How Horror Films Haunt Us
Horror Films and Their Ability to Trick Our Minds
Note: In preparation for the following text and to learn in the most effective way, I would recommend you watch The Shining (1980) if you haven't done so already as it will be frequently referred to in the article.
It is true that when anyone goes to watch a film, whatever genre it may be, there are certain things you remember when you leave the theatre. These are not only based on whether you like the film or not, but instead they are dependent on the following:
- What the film was about
- The specific genre/sub-genre of the film
- The director/cast
- The reason you went to see it in the first place
But, as we know, horror films work slightly differently and this is what gives them their own cultures of people. I say cultures as a plural because there are many. Some of these cultures include:
- Those who enjoy watching horror films as that is their interest
- Those who enjoy being scared
- Those who enjoy watching horror films as part of a group, thus intensifying the scare factor
- Those who enjoy watching horror films in order to study them
Whatever bracket you fall in to, you are still thinking about the film for long after you've seen it. Sometimes, in the worst case scenario, it can end up doing you psychological damage. But why is it that films, simple motion pictures designed for entertainment, can have such an impact on not only the way we watch a film, not only what we do afterwards, but even our mental wellbeing?
In this article, we are going to explore that question and try to come up with a logical solution to how and why this happens.
Part 1: The Philosophy and Experiment
Soren Kierkegaard once said, "anxiety is the dizziness of freedom" and, in the case of horror films experienced in a setting with many other people, the anxiety is high. The freedom part comes from our feeling as being a part of others - thus, giving us comfort that we are in a group but also having the freedom to do as we wish (experience the film) without any incidents involving ghosts etc. afterwards.
Why does this happen?
The experiences, noises and chatters of others tells us, subconsciously, what we should be feeling. We, as humans, seek to feel part of the group and so, even if we are not scared in any way whatsoever - we will make sure we feel so in order to fit in.
How do I know?
I have personally tried this out and I will explain in an anecdote/experiment that I did on why cinemas make great places to terrify an audience into horror acceptance.
Here is my experiment:
Note: I had to practice this on a person who I knew wasn't scared by horror films and therefore, ended up practicing it on myself.
Hypothesis: In a crowded cinema setting, the horror film will increase anxiety in the individual (me) and ideally, make the individual frightened even though the film may not be frightening to them individually.
Description: In order to have full effect, I located this experiment within two settings. The first setting was where I normally watch horror films; alone in my room. The second setting was where I don't normally watch horror films; in a packed out cinema at 12-midnight. The third and final setting was where I have watched horror films a couple of times; in an empty cinema at midnight with my brother (seven years my senior).
Findings of the first setting: I found that in the first setting that everything was normal. I studied my heart-rate and it was slightly below average (I have low blood pressure), but everything was fine. My breathing rate was normal and in no way did I feel anxious or terrified. Even giving that this was too, at midnight in a dark room, nothing made me afraid and nothing increased the tension. The bedroom atmosphere however, was quite comforting. Therefore, this setting did not increase anxiety.
Findings of the second setting: The second setting I found was more extreme. My heart-rate and blood pressure increased so that I had broken a slight sweat. Given the fact that there were many people in the room, I could not tell whether it was from the body heat or whether it was from crowd compliance. There were many people who were scared during the film and I could tell that my anxiety had gone up even though I am a very difficult person to scare. This anxiety was reflected in my sitting position and my inability to keep still. Just like everyone else.
Findings of the third setting: The third setting was slightly less so, but less normal. As the room was large and empty, the anxiety was still rather high; the temperature of the room was cold and therefore made a shiver that was not unusual to experience before watching a horror film at night in a remote setting. My brother and I were the only ones there and yet, my anxiety didn't increase that much - it was still very much less comfortable than watching alone in a setting that is familiar with whoever may be watching the film.
Conclusion: Therefore, the experience of horror film doesn't only rely on whether it is actually frightening, it also depends on the following:
- How many people are in the cinema at the time of the experience and how are these people reacting towards the seeing the film?
- What is the temperature of the room and is anyone else breaking a sweat because of body heat or shivering because of the low temperatures? (Both of these could implicate anxiety and therefore have a subconscious effect on the individual who is not normally afraid of horror films)
- Has there been much anticipation behind this film in the run-up to its release?
The statement on anxiety being the 'dizziness of freedom' is therefore both true and completely false. In this situation, the anxiety experienced is the freedom of being in an unfamiliar setting (which instead may be the cause of the anxiety), but it is also false in the sense of being any kind of freedom at all. The anxiety is the compliance one feels towards the reaction to the film.
Part 2: Audience vs. Filmmaker
Going back to Kierkegaard's statement, he may be entirely correct. Anxiety is caused by adrenaline and therefore, can be linked to the ideas surrounding extreme levels of freedom or the loss of control. This is similar to the "roller coaster idea". This idea is that people who enjoy roller coasters actually enjoy the adrenaline rush of losing control; the heart rate increase is similar to that experienced during a intensely scary horror film.
Therefore, during the film, the scare would need to be frightening enough to scare an audience very much used to adrenaline rushes. The question is: how do you know your horror film is scary enough to stay with someone after they've watched it?
The question for the audience is: why does it stay with you after you've watched it?
This is down to the anxiety experience whilst watching it, of course. Now that we've established that it is a rush of adrenaline that causes this heightened sense of fear, we have established that it is also the setting AND it is the way in which the film is marketed that makes us feel this way when the film is experienced in a setting filled with other people.
Thus, the part that the film actually plays in terms of scare is fairly small, especially in the expansion of social media and news. But, in terms of the audience, we understand why it happens during the film, but why do we remember it afterwards? And why for so long?
Here are the three sub-questions:
- What does it take for it to stay with us when we look at the film (as a product and not much the setting etc. that we've just talked about)?
- Why does it stay with us?
- Why is it that in some people this can cause emotional instability and possibly even mental health problems?
Part 3: What does it take for it to stay with us when we look at the film (as a product and not the setting etc. that we've just talked about)?
So, we've looked at everything when it comes to the audience in a particular setting and the audience as a group and as an individual. We've spoken briefly about how the marketing, the campaigns and the various ads etc. anticipate and heighten the anxiety so that the filled setting only increases the anxiety that is [mostly] already there. Now, we're going to look at the film as a basic product. Various films have an impact on the mind, as does music, art, literature and even dance. There are certain films that deliberately play with various fears that the majority of audiences have. I call this theory the "Big Scare System".
What is the "Big Scare System"?
Taking ideas that most people are afraid of and collating them into a film/book/art etc. Therefore, when experienced in a setting (such as a cinema filled with people) the audience should act with social compliance and become more afraid than they'd usually be.
An example that has used the "Big Scare System" and how it's been incorporated:
(We'll be focussing on The Shining.)
'The Shining' (1980)
From the very beginning of the film, the director (Kubrick) plays with some very major fears and anxieties of the audience from vertigo to agoraphobia. The first shot appears as both of these and thus, watching this in a setting with many other people must have solidified this film's case as at least a psychological horror.
As the film progresses, we begin to see other fears and anxieties that the majority of audience members may have, these include:
- Psychological Damage
The way in which Jack descends into madness would have an effect on the more emotional members of the audience, not to mention those who already have psychological difficulties themselves. Playing on these anxieties of the audience can be very effective for film, but can also be dangerous depending on the individual watching it. The terror gained from this aspect is heightened again by the trust between the characters of the married couple - increased only by the fact that they have a very young son who is psychologically disturbed. The "sixth sense" effect of playing on the child archetype makes the audience feel empathy and thus, frighten the audience into not wanting the child to get hurt.
- Social Isolation
The Overlook Hotel is in such a remote location that, in the post 1970s world one can only think of being connected to everything all the time. At the time of its release, it was definitely still a benign concept. We have since become more aware of our positions in connection; the aspect of social isolation could play on emotions so well that it may not be the root cause of psychological damage by itself but it could definitely cause the recurring thought of "could" and "what if?"
This is only heightened by the fact that the setting is so incredibly big with so few people in it. Even when Jack is being shown around with his family, there's hardly anyone there. This amount of social isolation is, in all aspects, more frightening as the young child has shown he needs support. The support he gains in this scene is by talking to a man who tells him he has "the shining". This act of psychological support leaves the building when Jack begins work; this proves the boy is in danger and makes the audience socially aware of his forced isolation, again making them feel frightened for the life of the child.
Everyone has seen the famous "Maze Scene" from the film and yet people think very little about the impact it could have on people that don't even suffer from claustrophobia. The film plays with the fear of small enclosed spaces by creating the maze to contain something dangerous. Again, using the child archetype for empathy, the young boy is chased through a snowy maze by his psychologically deranged father.
There are some different claustrophobic nightmares at play here. The first is the snowy maze. The maze is not only secure and tightly compacted, but it is also hazardous in terms of weather, making it seem even more clogged up than it normally is. The next thing is the fact that the boy is being chased. This would mean that the boy is running around a very small and clogged-up space in weather that could means he falls and injures himself badly. The final thing at play is the fact he's being chased by his father. The boy is therefore being chased by the only person in the maze that he would find comfort in going towards, but instead is running away from. This idea is quintessential to creating the fear factor and tension in that scene.
Therefore, this film is not yet part of an actual setting, it is part of a theoretical setting. It will be played in a large theatre with many people in order to create more anxiety and more tension. But, for now, this film plays on the "ideas" of fright for the director cannot foresee individual fears and anxieties. These prove to be effective only when many of these people are collected into a setting in which they will watch the film as their main action during that time.
Questions to think about:
If you were to gather these same people but the film was the secondary action, I ask, would it change the scare quality of the film?
If you were to gather the same amount of people in the same room but none of them were very much frightened by horror (let's say all of them were students of horror), would you have the same reaction and would the director using "the Big Scare System" still be correct in his theories?
Part 4: Why does it stay with us?
If we were to look at this film as a product, why does the film stay with us and why do we remember it? I have heard people say that they cannot sleep at night after a horror film, or that they have to sleep in specific conditions. But why?
We've discussed the "what" in the previous section, but now we are discussing exactly "why" the "what" happens. This would practically include human psychology and my theory of "the Big Scare System" being a reflection of societal fears that have been ingrained over thousands of years. Some of these include:
- Family, Friendship and Trust
- The Difference Between What is Human/Humane and What is Not
- Anonymity and Darkness
The explanation that I have for this is pretty simple. The more horror films that are watched by a certain individual, the less likely it is for them to be frightened by these "big scares". For example: the more times you play a song, the more likely you are to learn the words. The more times you watch a certain type of film, the more you become accustomed to the art form as "art" and not "reality". In this case, the product of a horror film is only a "product" and not a "reflection" or an "imagined reality".
We are now going to view this through the individual who does not watch horror films often and does not therefore, have the understanding at the time of the horror film being a product of artistic talent. It is a learned reflex.
We are now going to go through each of the example "big scares" on the list and how it incorporates itself into our example film: The Shining (1980).
1. Family, Friendship and Trust
It is quite obvious the average, inexperienced viewer would have their own family, friends or trusted circles. This means that the ideas reflected in the film to do with that in the particular setting of social isolation would be reflected on to their own realities. Whether they are realising they're doing it is an entirely different concept, but the fact that they have remembered this film (as, for example, they have just watched it for the first time regardless of the setting).
The fact that this film uses the familiar ideas of family, friends and trust and then puts them into a scene of hazards, danger and suffering only means that the viewer themselves will feel less safe in their empathy for the most endangered character, in this case: the child, Danny.
As they have only just watched the film, the anxiety is quite high which will make sleep nearly impossible; especially when there is an imagined case of an endangered person involved (that the viewer has reflected this "big scare" on to).
Many people do not realise the religious notions hidden within The Shining but are there to scare unsuspecting viewers. Religion doesn't just mean the indoctrination received at the hands of scripture, but it also includes ideas about belief in an "all-seeing being". The fact that these characters suffer in a remote location and that religion has taught us that it is far worse to endanger women and children than it is to endanger men, this film makes the perfect fright for any viewer who is even mostly agnostic.
It is the social isolation and the act of being so far away from others that scares the religious viewer. What would stay with them is the idea that there are places on the globe where God does not help those in need. This is because of the trial and error for communication with other human beings that is seen over and over again in the film; only saved by the escape from that system and the death of those responsible.
The way in which this stays in the mind is both a combination of fear and reflection. The fear of being so isolated that other humans do not communicate with you—and therefore, are you even there at all? Reflecting this question back on to yourself would then create the idea that you may not be visible by whoever is watching over purely because the other humans do not accept you because of your location of being away from the masses. After all, religion relies on social compliance and a feeling of community. Going out of that community means risking and even giving up that social compliance and therefore, leading the question of whether anyone is protecting you.
This anxiety again, would be heightened if the viewer sleeps or lives alone. Therefore, sleep would be almost impossible as this thought is reflected back on their own situation. Sometimes even causing social disorders.
3. The Difference Between What is Human/Humane and What is Not
The psychological descent in the film is something that the majority of the audience will not recognise and therefore, to the masses in terms of animalistic impulse, it is not human/humane. Here are the two reasons that it is not human/humane:
- It is not recognised as a human act to harm those inside trusted circles
- It is not recognised as humane to want to hunt and kill a young child, especially one that you are in the care of.
Both of these, linked into the fear of something humans do not fully understand (the descent of mental health) creates not only a fear of the unknown but the fear of impulse. To put it in easier terms; there is a human that is not acting in a way we would see as predictable for a human. This would naturally put people on edge, make them tense, especially being around the impulsive person along with the fact that his own child is in danger because of him.
The way in which this stays in the mind is through the fact that the audience/viewer now believes that it is possible and that it can happen. They reflect it either back on to themselves or they reflect themselves upon the situation (depending which one they associate more with). This reflection mixed with the knowledge of the psychological descent being quite real and therefore, highly possible/likely in the socially isolated situation the character finds themselves in creates something quite disturbing for the viewer.
4. Anonymity and Darkness
Anonymity is one of the main causes of fear, but this mixed with the metaphorical darkness achieved by the film can be absolutely mind-breaking. It is a brilliant technique and can only be achieved if the two ideas (Anonymity and Darkness) are directly opposed to each other and are not linked by framework or form (as in they are not a part of the same sector of the film experience). This causes association by linkage in the human mind as we are designed to see patterns in things that don't really have patterns. The fact we ourselves have made the link and, at the time of viewing, we do not think that this is done on purpose by the director - we think we have found something quite unusual and disturbing in the subtext of the film. Obviously, this is not true - let's take a look at the example film to see how.
In The Shining there is an obvious subtext of Anonymity and Darkness; it is not in the way you'd expect. Normally, in these films of psychological horror the anonymity is given off by the character and the darkness, by the setting respectively. But, in this film it is the other way around.
If we were to watch the film scenes of when the family first move in to the hotel by themselves. I want you to look out for muted colours—this isn't a normal horror film with blacks and reds and greys everywhere. Instead, we have these muted pinks, these soft browns and these strange bursts of red (in order to cleverly symbolise the blood of those spilled who did once stay there). But the mostly muted colours contrast to the bar scene in which Jack is sitting at the table talking to a bartender, or the scene in which he is in the bathroom talking to a janitor.
This is because the muted colours give a slight ease to the hotel, making it seem harmless from the appearance—just like every other nice and pretty hotel that people in the audience have probably been to before. This makes the hotel seem anonymous; it has no identity of its own and doesn't "seem" like it belongs in a horror film if you look at it without context.
The darkness of character gives the context to the hotel. The story and its darkness give context to the hotel, removing the anonymity slowly enough for all of it to go to hell. Therefore, apart from the context, the darkness and anonymity work exclusively to colour different things and make the audience afraid in two different ways. Both do not anticipate the ending though, nor do they the turn it takes for the worst.
How this stays with a viewer is by the way in which anonymity is confused for familiarity. When you look at the hotel without context, it appears as a normal hotel with a fairly nice - but outdated, decor. The anonymity is that there is nothing special to look at in this hotel, but this is associated with familiarity in the audience and may make them believe that this is a hotel they've been to before. The effect of this is association by design. The audience sees what they want to see.
The fact that such a normal family seemed to go into a descent within this normal-looking hotel then seems to bring in the everyman argument. "It could happen to anyone." Therefore, we have an audience filled with people who feel like they've seen this hotel somewhere before and who all anticipate the protection of the young child on the tricycle out of the darkness and descent of the main character. This adds to the fear and psychological terror of the film; the inability to help the defenceless child in the snow.
Debrief: Why is it that in some people this can cause emotional instability and possibly even mental health problems?
There is a theory that the more you expose yourself to something the less it changes your humanity/human experience. But there are some people who have emotional difficulties after viewing these films and therefore, destroy their mental health.
For example: if you are allergic to carrots, you should not eat carrots. It will make you ill.
Therefore: if you are emotionally unstable then, you should not involve yourself with things that could do more harm. It will make you ill.
The constant repetitive nature of exposing yourself to emotionally difficult storylines in films doesn't necessarily work for everyone, it is something that some people can take and some can't.
I am saying this because I have been asked about it many times and really, I study these things for academic purposes so have little choice about whether I'm emotionally stable enough—I think I am. But, this part is more of a disclaimer:
Emotionally unstable or psychologically harmful storylines do not help people who suffer from emotional/psychological instabilities and should not be exposed to them for long periods of time.
I hope you have enjoyed learning from this article and good luck on your next project!