Masochism and Fear in Cinema
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Masochism and Fear in Cinema

Joseph Innes examines why we love watching horror films to be scared on purpose.

Fear. Fear is a universal experience. Fear is what keeps us healthy, keeps us safe, and keeps us alive. As tensions rise, palms sweat, breathing gets faster, and hearts beat harder.

However, fear is rarely exposed and is scarcely commented on in more depth other than an explanation of the basic ‘fight-or-flight’ response. In filmmaking especially, suspense is simply seen as a toy for many movie-goers. But this deep-seated lust for fear in modern cinema is no Child’s Play. 

Fear In Art and Philosophy  

Terror in the human psyche has been explored, prodded and probed countless times in different ways throughout history. Although, the concept of fear as an entertainment form is largely underdeveloped. Aristotle proposed the theory of ‘catharsis’, focusing on an extreme emotion being ‘purged’ by allowing these feelings to essentially wreak havoc in the system as the audience watches a tragic play. This is akin to a good old-fashioned cry, but this hypothesis only addresses the natural empathy humans possess, not the reality of gut-wrenching, life-ending horror being a modern form of casual amusement. 

Child’s Play (1988) source: IMDb

Another reason horror seduces audiences is supported by a well-known theory of Freud’s. The theory, ‘unheimlich’, or uncanny, highlights the feelings of uneasiness created by seeing something that is close to realistic, but slightly off. Obviously, horror movies are typically unrealistic, but close enough to reality to make it at least a little bit believable. This is linked to the fact that there are 3 main recognised factors which make horror quite so much fun: tension, relevance/relatability, and an inherent unrealism. The juxtaposition of this relatability and unrealism is what launches the horror genre into the ‘Uncanny Valley’, allowing an instantaneous discomfort into any movie. Examples of this horrifying duality are seen in Insidious, The Babadook, and even The Polar Express. 

One entertainer who used fear as a storytelling device was Antonin Artaud, the creator of the Theatre of Cruelty and its principles. The Theatre of Cruelty aimed to thrust its audience into the heart of the horror its characters were experiencing. Artaud wanted to change the way an audience participated in a show, and he believed fear was the best way to draw in the general public. Most of the reviews were negative and it was a commercial flop, but Artaud pushed the horror genre further than it had gone before, inspiring films like mother! and giving storytellers a visionary concept of simultaneously shocking and entertaining the masses. 

Social and Cultural Impact on a Modern Horror Genre 

Many theories have been put forward recently to justify the huge influx of horror movie lovers. Almost every source has a different explanation about the appeal of fear in cinema. In 1995, an issue of Human Communications Research stated that the attractiveness of horror movies comes from a place of introspection. Each different horror subgenre correlates to a personality type, like a weird zodiac.

Gore watchers experience low empathy and are high sensation seekers, and strangely, most males had a strong sense of identification with the killer. On the other hand, thriller watchers experience high empathy and high sensation seeking, while they related to the victim. However, as gore and special effects in cinema increases and the general consensus is that cinema gore is fake, most people tend to feel less close to the action as their emotional distance gets mistaken for desensitization, meaning that a preference for gore over thriller may not be the at the heart of the question.  

The Final Girls (2015) source: IMDb

Inevitably, the concept of sexuality will be brought into the argument. The concept of masochism itself is very close to the horror genre. As people willingly put themselves in a position of fear, their enjoyment rises – evident in the fact that new reboots Halloween and IT made $253,688,035 and $700,381,748 at the box office, respectively. This notion is reflected in a study performed in 1996 and dubbed ‘The Snuggle Theory’. It stated that women had more fun at a horror screening when their male companion was stoic and brave, and men enjoyed their screening more when the women they were with were frightened and vulnerable. This obviously links to the tropes of horror movie dates, and showcases the multiple different ways horror can affect an audience, and this cliché is pushed in films like The Final Girls and other comical takes on the genre.  

The Nitty Gritty  

Fear, like all emotions, is a chemical reaction. A simple combination of cortisol, adrenaline, and glucose. Around 10% of the population say they love fear, or more specifically, adrenaline. As fear is built in an audience, blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration increase, which lingers long after the film ends.

The tension a (good) horror movie creates literally gives us a temporary ‘high’. This temporary high makes any and all emotions feel heightened, and the events following a movie viewing can influence the viewer’s memory of the film positively or negatively. Perhaps the intrinsic traumatic nature of horror movies is what caused its own nicheness, and created one of the most divisive genres in modern cinema.  

Saw (2004) source: IMDb

Why is pure, unadulterated terror a popular entertainment form? 

Whether it’s for lust, a rush, or a deep psychological reason, there are as many explanations as to why horror movies are so popular as there are clichés in the genre. So, if you’re into A Quiet Place, Suspiria, or Saw, the fact still remains; the human psyche – and the film industry – put much more emphasis on our deepest fears than a simple ‘fight-or-flight’. 

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About Joseph

Joseph is a young Scottish film enthusiast. He enjoys the polar opposites of the psychological thriller and rom-coms, and has goals of pursuing a hopefully successful career in film and television. His writing dives into technical and emotional aspects of the cinematic experience, and how this affects film in the modern age.

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