Science

Why we're infatuated with fear

Delicious goosebumps

Masked murderers, supernatural monsters, blood cascading down the stairs like a waterfall. Horror depicts the stuff of nightmares – and we revel in it. RUG film scholar Julian Hanich analyses that fascinating paradox. ‘Horror provides a moment of intensity.’
By Thereza Langeler and Remco van Veluwen

Sanne

‘When I was about eight years old, my dad and I would watch movies together when my mom wasn’t home’, says Sanne, a twenty-year-old international facility management student. ‘One evening it was Horror Night on TV, but my dad hadn’t realised. We were unsuspectingly watching the movie when on screen, a woman turned on her television and a girl crawled out of the set (ed.: in the film The Ring).’ That kind of ruined the evening for me.’

For years Sanne was afraid to watch TV on her own, convinced ‘the girl from the well’ would come for her when she wasn’t paying attention.

In the pitch black, a young woman feels her way blindly along a brick wall, breathing heavily, a gun clenched in one hand. She can’t see him, but she knows a deranged serial killer is drawing near. And we, the audience, know just how near. We watch her stumbling form through the killer’s eyes, coloured dark green by a pair of night vision goggles. We watch until he’s right behind her.

Film scholar Julian Hanich watched The Silence of the Lambs as a teenager. He’s seen dozens upon dozens of scary movies since then, from eerie to gory, American to Japanese, age-old to brand new. ‘But I’d still say The Silence of the Lambs scared me the most.’ He is fond of film not despite the fear it triggered but because of it.

As Halloween approaches, horror seems to be all around us. Theme parks advertise ‘Fright Nights’, television channels replay every single installment of Scream, The Grudge, and The Conjuring; Netflix launched the horrifying series The Haunting of Hill House, which already boasts a 9,0 rating the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). We clearly love a good scare. But why? Fear is a negative emotion – why would we enjoy it?

Dreadful fates

‘That’s an age-old question’, says Hanich, an associate professor of film studies at the RUG. ‘People have always been fascinated by fright. Think of the gladiator fights in ancient Rome, for example, where human beings were forced to fight against lions.’

Those fights must have been gruesome to watch – yet they never failed to draw crowds to the Colosseum. The same goes for tragic plays, where the main characters would often meet dreadful fates. And pretty soon after the invention of film, Hanich explains, directors began intentionally incorporating scenes they knew would thrill and horrify their audiences.

‘There’s a 1903 film called The Great Train Robbery’, he says. ‘It has a scene in which a cowboy fires a gun directly at the camera – at the audience, that is.’ Moviegoers of today might shrug at the visual gag, but back in 1903, Hanich emphasises, it was completely startling. ‘And I absolutely think that was deliberate.’

Ana

Ana is 26 and is pursuing a master’s degree in international relations. As a child, she was afraid of ghosts. ‘One time I was playing with my toys late at night. My parents had already gone to bed so I was alone in the room. Suddenly I thought I heard a noise.’

Ana thinks she knows where her fear comes from. When she was ten years old she watched a lot of television shows, including the horror anthology Goosebumps.

Hanich became fascinated by the paradox that the horror genre presents us with: it deliberately evokes a negative emotion for pleasure. ‘Angstlust’, he calls it, in his native German. ‘The pleasure of being thrilled. Not to be confused with Angst, fear proper.’

Attacked by a Rottweiler

The decisive difference lies in distance, Hanich explains. ‘Safety is a precondition for Angstlust to occur. There’s obviously nothing enjoyable about, say, being attacked by a Rottweiler in real life.’ But watching a movie character narrowly escape a pack of wild dogs from the comfort of our seats can be very pleasurable.

For his 2010 book Cinematic Emotion in Horror Films and Thrillers, Hanich studied the Angstlust-effect. He approached the effect through phenomenology. Phenomenological research has its origins in early twentieth century psychology and philosophy, and it studies experiences: in this case, the experience someone might have when they watch a frightening film.

‘I’m not a psychologist, of course’, Hanich says. ‘So I can’t answer all the questions related to this. I definitely don’t claim to have the answer.’ But after meticulously analysing over 150 films and the experiences they invoke, what he does have is a compelling theory about what horror does for us.

‘Nowadays, we are facing what you might call a loss of the corporeal’, he says. ‘As a researcher, I would say I spend about ten hours a day sitting in a chair looking at a computer screen. We’ve become very sedentary as a society.’ Of course that has its merits – it’s more comfortable, less risky, and less exhausting than hunting for food all day. But it’s also a lot less exciting.

Haunted houses

‘We don’t really feel our bodies anymore in our day-to-day life, so we came up with ways to bring the body back’, Hanich continues. ‘Some people practice sports, others are drawn to more extreme stuff.’ Much like an intense session at the gym, horror spikes your adrenaline levels, speeds up your heart rate, makes you feel alive. ‘It’s also quite like a haunted house ride at a carnival. You go on the ride knowing what you see isn’t real, that it’s all actors and puppets, but you’re still on edge.’

And that’s where it gets complicated. Even though we’re aware that the scary stuff of haunted houses or horror flicks isn’t real, on some level it absolutely does scare us. Angstlust, after all, not only presupposes safety, but it also presupposes Angst.

Femke

Femke is 24 and doing a pre-master in human relations management. ‘I was afraid of witches. It was because of the movie Snow White. At the end there’s this scene where the witch’s eyes go all large and white.’ When she was five years old she couldn’t sleep for a week; whenever she closed her eyes all she saw was witches. ‘My mother didn’t sleep for a week either.’

‘Something about a horror film needs to be threatening’, Hanich says. ‘It’s not just a film, and we know it. It can be overwhelming.’ When we watch a character like Clarice Starling stumble through the dark in The Silence of the Lambs, we are in a way afraid of fear itself: we know that sometime soon, the mad killer is going to attack. We don’t know how or when it will happen. But we know when it does, it’s going to be a shock.

‘I think that awareness, that fear – this film might do something to shock me – stems from childhood’, Hanich muses. ‘Many people have a particular memory of being extremely startled by a movie when they were young, and realising: movies can have this powerful effect on me.’ With every frightening film we watch later in life, Hanich theorises, we intuitively remember that feeling of intense shock, and fear experiencing it again. ‘It’s not exactly trauma, but it comes close, I think.’

Extreme violence

Skilled filmmakers know exactly which kind of ‘archetypal’ fears they should tap into in order to trigger their audiences. ‘The woods, lone houses, attics’, Hanich sums up. ‘Lots of dark, because the dark makes you feel like you’re not in control, you can’t see what’s out there and you don’t know what’s coming.’

That feeling – not knowing what the film is about to hit you with – is called dread, Hanich explains. It builds up for a while, until it culminates in a moment of shock or horror. Shock can be anything from a sudden loud noise to a bright flash of light. ‘A horror moment would be extreme violence, for example. Something that appalls us because it’s pure evil, transgressing our core values.’

What happens to us in such moments, Hanich points out, is almost universally described with phrases involving a sort of paralysis. ‘You’re glued to your chair, or frozen, or captivated, and so forth. There are three different action tendencies with which we can respond to fear: fight, flight or freeze. Fighting a film doesn’t make much sense, so we freeze.’ And what about flight? ‘Some people turn away from their screens or cover their eyes – and that should be seen as a proper flight response, a flight response appropriate to moving images.’

The horror experience

But there are also a plethora of what Hanich calls ‘intermediate responses’. Many people, after all, cover their eyes only partly, peeping through their fingers because they don’t really want to miss what’s going on. Some people squeal or scream, some crack jokes at their screens to distract themselves, some grab onto a partner or a friend. That’s another important aspect of the horror experience, Hanich points out: collectivity.

‘We like to have scary experiences with others, in a group. It’s kind of a dare: proving that we’re tough enough to sit through an overwhelming, shocking film, and laughing and joking about it afterwards. Watching a horror movie at home, alone, makes for quite a different experience. It’s much eerier.’

Feeling afraid and feeling alone amplify each other, in a way. ‘That’s why so many of us feel the need to hold onto someone while watching horror’, Hanich thinks. ‘There is an experiential aloneness to feeling fear, like there’s a big threat and you’re up against it on your own. Knowing that you’re not alone provides comfort.’

The film scholar’s horror top 10

Want to watch some scary stuff that’s also well made? Or do you wonder what made the hairs on people’s neck stand up back in the olden days? Here’s the best of the horror genre throughout history, according to Julian Hanich.

Nosferatu (1922) – This German Expressionist horror film is the first ever adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Don’t let its age fool you: ‘I showed Nosferatu to my students recently’, says Hanich. ‘Some of them found it genuinely scary.’

Cat People (1942) – Serbian-American Irena has a disturbing secret: when agitated, she turns into a large, predatory cat. Instead of actually showing the monster, this film relies on suggestive sounds, shadows, and the viewer’s imagination – which makes it all the more frightening.

Psycho (1960) – A young woman spends the night at a roadside motel, owned by the eccentric Norman Bates and his elderly mother. The piercing, high-pitched violin music from this film’s soundtrack never gets old. You’ll also understand why director Alfred Hitchcock was nicknamed ‘the master of suspense’ after watching this one.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – A group of teenagers with car trouble end up at a remote house. A masked man wielding a chainsaw hunts them down. This film is basically the origin of the slasher genre. Its villain, Leatherface, is one of the most iconic characters in horror history.

The Brood (1979) – A man tries to uncover an unconventional psychologist’s therapy techniques on his institutionalized wife, amidst a series of brutal murders. This movie prominently features director David Cronenberg’s signature: deformed, no-longer-human monsters.

The Shining (1980) – The Torrance family (Jack, Wendy and their son Danny) spend a very isolated winter taking care of the Overlook Hotel. Shut in by snow storms, they become increasingly paranoid – a feeling the movie drives home with lots of long, eerie shots of empty hallways.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) – Loosely based on real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Henry seems like an inconspicuous guy-next-door-type, but it becomes increasingly clear that something’s off about him as he brutally murders random strangers.

The Silence of the Lambs (1990) – Clarice Starling, a promising young FBI-agent, hits a dead end in her search for serial killer ‘Buffalo Bill’. The manipulative, incarcerated criminal Hannibal Lecter offers to help the investigation, but only if Clarice feeds his morbid curiosity with details of her own complicated life.

Antichrist (2009) – A mother collapses after losing her only son. Her husband, a psychotherapist, believes exposure therapy will help her mend. Notorious director Lars von Trier received dozens of awards for Antichrist, which one critic named ‘the most shocking film in the history of the Cannes film festival’.

Don’t Breathe (2016) – A trio of thieves breaks into the house of a wealthy blind man, thinking they’ll get away with the perfect heist. But their intended victim turns out to be far from helpless. So how scary is this one? ‘When I saw Don’t Breathe, I felt a sort of meta-enjoyment’, Hanich recalls. ‘I was glad that a film could still have such a profound effect on me.’ That scary.

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