Spooky Season: Why We Love to Feel Afraid

Horror Film

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Words by Nilgin Yusuf

More of us are enjoying fearful, blood-curdling entertainment all year round

As ghoulishly dressed children descend onto streets bearing plastic buckets, we might be fooled into thinking that Halloween is all about the kids. But while little ones get only one fright night, adults can enjoy fearful entertainment all-year round – and we are.

During the pandemic, viewing figures revealed larger audiences than ever tuning into blood-curdling horror. While the world experienced a truly terrifying global event – a deadly virus sweeping the globe – many adults chose to spend lockdown watching scary movies. This may seem bizarre, but several theories have since suggested that horror offers catharsis; an opportunity to process and compartmentalise fear and deal with anxieties in a safe environment.

The current horror season at the BFI, In Dreams are Monsters, on until the end of December, has lined up a brilliant programme of archetypal, global and inclusive horror films featuring ghosts, vampires, zombies and more. Programmer Michael Blyth believes that “fear is what’s united us over the last two years. Alongside social discontent and instability, the last decade has seen horror increasingly embraced by audiences and critics alike.”

Horror used to be regarded as a low-brow, mindless and cliché-riven form of entertainment but a new generation of film-makers have re-energised the form. Get Out (2017) the psychological horror by Jordan Peele, won multiple awards and used racism as the central narrative theme. Other memorable movies to rejuvenate the genre and grow audiences in recent years include Paranormal Activity (2009) A Quiet Place (2018); Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019).

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There’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that horror films perform valuable social functions, mediate cultural concerns and can even support mental health. Anna Bogutskaya is a writer, broadcaster and BFI programmer whose podcast, The Final Girls, is an essential tune-in for fans of the genre. She believes that “at best, watching a horror film is a full-body experience, affecting you physically and emotionally”. But, she points out, “unlike the constant anxiety of the outside world, a film only lasts for 90 minutes. Afterwards, you experience this massive relief. You might even be laughing because you’ve come out the other side. Horror is a safe way to confront fears.”

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Aside from biting on a cushion in the safety of your living room, there’s something comforting about experiencing horror films collectively, believes BFI programmer Kelli Weston. “Horror films almost always have something to say about society and the fears that bind us,” she explains, “but those films come alive when you watch with others – whether in the cinema or at home – in a way few other kinds of movies can.” Producer Claire Russell can vouch for this. She has friends over every Halloween to ritually watch her two favourite vintage horror flicks: The Innocents (1961) and The Haunting (1963). “I think we love to be scared in the same way children love to be frightened by fairy stories,” she says. “We can get our fright but know it’ll be over and we’ll be okay.”

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Yes, after the darkness comes light and, despite their grisly content and discomforting themes, Weston believes there’s much to celebrate in horror films – including the chance to engage with ‘otherness’ and perhaps recognise something of ourselves in what we see. “For all its bleakness, murder and gore, the horror genre is invested in a certain optimism, or at least, the belief in a shared kinship that can rival the horror that surrounds us.”

5 reasons why grown-ups love to be spooked

1/ The chemical high

Horror films make the hair on the back of our necks stand on end, our spines tingle and stomachs lurch. When afraid, our brains go on high alert and trigger the fight or flight response. When the monster is vanquished or ghost exorcised, we are flooded with adrenalin, endorphins and dopamine, the feel-good hormones. Wes Craven, director of Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream franchise, famously said: “Horror films don’t create fear, they release it.”

Horror Film

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2/ It’s fairy-tale fear for grown-ups

In Dr. Bruno Bettelheim’s classic tome, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, the renowned professor delves into the horror tropes of children’s fairy-tales using Freudian theory to illustrate how children use stories to help cope with baffling emotions and anxieties. We carry this coping mechanism into adulthood and our pleasure in consuming horror films.

3/ The surrogacy theory

Andrew Scahill, professor of Film Studies at the University of Colorado Denver and author of The Revolting Child in Horror Cinema, suggests ‘surrogacy theory’ may be another reason we are drawn to horror movies. “Horror films allow us in a way to control our fear of death by giving us a surrogate experience,” he says.

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4/ Symbolism, metaphor and catharsis

“Horror enables us to grapple difference – racial, sexual, gender,” believes Kelli Weston. “The ghost isn’t always this sinister force, although it can be. Often ghosts are silenced, already marginalised figures, like women, who must rely on the living to advocate on their behalf as their only means of restitution. The witch, also often a woman, is feared because she rebels against traditional, heteronormative Western ideals, either through her sexuality or beliefs in alternative power methods. Even the werewolf mimics the way our bodies are often beyond our control. Horror provides a space to consider how close we are to the creatures we fear.”

5/ It’s a safe space

Alfred Hitchcock, the legendary director of Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) used the following metaphor to explain his work: “The pleasant fear sensation experienced by a roller-coaster rider as the car approaches a sharp curve would cease if someone thought the car might fail to negotiate the curve.” In Jonathan Barkan’s Mental Health and Horror: A Documentary, he argues that horror can promote empathy and allow us face down our daily monsters, provided we feel safe.

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‘In Dreams Are Monsters’ is a major UK-wide film and events season running from 17 October to 31 December, 2022, at BFI Southbank, BFI IMAX and in cinemas across the UK.

This article originally appeared on harpersbazaar.com