Not everyone responds to full-on horror, but thrillers, war films, crime stories, supernatural tales and many other genres include extreme or frightening content. And people are drawn to them.
If we want to use fear in our narratives in ways that work, we should try to understand why people wish to experience this powerful, but apparently negative, emotion.
So here are some reasons why people might seek out fear in films. It’s a subject which is up for debate, so do feel free to comment on the article.
And remember, our Creating Fear in Films workshop (Feb 25) will look at these and many other issues in much more detail.
Arousal and excitement
Whatever else it may do, fear gives us a strong sense of being alive and in the moment – a feeling of arousal, with an accompanying surge of adrenaline.
So, terrifying as they may be in real life, frightening things can become exciting and even pleasurable in the context of fiction, where they can’t really harm us. And it’s hard to forget films that achieve this.
Ritual and catharsis – and the communal experience
Perhaps something special happens when we experience fear in a group setting. Going through extreme events certainly draws people together (one reason why horror movies are good for first dates?).
Confronting vividly disturbing fictional events can also have a powerfully cathartic effect. We’ve visited the Dark Place, we’ve made the return journey – and if the experience is shared, we have ready-made witnesses to the fact.
Some writers feel that immersion in certain types of extreme imagery has a strongly ritual element: that it’s a kind of cleansing experience which gives audiences a taste of what others may find in religion.
When we watch terrible things happening to others, there may be a sense that we’re somehow protecting ourselves against similar things happening to us. At least we are facing these eventualities, we may tell ourselves, admitting that they are real, rather than repressing them entirely.
Or maybe it is an adaptive rehearsal – a preparation for dealing with the possible ‘future shocks’ that life may throw at us. If we rehearse the process of facing unexpected events in fantasy, perhaps we will become more resilient in real life?
A holiday from morality
Do we identify with the victims in frightening films – or the perpetrators? Or do we switch backward and forward, depending on the range of feelings we want to explore?
With its tight surveillance, rules of thought and speech and sometimes rigid codes of behaviour, modern society is perhaps more constrained than we would like to admit.
However, deep down we know that in the right (or wrong) circumstances we’re all capable of doing extreme, criminal and frightening things.
Perhaps at some psychological level we may need proxies to carry out the unacceptable of antisocial acts that we’d never contemplate – or if would, that we’d never allow ourselves to commit.
Quite simply, the world can be a scary place. Being alive is often frightening. If stories didn’t reflect this reality, they would give us an insipid, inaccurate picture of life.
Whatever motives audiences may have for wanting to feel fear, we need to know how to use this emotion convincingly in our narratives.
Our workshop will help you understand how to do this with clips, discussions and enjoyable writing exercises.
Click here to find out more, and book.