Horror films entertain. They thrill by titillating. They punish transgressors–but of course give the audience the full view of the illicit activity first. Sex, drugs, predation, sloppy inebriation are all elements of horror films. They are all part of flawed characters that blatantly flaunt immorality.
Even the nice guys in a horror film will fall early to a sinful act. The audience watches while the good guy is compelled by his or her own worst desires to give in to sin. Once innocence is broken, the horror then seems justified as a punishment for that sin. Now the writer can bring in the monster and let the blood and gore spew.
It’s as though the protagonist invites punishment for a deeper unresolved sin from the past. In fact as the story unfolds and subtext becomes text, it is usually discovered that the protagonist has sinned before with relative impunity. And so when the monster arrives, it has an element of being personal and predestined.
The monster is usually other worldly. It is often cast in biblical terms like, demon, hellion, succubus, or incubus. The biblical name gives more power to the monster and adds a familiar mythology for the audience. It authenticates the story on screen and creates the audience bond of “the willing suspension of disbelief.”
So why are horror films popular?
The seduction of transgression is important to the popularity. Never underestimate the power of sin. Naked butts and boobs excite the sexual tension line, especially when the audience knows the monster will soon appear to punish the misdeeds.
Extreme violence is part of the excitement as well. Gore and guts spew forth when a character is attacked. Blood fills the screen. It’s terrifying and the moment of horror offers a visceral thrill.
The aggression focuses on home, school, faith, family, and innocence. The elements of our lives we profess to love and protect are under endless attack from an outside force that appears unstoppable.
The monster is powerful, primitive, and determined.
The violence is operatic, both repugnant and fascinating. How many ways can a character be tortured or die? Macabre acts of brutality compel the audience to seemingly watch against its will. The audience is riveted by the death, horror and dismemberment before them. They inhale as a gasp almost simultaneously at the scary moments. They exhale as a groan or a scream in a shocking moment of torture.
So why do we watch? Why do we pay for a movie ticket with the understanding we will be horrified, terrified and repulsed?
It is the primitive tribal participation of sitting in the dark sharing the unfolding experience. It is being drawn to the flickering light on screen, like a campfire in a cave. It is the trace DNA of early humans that remains with us. It reminds us that evil is just outside the cave opening where we can be maimed and mutilated by bloodthirsty monsters who wait in the dark. Sometimes it’s the realization that the monster we fear might be sitting in the cave with us, waiting for a moment of predatory dominance to harm us and kill us. It’s the awakening of the earliest instinct of survival.
The film is the delivery of an ancient story. It has vestiges of original fairy tales and legends that warn of evil monsters who will destroy the thing you value the most. Your family, your children, your home are all in danger if you let down your guard for even a moment.
And finally, in the end when the monster is defeated, it affirms a dormant memory of courage, survival and victory over evil forces.