I have always loved the medium of cinema as a platform of expression, not only for those who create film, but also for those who watch and engage with them. I particularly enjoy horror movies and how as a genre they can accurately communicate this expression through audience reactions. As one of my favourite movie directors Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it” and I believe this is what makes horror films such a unique and valued cinematic experience for audiences.
With these interests in mind, I’ve conducted a small media project to look further into the nature of audience reactions to horror films. The participants watched three different horror films from three different horror subgenres; psychological, paranormal and slasher. I have recorded their reactions to each film and followed the viewing up with a short interview to gauge their thoughts, feeling and reactions to each film.
The participants I included in my study have varying experiences with the horror genre. Sarah and Madeline have watched many horror films and are quite familiar with the themes, tropes and conventions the genre often employs. For this reason I expected them to be the least affected in terms of their reactions to the films content. Dean despite being a massive cinephile hasn’t watched a lot of films in the horror genre, although he is very familiar with the common themes, tropes and conventions. Thus I expected he may react to some elements throughout, or he may not. My last participant Georgia has never been exposed to the horror genre in her life, therefore I expected that she would be the most affected out of my participants as she looked at the content with fresh eyes and therefore is completely unaware of the tropes and themes that my other participants could see coming.
Psychological- The Shining
The Shining is a 1980 psychological horror movie directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel of the same title by Stephen King.The Shining focuses on the troubled Torrence family who move to the isolated Overlook Hotel over the winter where the past and present ghosts of the hotel influence the father’s decent into madness and violence. Meanwhile, his son sees horrific premonitions from the past and future. The movie focuses predominately on themes of family, isolation, time and space which Kubrick uses to a distinct advantage throughout the film to create “a sense of ambiguity… because the absence of knowledge makes everything scarier; it feel’s evil and that’s all it needs” (Carl 2013)
Paranormal- The Ring
The Ring is a 2002 paranormal horror movie directed by Gore Verbinski. The film centres around an urban legend where viewers of a nightmarish videotape receive a call after watching it, informing them that they will die in exactly seven days. A journalist is skeptical of the tape until she watches it herself. Now she must unravel the videotapes mystery before her time is up. The central themes of this film are the harmful effects of media (contextually relevant as the Ring was released when media anxieties were high in relation to emerging media forms ie. the internet),the responsibility of parents and guardians and feminine roles.
Slasher- Halloween 2007 remake
Halloween is a 2007 slasher horror movie directed by Rob Zombie as a remake of the 1978 cult classic of the same name. Halloween centres around troubled child Michael Myers who on Halloween murders his mother’s partner, his own sister and her boyfriend. Twenty years later he returns for his baby sister. This movie targets themes of family, insanity and obsession.
Sarah’s and Madeline’s Overall Reactions
When interviewing Sarah, much like I had predicted she had not been affected by any of the three movies. This is most noticeable throughout the reaction videos as she is often joking about the situations and the characters and doesn’t seem to be emotionally involved in what was happening on the screen. She was also more likely than the other participants to be distracted by her phone or other distractions present in the space.
However while Sarah did not get scared by anything depicted on screen, she did mention in her interview that she was curious as to what was going to happen. This aligns quite closely with a study into the philosophy of horror which states that through horror “curiosity, fascination and our cognitive inquisitiveness are engaged, addressed and sustained in a highly articulated way.” (Carroll 1990)
In terms of interacting with the film, Sarah’s reactions were much more logical rather than emotional. This is shown throughout the videos with her tendency to predict future events of the film. When asked later about this, Sarah indicated that this was because she is intrigued by how closely horror movies follow the stereotypes of that genre. This is to be expected when she is so familiar with the conventions, tropes and themes . In confirmation of my hypothesis Sarah confirmed that she was less scared due to what she described as desensitisation through exposure to the genre.
Similar to Sarah, Madeline stated that she was not particularly affected by any of the movies we watched, but was intrigued by the psychological subgenre and enjoyed The Shining. However, even though she stated that she wasn’t affected by the films, her physiological responses of screaming, covering her eyes, talking back to characters were much more prominent than in other participants, illustrating at least a surface level of emotional involvement with the films. This is clearly demonstrated throughout the reaction videos. When asked about this Madeline said that she gets scared by the movie while she is watching it, but afterwards is not affected by them. like Sarah, Madeline was distracted in slower parts of the movie, looking at either her phone or eating when there wasn’t much going on. This distraction once again is likely due to the fact that she is so familiar with the horror genre that she knows what to expect.
Dean’s Overall Reactions
Dean found himself most affected by the paranormal movie, The Ring. He found this movie to have more mystery and suspense, which in combination with the jump scares made the movie more terrifying. While he was scared by the content of The Ring, overall he found the Shining to be very creepy stating that the quality of the film kept him uneasy even in scenes where nothing was happening. Dean was the least affected by the slasher genre, stating that although entertaining it had more noticeable tropes making it harder to connect emotionally and intellectually with the movie.
When asked about his physiological responses to the film, Dean claimed he did not show any noticeable signs .However there is footage throughout the videos which contradicts this, indicating that these responses were involuntary in their nature.
When asked about distractions, he stated that he was affected slightly by having snacks in the room and a camera pointed at his face. In my observation Dean was the participant who was distracted by the space around him the least, and when he was distracted it was for a significantly shorter period than the other participants.
Georgia’s Overall Reactions
CARL, 2013, The Shining: Review and Analysis, Some Films and Stuff,weblog post, 25th May, viewed 28th October 2016, <https://somefilmsandstuff.com/2013/05/25/the-shining-review-and-analysis/>
Carroll, N 1990,The Philosophy of Horror: Or Paradoxes of the Heart,Routledge, New York.