Susan Burggraf Explores the Appeal of Horror Movies

Story posted May 15, 2000

"Why do people enjoy watching movies designed to terrify and disgust them and why do they pay for this opportunity?"

That question was at the center of several studies performed by Susan Burggraf, a visiting professor in psychology, and was the question she attempted to answer at a recent faculty seminar.

The two major types of theory Burggraf investigated were "relief" theories and "continuous reward" theories. Relief theories would explain participating in something that caused unpleasant feelings by the idea that the stimulation of fear, or unpleasant emotion, intensifies the feeling of relief, a pleasurable emotion, once the fear is gone.

Some ways relief theories relate to horror movies are as follows:
* There is a relief at the end of the movie from empathic distress (seeing the protagonist as a friend in trouble.
* There is an excitation transfer—the fear causes arousal, which is transferred into positive arousal once the fear is gone. This contributes to what is known as the "snuggle effect" in movies (and why they are good dating vehicles, Burggraf said).
* Horror movies allow catharsis. (Burggraf doesn’t see much chance of this, since this would indicate a rather high level of fright and disgust being ordinarily present in these people.)

The continuous reward theories sees the feelings induced as an end in themselves.
Some ways relief theories relate to horror movies are as follows:
* Arousal theories: In these circumstances, the sensation of excitement, or arousal, felt during horror movies would cause the person to enjoy them. Horror movies often appeal to people in periods in which they are seeking sensation, such as adolescence, Burggraf, said.
* Social theories: The snuggle theory also relates to this aspect of horror movie enjoyment. A horror movie gives people a chance to show their mastery of gender roles (for example: men are brave and women more emotional). Another aspect of social theories are the enjoyment of violating a social norm. A third aspect is the social influence of others: being with others who are similarly anxious lets us feel like we’re part of a group. (In fact, most people enjoy horror movies most with a group of their peers, Burggraf said.)
* Fright and disgust are enjoyable feelings in the framework of fiction.

To explore these theories, Burggraf performed several experiments. She showed groups of people two different horror clips—a segment from Friday the 13th Part III and part of an episode of The X-Files. Then she asked them to report their feelings seven times, from just before watching the clip until a few minutes after.

This was intended to test whether the relief theories held true. If they did, the people watching the clips should have been enjoying themselves more at the end of the clips than while watching them. Instead she found that their level of enjoyment stayed fairly constant. In fact, Burggraf’s research showed that the viewers enjoyed themselves less the more frightened they were, which was the opposite of what relief theories predict.

Burggraf also studied conditional reward theories that would explain affection for horror films. She found that fright and disgust are not enjoyable, even in the context of a horror film, but that the excitement experienced was enjoyable.

Burggraf concluded that neither the relief nor continuous reward theories were entirely correct, but that the appeal of horror movies seems to be explainable by some combination of the two: Excitation transfer seems to happen, as fright is transformed to excitement, but it seems to happen throughout the viewing experience, rather than at the end.

Another aspect of horror movie enjoyment that interested Burggraf was the way viewers seemed to use their involvement with a peer group to manage their fright, such as by making jokes, looking at their friends rather than at the screen, or simply talking. (Burggraf also performed a second study in which she compared a horror movie’s effects depending on whether someone watched it alone or in a group. She found that horror movies were more enjoyable when viewed with a group.)

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