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. Maybe you can think of other reasons why people are attracted to things which - in theory - should repel them.
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 I'm facing up to the possibility of evil and monsters," we tell ourselves, "I'm admitting that they're real, rather than repressing them, so maybe they'll notice that and leave me alone."
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?
Learning about life - and death
It's easy to criticise 'rubberneckers' who are drawn to accidents or other unfortunate events. But are they cold-hearted voyeurs, or are they simply processing the way in which chance or a momentary mistake has the power to radically alter all of our lives?
Perhaps they are trying to comprehend the principles that are at work in human misfortune. And maybe stories can help people learn how to prevent such things in their own lives, or the lives of others.
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?
At different times, depending on our mood and circumstances, we may feel like both a victim and a perpetrator. And deep down we may suspect that in the wrong (or right) circumstances we could be capable of doing extreme, criminal and frightening things.
However, modern society - with its tight surveillance, rules of thought and speech and sometimes rigid codes of behaviour - doesn't allow us to indulge these tendencies, or even give voice to them. It is perhaps more constrained than we would like to admit.
Perhaps at some psychological level we need proxies to carry out the unacceptable or antisocial acts that we’d never contemplate – or if we would contemplate, that we’d never allow ourselves to commit.
When these things are enacted in a fantasy setting we can indulge and purge our darker drives without taking on a burden of guilt or shame.
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.