What’s the Deal With the Catharsis of Horror Movies

Gabriel Byrne, Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, and Milly Shapiro in "Hereditary"

Do you ever watch a horror film and feel guilty? Just the other day, I was watching Ari Aster’s Hereditary. When that shocking scene unfolds, I laughed in disbelief only to look over at my friend and she that she looked incredibly uncomfortable. Was I a bad person for finding joy in the awful things that happen in horror movies? I decided to look into the psychology of horror movies to find out.

The legendary horror writer Stephen King describes terror as “the finest emotion.” After all, horror is to horrific as terror is to terrific. We love to be scared. There’s something deeply exciting about feeling adrenaline pumping through our bodies, sitting on the edge of our seat, and hiding behind our hands as we await the next big scare. When our daily routine feels boring and repetitive, feeling scared makes us feel alive.

The great thing about horror movies, however, is that even though they make us feel scared, they pose no real threat. We can watch Pennywise the killer clown terrorize children, but we know that we are going to step out of the movie theater free from harm. We may at times fear that he is waiting for us under the bed but ultimately, deep down we know that he is not real and that we are safe.

Even though Pennywise is not real, the fear we experience when he jumps out at us on the big screen is very real. People who enjoy horror films typically seek out these intense moments and more importantly, we relish the sense of relief that follows. Yes, that was scary but also, you are safe now. That relief is an even greater feeling than the fear that precedes it.

Experiencing these intense emotions in a safe environment is a form of catharsis. In life, we often suppress our deepest fears so that they do not interfere with our everyday life. When we watch a horror movie, we allow ourselves to feel intense fear without it ever disrupting real life. Sure, we may lose a night’s sleep here and there but facing this fantastical fear is very different from facing our deep-rooted and more powerful fears. In a nutshell, our bodies get to release our fear in a healthy way without us suffering any real consequences.

To conclude, no, I am not a bad person for laughing when a character gets slashed by a psycho killer on the loose. Horror films are fiction and enjoying watching them does not by any stretch mean that I would react in a remotely similar way if the events were to happen in real life. The world can be a scary place and watching Pennywise jump out from behind the door can help us get out those fearful emotions so they don’t creep up on us when we least expect them to. And that’s catharsis.