Why do we watch horror films?

Either a cannibal caught slightly unawares or...a great stand in for Richard O' Brien of The Crystal Maze fame

To say that films like The Hills Have Eyes or The Exorcist are, as I have sometimes heard horror films described, “Like something out of our worst nightmares” is missing the point in a big way, I think. I don’t believe that’s giving horror films the psychological credit they truly deserve. Because in nightmares, even our worst ones, the horror is temporary and the effect is transient; assuming we’re talking about the every-day usual kind which we’re all familiar with, and not nightmares associated with sleeping disorders such as Night Terrors, there’s very little permanent about them. As terrible as they can be, and as lingering as the effect of them occassionally is, after a while they lose their power. In time they morph into shadows of their former selves, and the more you think about them, the less you can actually remember being there, being afraid, or even what, specifically, the nightmare was actually about. Soon, you can’t even remember what gave them their power in the first place. Years later, they’ve faded completely.

I mean, think about it: how many nightmares can you actually recall with any degree of clarity?

Horror films, though…they’re different. In a horror film, everything is permanent. Unlike in a nightmare, you can watch and re-watch this terror as much as you like and every single aspect of it will manifest just as perfectly as the first time; there are no exceptions to this rule. It’s a nightmare you can immerse yourself in at will, and one which presents itself in the same way for everyone. There’s no need to explain to someone how this particular nightmare unfolded or what will happen next. And the best thing — if you want to call it the best thing — ? The nightmares just keep getting more real and even worse. Now technology and special effects have caught up with our imagination, there isn’t any power they can’t possess. The result: their capacity to scare the crap out of us is infinite.

And now, or within the last 20 years, something utterly astonishing has happened: for the first time in history, films have actually exceeded what our nightmares are capable of producing.

If I was a nightmare I’d be pretty pissed off, I think.

I’m sure that even if you don’t watch or like horror films, you’ll have heard of The Hills Have Eyes. The brainchild of a younger, trail-blazing Wes Craven (Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street), the film marked a turning point in horror cinema when it was released in 1977. After that, nothing was ever the same again.

I won’t go into detail about the plot, but in it — both the original and the 2006 remake — an American family make the mistake of taking a short-cut through the desert while en route to San Diego, California. After their vehicles are mysteriously thrown from the road, it soon becomes clear that the unforgiving foreboding landscape around them is not as lifeless as it first appeared…

Spoiler alert:

A man is burned alive in front of his family: you see everything. A young woman is sexually assaulted by the kind of man who you wouldn’t want to meet in any kind of alleyway — no matter how wide or bright — but would get an enormous round-of-applause on Britain’s Got Talent, thanks to his being so hideously ugly. People are shot, heads explode, and the violence…it’s relentless, brutal, and presented with the kind of production value which makes every moment feel genuine. The politicial context is also not for the faint-hearted; chances are that if I was American, I’d be feeling guilty about my government.

Basically, you can tell yourself it’s all acting, all effects, but this bloodbath, as you watch it, is all too real.

Now, just watching this film, I feel wrong. It isn’t even that I enjoy watching it.

But the point is I do watch it. Through all the atrocities and the gore I don’t turn it off. For whatever reason — and this isn’t one of those BBC News features, so don’t expect a cold, rational, reliable psychological evaluation — I feel victory during parts of it: my base animal self wants to scream and run; when the lead character triumphs over the evil cannibals, or when it looks like something might go right for a change. (Which is short-lived, but you knew that, right?)

My guess is that we all get something different out of horror films: some of us find them intense in a good way — a way of exploring darkness, maybe, without having to actually live it ourselves. Some people like the humour or being able to live out the “what would I do if that was me?” scenario.Some people just love the giddy excitement of it all, and that’s fair enough too. You can’t beat a bit of giddy excitement.

One thing is certain: horror films are not going anywhere. Now we’re seeing what our nightmares might be like, if we’d ever be able to harness their power and expand that split-second into something more permanent, there’s no way we can’r ever be addicted.