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The Conventions of Horror Films and Why People View Them for Entertainment

Updated January 14, 2022
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The Conventions of Horror Films and Why People View Them for Entertainment essay

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Horror has been a part of entertainment for hundreds of years; it just has not always been in the form of film. The conventions of horror films are vast and make for a very distinct experience for their viewers. One of the earliest instances of horror in the theater was the Lumiere Brothers’ The Arrival of a Train at the Station, where viewers in the audience were so unfamiliar with the moving picture that they thought the train was going to come through the screen and crash into them. That is an instance of horror that was unintended.

Most of the time, however, the genre intends to incite fear, excitement, and anxiety into its viewers. The genre is so vast that is includes older movies made in the twentieth century that viewers see today and do not find too scary. For example, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds was scary in its time, but to viewers today, it does not have the same effect. The same is true for Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws. People were terrified of those movies, but now are less interested in what we can refer to as “natural” horror films that deal with physical and tangible things, like sharks or birds.

Today, viewers seem to be more interested in, and more afraid of supernatural things, such as paranormal activity and demons. It is important to observe this shift in interest and content. It is also important to observe the reasoning behind going to see horror films if they are something that incites such fear in people. The shift occurred because people are more interested in the supernatural, as opposed to the natural, because it creates more anxiety due to the fact that it is something out of their control. Despite that anxiety, people still watch them for various reasons, one of those being the thrill that horror films provide.

Horror has been an aspect of entertainment for years, going back even to the days of Aristotle, showing that the conventions of horror entertainment have changed over the course of time. There will always be some that stay the same, though. When speaking of horror entertainment, Aristotle said, “fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of a piece…even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity with what takes place” (White 1).

This is an interesting view of horror, as pity may not be the first term to be associated with it. There are, however, some more modern conventions of horror. Dennis White says, “If a film has anything to do with the supernatural, cults, monsters, mad scientists, graveyards, old castles, or uncharted islands, it is classified as a work of horror while films not dealing with such particulars are apt to be classified as something else” (2). Just from observation, I know that not all of those conventions are relevant, but that some of them apply. There are also some that can be added to that list, such as blood, jump scares, and highly unlikely situations. White also says that “the horror film is particularly fond of violent death and bizarre love” (7).

It is of importance to explore how these “natural” horror films fit into the genre. Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s 1975 horror film, tells the story of a quiet summer vacation island community experiencing a series of shark attacks. The people were terrified and had no idea how to handle themselves. Three men, Brody, Hooper, and Quint, set out to kill the shark to alleviate the people in the community of their fears. Although this movie could be classified as a thriller or even an adventure film, it is important to see why it was considered horror at the time.

Typically, part of what evokes so much fear from viewers is the fear of the unknown. For the people of Amity, the shark and the ocean represented a great amount of unknown to them. In addition, it fits the genre of horror in that things out of the ordinary took place. For example, most sharks are not dead-set on attacking a certain area or even a certain boat. It would be uncommon for a shark to actually do what “Bruce,” the shark in Jaws, did. There were also great amounts of blood and guts and violent ways of death, which was one of White’s conventions that he mentioned most horror films should include.

There are jump scares, mostly from the shark, but also one from the head of the dead fisherman underwater. It was, however, more frightening in its time and now would not be considered a horror film. When a random group of OBU students were asked, “What do you think of when I say, ‘horror film’?”, they all responded with answers like, Paranormal Activity or The Conjuring.

An important question to ask when studying the change in the “scare factor” of these films is what makes them so scary. When studying Jaws, I think it is of necessity to remember that shark attacks were not a common thing, so the newness and the unknown of it made it scary. Also, in modern day situations, there would have been a bigger boat and more technology that would have made it safer to be out on the ocean and a shark would not be able to sink the boat. The unknown of the shark made people fearful of the water, when, removed from the situation, we know that the person could just not get in the water and be safe.

Another reason that Jaws does not seem as scary in our society today is because there has been a shift in interest from the natural to the supernatural. I think that one of the reasons for this is that we feel like we know everything about what is real and tangible. A reference to early British literature can be made here to Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. One of the reasons that Faustus felt like he needed to confer with the devil was that he had gone as far as he could with natural things, like law and medicine. That piqued his interest in things of the supernatural, which is a similar to pattern to what we have seen in the popularity of recent horror films.

Because there is such an interest in the content of horror films, whether it be natural, supernatural, gore, or death, there have been questions raised as to whether or not it is moral to watch them. Scott Woodcock wrote an article on the reactive attitudes and how they relate to people watching horror films. He quoted Gianluca Di Muzio’s article, saying that “it is not morally permissible to produce, distribute, or view ‘slasher’ films in which narration is primarily focused on supplying viewers with strong emotional responses to simulations of victims being hunted, tortured, murdered, etc.” (Woodcock 310). He also summarizes Di Muzio’s argument that “horror films of a certain kind are immoral because they undermine the reactive attitudes that are responsible for human agents being disposed to respond compassionately to instances of victimization (1).

I do agree with this because watching people being “hunted, tortured, murdered, etc.” over and over again does desensitize the viewer to those things. There should never be a point when, as humans, we become desensitized to the torture of other human beings; it should always bother us. There is also a comparison in this article of horror films to pornography, in that just as people who view pornography being desensitized to the poor treatment of women [or men], so people who watch horror films become desensitized to the violence portrayed in them (2). I would argue, too, that people become desensitized to the power of the supernatural, as well. It becomes something only for entertainment and not something that is real and should be carefully handled.

One of the most interesting things about horror films is the fact that they are scary and people still choose to go see them or watch them in their homes. I do not personally watch horror films. I do not find the content interesting and I do not particularly enjoy being scared intentionally. There are plenty of things in life that scare me enough that I do not feel the need to integrate that into my forms of entertainment. Horror films foster a great amount of popularity, however, amongst people, especially young adults.

Despite one’s love for adrenaline and jump scares, it is still peculiar to me that people enjoy such things. Woodcock says that “the average horror film viewer is instead someone who seeks out horrific imagery because it is uniquely capable of generating compensatory narrative pleasures” (Woodcock 317). This is interesting, though, because he also says, “Indeed, a striking number of hypotheses have been proposed to resolve what has come to be known as the paradox of horror, i.e. the fact that the audiences are attracted to horrific subject matter in fictional contexts despite the fact that they would never seek to experience this subject matter in real life” (316).

Because there is such a great divide in people who watch horror films and those who do not, there has been research done exploring is there are certain types of people that are more drawn to these forms of entertainment. Jonathan Norman, a researcher in the psychology field, researched whether or not there is something about personality that plays into whether or not people like horror films. His findings were that “there were no grouped personality traits predicting horror film preference” (1). It has more to do with how personality types relate to fear and how they handle it.

Especially since it is so interesting to see the effects of horror films on people and the views of whether they are moral or immoral, I interviewed a few people to see what they think about horror films. Even after reading a good amount of research done by other people, I still wanted to see why people, even people I interact with on a daily basis, watch horror films or maybe do not. In addition, I find it interesting to factor in morality and faith, since we are on a Baptist campus. Five people were asked the same question: “Do you watch horror films?”, followed by the question: “What is your reasoning for your answer?” David answered, “Absolutely not.” He did not provide an answer to my follow up question.

Kelsey answered, “Heck no.” Her answer to the second question was, “I don’t enjoy being scared and I have nightmares.” Rachel said, “Not really.” Her follow up question was answered in a more nuanced way. She said, “It’s probably just because I enjoy more humorous things. I will/would watch one if the whole group wanted to, but it’s not my first pick.” Haley said, “Yes, I enjoy the thrill.” Katie’s answer was similar to Haley’s; she said, “Yes, I love the adrenaline.” Obviously, I did not do extensive research, but I found it interesting that even in a group of just five people, all of a similar demographic, that the answers were so different. The one reason for Haley and Katie saying that they did watch them had to do with adrenaline.

The reason for Kelsey’s answer has been common across the board when I have just had conversations with people about this topic, but not in an interview setting. Some people just do not like to be scared, but some people thrive off of that sensation of adrenaline. I was raised (in church, not at home), to think that horror films were bad because they “invited the devil to come in and do what he wanted to do.” While I am unsure of the truth of this because of not watching horror films, I can say that the gravity of that statement did steer me away from being interested in the genre.

There has been more formal research done on why people view horror films and I am going to introduce the most fascinating theory that I found during the research process. Christine Davis and Jonathan Crane wrote an article called “A Dialogue with (Un)Death: Horror Films as a Discursive Attempt to Construct a Relationship with the Dead.” In this, they refer to hundreds of years ago when people used to place the dead they were mourning in the living room until the funeral or burial. They say that watching horror films is a fine way to replace that connection with the dead in such a way that horror films allow us to “grieve” in the ways that we should (1). This had never occurred to me and I became interested in how horror films do connect us to death.

One of the ways that they do this is seen in Maria Loh’s article, “Early Modern Horror.” She wrote on why one should study horror and her conclusion was this: “Horror shakes us to the core and reminds us not only of our own mortality, but also of the vulnerability of our coping strategies” (326). Maybe that is what piques the interest of viewers so much. One of the conventions of horror films is the exploration of the unknown.

Death and mortality are things that are really unknown to people and many do not know how to cope with it. Lewis and Crane argue that watching horror films is a “safe way to play with death without dying” (420). The unknown evokes fear and anxiety. “Regardless of which anxieties the horror genre taps into, anxieties that can be read off the changes evidenced on and in our bodies, we suggest at some deep, foundational level they all play on our deep fears of death and dying” (424).

While for some people, the connection with death helps them come to terms with reality, for some it incites anxiety. Kelsey was asked, “Do you feel like it gives you insight into things you don’t want to see/are afraid of, like death?” She replied, “Umm 100% yes. Like death and paranormal things. They give me ideas of worst case scenario type situations that make me have anxiety.” Katie was asked, “Does the unknownness of death scare you?” She replied, “Yes.” She was then asked, “If so, do you feel that being able to experience that closeness with death in a film like that makes you understand it better? Or does it make it worse?” Her response was. “I think it does [help her understand it better] but in reality, it makes it worse which is why I have stopped watching as many as I used to.” I then said, “So the more you understand death, the more fearful you become of it?” She said, “I think so. I think it makes you think too much about death which can heighten anxiety.” So, there is an interesting contrast of how even though she likes horror films and adrenaline, the idea of death still frightens her and it does help her come to terms with reality, but it makes her more anxious about death. I also fully understand that she represents the opinions of one person. I would agree with Lewis and Crane that horror films give people a way to play with death without having to experience it.

Horror has existed for a long amount of time. Its conventions have changed, resulting in movies like Jaws not being considered as scary now as it was when it was released in 1975. We have observed this shift of interest in things that are out of our control, which has led to an increase in horror films that deal with the supernatural instead of the natural. While some people enjoy the fear that horror films bring, many do not and avoid them. The people that do watch them, as seen in personal and in secondary research, seem to be high adrenaline seekers. In addition, the people that watch them might be trying to confront their own mortality by vicariously experiencing death. Whatever the reason is, it is important to remember that just like the Lumiere Brothers’ film, “this, too, is but a train of shadows” (Lowenstein 124). What is shown in the theater or on the television in your living room is merely fiction, and the threats that horror films bring are often empty, or “a train of shadows.”

The Conventions of Horror Films and Why People View Them for Entertainment essay

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The Conventions of Horror Films and Why People View Them for Entertainment. (2022, Jan 14). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-conventions-of-horror-films-and-why-people-view-them-for-entertainment/

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