Screams on Screen
I anxiously coiled my hair around my fingertips. My forehead furrowed deeper and deeper as I squinted my eyes. Soon, I grimaced — bracing myself for the coming pain. Stomach clenched, I could feel my heart beating faster and faster.
No, I was not being tortured. Nor was I experiencing a physical assault of any kind. Actually, I was watching a horror movie. For the first, and might I add the last, time.
Horror, I discovered, is not my genre of choice. Yet for some, watching these gut-wrenching, hair-raising films are a favorite pastime — offering a most desirable pleasure: mounting rushes of visceral terror.
Why on earth would anyone find that enjoyable?
Julie Jones ’22, a lover of horror movies, finds them “fun” to watch. She said she likes psychological thrillers.
“I like the feeling of not knowing what happens next, and trying to figure it out and then being surprised in a scary way,” Jones said.
Jones explains that watching horror movies is “more of an event” that she prefers to experience either in the movie theater or with her friends.
“When I watch alone, I get pretty freaked out,” she said. “But there’s a level of comfort that comes from being around other people.”
Setting is important to her as well, and she favors watching these films at the theater.
“I think [the theater is] more of an insulating environment, and there are fewer external distractions,” she said. “When you’re watching in the theater, you can really hone in on the movie and be immersed in the suspense and thrill.”
Amy Lawrence, professor of film and media studies and comparative literature at Dartmouth, also believes that company and environment are important factors in watching horror films.
“It’s a very bonding experience,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence added that enough, it is also an experience in which people often laugh a lot.
“If there’s a fake scare and everyone jumps, then everyone will laugh at each other for falling for that fake scare,” Lawrence said. “So, it’s very bonding and reassuring too, because there are all these other people around you having the same experience, and once it is resolved in narrative terms you will all walk out of the theater together.”
Moreover, Lawrence believes that these movies can be particularly effective in conveying a lasting message because of the emotions that arise while watching them.
“Horror films evoke really deep, primal feelings. And making people jump and scream gets people on a level that a serious drama may not be able to reach,” Lawrence explained.
For Lawrence, a major determinant of the worth of a horror movie is whether or not you think about it after leaving the theater.
“For me, it’s about the inventiveness of the filmmaker, whether it’s interesting enough that you think about it later,” she said. “If it has lasting value, it’s a good movie. If it’s just sensational and gory, then it’s not that good.”
Jones is different. She enjoys the feeling of being absorbed in fear. She likes “the thrill of the then-and-there moment,” and then picking herself up and moving on.
“When the movie is over, especially if I am in a movie theater and I leave that setting, it doesn’t linger that much,” Jones said.
My experience watching (a single) horror movie could not have been more different. The film haunted me for weeks, and my dreams were riddled with moments from the movie for some time. Yes, the movie itself was scary, but it was the aftermath that did me in.
So how are some people able to move on from the horror, while others simply can’t?
Jones believes that her ability to compress emotions that are bothering her may be why she is often left unaffected by these films.
“I’m really good at taking emotions that are problematic and compartmentalizing them. I focus on the matters at hand and come back to the problems later,” she said. “I do think that liking horror movies is a reflection of my personality.”
Lawrence agrees that compartmentalizing fear is a major aspect of watching horror movies. In fact, she thinks horror movies can actually offer relief by providing a designated time and place for people to experience fear.
“I think that people are scared to begin with,” Lawrence said. “And they go to see a scary movie because it packages the fear. And by packaging it, you get the sense that the fear can be contained. In a horror movie, there’s a threat that seizes you, but it is defeated. And you survive. You know that the movie is only going to be two hours, there are going to be other people in the theater, and at some point it will be over. But social unease, which affects us all the time, is ongoing and never stops”
Ali Dickstein ’22 does not find watching horror movies to be relieving by any means.
“I don’t like horror movies,” she said. “I feel like spending my free time watching something that makes me feel negative emotions is not worth my time. I don’t like the feeling of fear or being uncomfortable. When I watch a movie, I want to feel lifted up.”
Since Dickstein defines herself as a “pretty happy person,” her aversion to horror movies could reflect her desire to have a positive outlook on life. She also noted that she is not the biggest risk taker and that horror movies make her stressed.
“I think some people like the adrenaline rush, but I feel like I can get that rush in other ways,” she said.
Her reasoning comports with Lawrence’s understanding of the underlying dynamic of horror.
“Some people find them very assaultive, and they don’t like being pushed to feel something,” Lawrence said. “And some people like the thrill. It’s like rollercoasters — for some people it’s fun and exciting and for others it’s something they don’t want to do. It depends on if you are a thrill seeker or find it unnecessarily painful and unnerving.”
Whether you view horror movies as a medium with which to test your own coping mechanisms, a safe space to experience terror and finally relief, or simply a fun time to bond with friends over a good scream or two, the genre is manipulative. The viewer is vulnerable, at the deepest level, to the control of the filmmaker. It is the distinct quality of horror movies to jolt people out of their comfort zones.
And for those who like to go there, good for you. I, however, will stick to my cheesy rom-coms and chick flicks, thank you very much.