Max Schreck portrays vampire Orlock in 1922’s Nosferatu. Horror movies have captivated audiences since cinema’s beginnings. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Why we love horror

Scholars uncover why horror attracts millions of devoted fans — and reveal which films scared them most.
ByMargaret Crable
  • Horror films have been around for as long as humans have been wielding motion picture cameras.

  • These spooky spectacles often possess the power to make change in the real world.

  • USC scholars have found psychological thrillers to be as scary, or scarier, than blood-and-guts horror.

The movie theatre business may be on wobbly footing these days, but it can still rely on one genre to fill seats: horror. Scary movies rake in millions at the box office, often on relatively low-budget productions, and can spawn multiple sequels, which bring in just as much cash as the original.

These aren’t films for the faint of heart. Horror movies sometimes cause viewers to faint, vomit or leave the theatre in protest. Yet, crowds keep coming back. Why?

Scholars recently joined a Dornsife Dialogues event, moderated by pop culture expert Karen Tongson, professor of gender and sexuality studies, English and American studies and ethnicity, to discuss the origins of horror movies, their enduring appeal and their power to live on long after the credits roll.

How did the horror genre gurgle to life?

Horror as a genre “woke up” in the 18th century as part of a larger literary trend focused on making readers respond emotionally, says Leo Braudy, University Professor and professor of English and art history at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“It was a revolt against rational, straight forward literature, part of what we call romanticism or pre-romanticism,” he explains. Alongside horror literature came tear-invoking sentimental novels as well as pornographic books.

Find a transcript of this audio here under the transcript tab.

When did horror films first startle us?

Modern audiences often believe that the genre emerged in the 1970s, but it’s been part of cinema since the beginning. Motion picture pioneer and inventor Thomas Edison filmed a reenactment of the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots in 1895.

“There’s an old saying that as soon we invented the video camera, the very first thing we did was to make a horror film and shoot porn,” says Rebekah McKendry, a horror film writer and director and adjunct assistant professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

What horror films have left a mark?

Horror film directors may find no greater compliment than to hear audiences scream the way actor Carol Ohmart did in 1959’s House on Haunted Hill. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Horror films sometimes jump the screen and affect change in the real world, or linger in our consciousnesses long after their release. The scholars pointed to a few they believe have struck a lasting chord.

Jaws: During its reign as a summer blockbuster, beaches experienced a massive drop in attendance. Our heightened fear of sharks has endured, says McKendry. “If the film is well done, it can truly ingrain a fear, whether it’s a just fear or not.”

WarGames: Featuring a super computer that comes close to destroying the world, the film was prescient about our modern fears of artificial intelligence running amok. It’s part of a longstanding anxiety about science and its power, stretching back to the lab-created monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, explains Braudy, who also holds the Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature at USC Dornsife.

Jennifer’s Body: “When Jennifer’s Body came out it was really critically panned, but a lot of people, like me, who had seen it when we were teens, later realized just how important it was to us. It had a lot to say about self-image, self-worth, about sexuality. It had this resonating effect within our psyche,” says McKendry.

Get Out: Movies are increasingly streamed at home on the couch, but some recent films, like Get Out, were box office draws that replicated the communal viewing experience of bygone eras. “I remember people screaming in the theater, freaking out, packed to the brim,” says film director and School of Cinematic Arts alumna Anna Zlokovic ’14.

Which movies entranced our scholars most?

“The cerebral, cosmic horrors were the ones that always hit me the hardest. The first one that I remember having a lingering, lasting effect on me was Jacob’s Ladder. I was probably in fifth or sixth grade and was thinking about it for days afterwards,” says McKendry.

“I would say what moves me, rather than scares me, would be something like Nicole Kidman’s The Others. In terms of schlocky movies, I like Troll Hunter, about these kids going around looking for trolls that still exist somewhere. It has this mixture of reality and unreality that attracts me to horror,” says Braudy.

“The first one that deeply, spiritually disturbed me was Eraserhead. I was just like, ‘What is happening? What is going on? Why is this little creature so scary?’” says Zlokovic. “I rewatch it now and I see a bit of humor in there, it’s a little more playful than I remember. Maybe I’ve changed as a person, which is kind of cool. When you watch horror, you also grow with it.”