The psychology behind the spook Article by: Kavya Jeganathan & Graphic by: Maxwell Zaleski

Imagine. The sharp pang of a minor key playing into the sardonic atmosphere of a dark room while a child talks to her dolls as though they have a life of their own. The sudden death of a side character who’s found lying in a pool of blood with a blank stare stuck on his face, practically screaming murder. The gasps for air as a woman grabs at her torso while listening to hushed whispers fill her ominous surroundings as she falls to her knees, attempting to fill her starved lungs with oxygen.

Fear. Anticipation. Thrill. On screen, the horror of it all is so enticing. It forces people to sit on the edge of their seats, jumping as they startle due to a sudden loud noise or because of the frightening figure who pops out from seemingly nowhere.

What is it about horror films that has garnered them so much attention? Is it the adrenaline that courses through the viewership’s veins at every jump scare? Is it the plot that grasps the audience’s attention without letting go for even a second?

Or is it something much, much deeper?


The most obvious reason that people watch horror movies was explained by film scholar Soren Birkvard when he said, “horror films entertain us.” In simple English, people are drawn to watching horror movies in order to fend off boredom. Several personality tests have shown that people who are bored easily end up scoring higher in a personality trait called “sensation seeking.” Horror enthusiasts like to watch horror films, similar to daredevils who love extreme sports or thrill seekers who enjoy jumping off mountains with a parachute.

Explaining evil

Another reason people watch horror movies seems to revolve around unraveling evil. Especially in the horror genre, people frequently attempt to diagnose evil intentions by using psychological and social perspectives. Sometimes the psychological analysis done by the viewership can be so intense that people find themselves sympathizing with the villain rather than being repulsed.

People gain explanations from movies such as Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’ which plays a role in describing human technological arrogance.

Besides that, in popular culture, evil is said to be an independent phenomenon in the horror genre. The old explanation given to us by priests as to why evil persists is not enough to quench the thirst of people from this day and age. Instead, people gain explanations from movies such as Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein,” which plays a role in describing human technological arrogance, where the “man-made monster turns on his own creator,” or Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” which describes the clear divide between good and evil.

Testing limits in safe boundaries

Have you ever been so scared to watch a horror film and then decided to watch it with all the lights turned on or with a group of friends who tease the characters on screen, reducing the actual spook of the movie? It completely changes the feel of the film, doesn’t it?

When one knows they are safe while watching the frightening contents running on a TV screen, it allows them a space to test their personal limits. Hence, the watching of horror movies can be a therapeutic experience for some, allowing people the chance to deal with their own anxiety. Psychologist Svein Age Kjos Johnsen described this theory by saying, "In psychology, we call this activation of a feeling ‘emotional regulation.’ By watching horror films one can have a sense of control over both the situation, or the viewing experience, and over the feeling of fear.”

Fear of the unknown

Often, a part of horror films that interests viewers is how everyday situations and objects can become a part of the realm of the unknown. Possessed people, frightening locations, haunted houses and cursed objects are all a part of this so-called “fear of the unknown” which leads to people being drawn toward the genre of horror.

Different Wiring

According to Glenn Sparks, a professor and associate head of the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, different people respond to physiological arousal in different ways; while some people are wired to enjoy high levels, others are not. People tend to also enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes with the watching of anything related to the horror genre in general.


Another reason people tend to turn toward horror films is because of their novelty. Often, people are drawn to anomalies in their environment. As Glenn Sparks stated, “Since danger disrupts routine, curiosity about change is important for survival.” Also, the visual effects used in horror films draw quite a bit of curiosity toward them, especially by avid horror fanatics who become enamored with the use of visual effects in the context of film.

“Evil is said to be an independent phenomenon in horror films.”

Studies and theories

1. Catharsis

Catharsis was the method referred to by Greek philosopher Aristotle when he claimed that people were attracted to dark, violent, horror-filled plots in both stories and plays because they wished to purge their negative emotions. In other words, catharsis was a method to release pent-up aggression and negative emotion by watching violent and fear-invoking films.

2. Psychoanalytic theory by Freud and Jung

If the name Carl Jung rings familiar, look no further than the study of different types of Jungian archetypes. Jung and Sigmund Freud were both psychologists with an interest in the unconscious mind. In the context of horror films, Freud believed horror, in general, was a manifestation of uncanny feelings and thoughts which were suppressed by a person’s ego, but were vaguely familiar to the individual. On the other hand, Jung believed horror had gained popularity due to its display of different archetypes and primordial images which resided in the unconscious minds of basically all individuals.

3. Excitation Transfer Process

The Excitation Transfer Process expresses the ability for the negative emotions induced by horror movies to amplify the positive emotions one feels after watching the film.

All in all, the psychology behind the spook is a vast one, filled with theories and research which persist to this day. Not every individual is the same, and hence, the reaction toward horror, in general, differs from person to person.

Kavya Jeganathan can be reached at kjeganathan@umass.edu.

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