's face every time. Clowns and movies with clowns are literally the only movies that actually scare me.

Now that you know how terrified I am of clowns, I'd also like to mention that I attempt to watch It every Halloween. I try to work up the nerve by looking at pictures of Pennywise -- even watching clips of the scariest scenes. Come Halloween night, I chicken out 100% and watch literally anything else instead of a movie with a clown in it, but -- I do try.

But why do I do this? Why do any of us do this? Sure, it's a rush and it's entertaining to watch a horror movie, but are there any other explanations as to why people like to be scared? John P. Hess gives a great explanation of several theories in the Filmmaker IQ video below:

So, whether it's about suppression, catharsis, or simply enjoying the thrill of it all, experiencing horror within safe confines is an important part of every culture. Horror films help us understand what it is that terrifies us and make bold statements about the world we live in. We can enjoy them because they're not real. I mean, the chances of seeing a murderous clown eerily waving at you from the sidewalk are slim to none -- unless you live in Northhampton, England, which is now officially the scariest place on the face of the earth according to me.

What do you think of Hess' explanation of why we like horror? Why do you like horror? What horror film scares you the most?

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Your Comment

a doc looking to explore similar ideas

October 25, 2013 at 6:13AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I just find them entertaining. Not scary - the things that scare me are way beyond cinema. Entertaining, certainly.

October 25, 2013 at 5:59PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Shooting a horror film this weekend on a GH2. Should be mega!

October 25, 2013 at 6:34PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Norm Rasner

There are very few horror films that actually managed to scare me, and by coincidence or not, they are also very good examples of excellent film-making in my opinion.

1. The Ring
2. The Others
3. The Awakening
4. The Conjuring

All are ghost themed... That is what I am afraid of most - ghosts.

October 26, 2013 at 3:33AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


The Conjuring was a fantastic movie PERIOD! :^]

December 22, 2014 at 9:44PM

Crystal McGhee

scary movies stimulate our brains and make us ego aware
All scary movies are stupidities of the ego
They give you less insight less love it's only sensation without content

November 1, 2013 at 1:53AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Some horror movies scare the living daylights out of me (I watched "Sinister" the other day) and I must admit, I can't go a day without thinking about everything that scared me and how it might relate to my life (even though it isn't real). I guess I enjoy the thrill and fear that you get when watching horror movies, like rollercoaster rides, they're daunting yet thrilling at the same time

April 19, 2014 at 3:49AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM