Why do some people enjoy horror and torture movies?

I think people focus too much on the gore in Saw and not the intellectual horror.  To be fair, it is hard to ignore the gore, and I wouldn't mind if it toned it down a little.  But there is rarely another film that actually scares me as much as Saw did (and I actually only saw the first two, because I got the feeling the later ones were less intellectually stimulating).  And it's not the gore that scares me, but the idea of it and the idea of what is happening in that moment, and especially the idea of someone that smart and evil being out there.

But there is something comforting in horror movies as well!  It IS an escape…from the world of reckless and negligent horrors that "end up" happening in real life, like unrelenting poverty that so few will take responsibility for; ignoring child, elder and domestic abuse that is central to the lives of so many; climate change; racism that people deny but still ends up somehow with black families that make twice as much as white families ($75k vs. $30k) unable to move up out of the poorer neighborhoods therefore unable to access those better schools that the white families can, perpetuating the cycle of poverty, lack of education and poor health (I just listened to ProPublica's investigative report on this).  Those are just *some* of the horrors we live with on a day to day basis, and you know what?  To go into a world, for a couple of hours, where we can all (republican and democrat, liberal and conservative) actually agree that someone is intentionally and knowingly evil is a relief of a sort.  It is actually SO MUCH easier to deal with intentional evil than negligent evil.  It is so much easier to outlaw literacy tests and poll taxes that were admittedly designed with the (evil) intention of preventing blacks from voting. But now we have to deal with voter ID laws and things that are masked as patriotic and everyone can pretend it's not about racism and walk away without doing anything, neglectful, and still feel good about themselves. 

It's really hard to improve a world of neglectful evil, and much more easy, much more clear and black and white, to imagine a world where we all (except this one psychopath) share the same values and can use all our power to stamp him out.  He may be smart but eventually we know we would win.  What's much scarier and harder is to live in a world where we don't all share the same values, and we have to negotiate and renegotiate and often feel like we can never live our true values because the people in the next state over are trying to stamp our values out, instead of focusing their power on one crazy psychopath like we can in the movies.  So, you know, horror movies are great for the thrills…ones I hope to never feel in real life.  But also for this fantasy idea that we live in a world where we all agree what evil is and share the same values.  That's something that I would like to actually have in real life! 

What I like about Saw is how it is also very creative with the schemes he comes up with (even though I really don't want to see them carried out!) and how it presents the little evils that we all tolerate in our world every day and gives us some pause to let us have some conflicting feelings about the supposed victims in the movie.  Saw doesn't have as much of that black and white certainty that other horror movies have, when they have obvious good guys and bad guys, but none of this ambivalent "people who do bad things and probably deserve punishment but just not as bad as they actually get."  That kind of discomfort is a good thing to feel, too, I think.  You come out relieved that you will never have to face a real Jigsaw for all the minor or some major transgressions you yourself have made….but maybe also feeling uncomfortable with our society that does allow some pretty major transgressions to go unpunished, and what should be done.  If you are in a reflective mood anyway. 

A truly scary movie makes you think, and the first Saw definitely did that for me. Same reason why Silence of the Lambs is the only horror movie to win an Oscar.  It left out the superfluous gore, but it was smart.  And smart-scary is always more exciting and thrilling than gory-scary.  I can't speak to the final Saw, and I did get the impression they lean toward more gore in the latter ones, which just isn't the right balance for me.  But I just had to try to explain what a horror fan gets out of horror movies and Saw in particular.

19 Replies to “Why do some people enjoy horror and torture movies?”

  1. I wish more people liked the last SAW — I directed it!  I'm the first to admit that these movies are not high art, though they are fiendishly difficult to make.  But I do think that they aid in catharsis for lots of people.  There's an adrenaline rush that comes with watching a SAW film, and a relief at the end that we're able to walk away with all our limbs intact.  Just as we would perhaps go mad if our brains were prevented from having dreams and nightmares, horror films remind us of our physical frailty, and just maybe take us a step closer to understanding and accepting our eventual deaths.

  2. Wow, so to me there are two vastly different elements in this question, 'horror' and 'torture'. This reads similarly to me as

    Why do some people enjoy swimming and shark finning?

    There are many reasons I, and people I've talked to, enjoy horror movies. I'll work through the reasons via Dark Water:

    So HP Lovecraft was onto this: stress is a needle in your brain. And you don't want your brain to be penetrated… needlessly. If something is really bothering you, something you cannot shake, you want it to be representative of a larger force, a conspiracy, something powerful that cannot be stopped. You don't want it to be the incompetent repairman, or the noisy neighbor, or the minor mechanical failure that delays you 15 minutes which leads to you getting a speeding ticket. YOU don't want to be bested by the mundane, you don't want the most important part of your body to be your achilles heel.

    Dark Water is such a good example of this. The custody battle, the terrible neighborhood you have to settle for for lack of rent money, the gaps in your attention that stem from too much terrible multitasking, the blank you draw when you're confronted by profoundly stupid and/or stupidly profound questions from your offspring – these are things that you should be able to deal with but in certain moments can't. But what if certain moments are the only kind of moments you have left? You, dear sir or madam, are in a horror movie. And a horror movie is a mental shortcut your brain understands. The badness of life is sped up, and although it's BAD, it's somehow more easily digestible at the same time, because it's CONCENTRATED.

    And horror movies push the participants in interesting ways. Here is a psychological low point from Transformers (either 1, 2, or 7):

    and here is a character low point from Dark Water:

    See the difference?

    This is one of (many) reasons I enjoy and cherish a great horror movie.

    Now torture movies, those are different. At their best they exploit the fascination of body modification and the notion that the incipient corpse you are trapped in is something to be sloughed off on the way to the possibly better. At their worst, they are 98% of the cinematic market.

    Here's how you deal with torture porn for torture porn's sake: Vern Vs. The CHAOS DVD!! – Vern's Reviews on the Films of Cinema

    “From even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent.”
    ― H.P. Lovecraft

  3. It depends somewhat on the movie in question. The horror genre has many variations, from the scenario genre defined by what happens (i.e. "home invasion" or "creature feature") to tonal variants (all the way to the extreme of the Zom Rom Com). It's also one of the most self-referential or 4th wall breaking genres, a trend that reached its apex (but did not begin with) "Scream" and has since gone into more layers of meta than would be possible without such well-defined, well-understood tropes.

    That's part of it, in general: horror tends to be a very accessible genre. It's usually easy to understand what is going on, easy to emotionally identify with the protagonists.

    Horror stories tend to include morality fable elements. The values of our culture are usually clearly expressed in the text, action, and subtext. They act as an affirmation for the audience, affirming their values and choices. The latter is often reinforced via a persistent Watson factor: the smartest character on screen usually has worse judgement than anyone in the audience. Thus the viewer not only finds their values affirmed, they feel their competence celebrated by contrast.

    This, too, has become part of the self-awareness of the genre, some films layering commentary on top of the tropes (I thoroughly recommend "Behind the Mask" as a smarter dissection than "Scream"), others bucking them intentionally (del Toro's fondness for killing off "innocent" characters).

    On a more primordial level, the classic narrative structure of a horror movie is built on a familiar cycle: the familiar is established, is encroached upon by the unknown, the unknown grows to existential threat before being vanquished by either endurance or applied understanding. The beginning of this cycle (familiarity, encroachment) happens to us frequently, and accompanies our most distressing life events. During the truly catastrophic (death, divorce, etc), we feel and anticipate that third stage,wherein the void swallows all form. These narratives give us a context for safely exploring feelings that are, by their nature, deeply unsafe, with the assurance that the sun will rise to scatter the vampires or that our ingenuity will allow us to solve the demon's riddle.

    I think horror is a genre uniquely suited to the current zeitgeist: it is laden with irony while being subtly sincere, self-referential and self-escaping, most modernly self-aware while retaining deep, primal roots.

  4. I enjoy said movies, but only if they display a certain level of intelligence as well…

    I watched the original SAW, but frankly wasn't overly impressed.  I thought the editing was too much MTV and rushed.  The sound overly loud.  The acting, eh.  But, it provided an intelligent premise…and evolution of the kind of bad guy Kevin Spacey played in Seven.

    The SAW franchise is especially effective I believe because the premise invites and even encourages a certain level of rooting for the bad guy.  He does what we sometimes wish we could do – MAKE people change…or die if they refuse.

    The other interesting aspect of SAW, especially as I remember it in SAW 2, is that the protagonist is told, from the beginning, what he has to do to successfully avoid death and in that case get his son back…and he doesn't do it. 

    It's interesting, because it explores human nature, it's not just about watching extreme physical harm come to people, it's about much more.

    Contrast this with The Human Centipede…which I reviewed here – Alan Nicholas' review of Human Centipede (2010 movie).

    The difference between these two films is readily abundant if one merely takes the time to watch them…which I don't advise in the case of The Human Centipede.  But the difference is clear – one has value…the other is excrement.

    The BEST horror films, whether torture horror or slasher or paranormal, actually have more to offer than merely death, they ask questions, they answer asked and unasked questions, they very simply provide more than a recitation of mayhem and macabre.

  5. Torture scenes in movies aren't popular because people are sick and twisted. They're popular for the same reason people keep putting scenes of women giving birth in movies. Why would we want to watch a woman screaming while another human tears through her flesh? Sure there's the miracle of birth, but you could just skip to the part where the woman sees her baby, why show the screaming? Because the screaming is part of it. It's necessary, at least for some people, because It shows the sacrifice the woman is making for her child. Why do Christians obsess about Jesus's crucifixion? Why would anyone want to see a guy getting lashed brutally, nailed to something and stabbed? Because the important part of the story as far as Christianity is concerned, is the suffering Jesus is willing to go through for the people who believe in him.

    The Saw movies and other films where scenes of pain and torture occur are usually operating at a lower level than these examples, but its the same basic concept. I've liked some of the Saw movies and disliked others. The ones I liked stayed true to the original premise, that Jigsaw was using the traps he made for his victims as a chance for them to redeem themselves and become better people. They have all done evil or cowardly things and the traps are a severe and brutal punishment, but also a chance, at least in Jigsaw's thinking, for a better life.

    It's a lot like the story in the movie 127 hours. If that was a story about a guy cutting his arm off for no reason, no one would want to see it. The title of the movie is 127 hours. That's how long he was trapped in the canyon  before he resorted to the measures he took. And he did what he did because he wanted to live. Because life is that precious. It is worth the pain of living through it.

    In Saw there's probably 127 versions of 127 hours. And yes, the poignancy starts to get lost after a while. And sometimes the series loses the point of the whole thing and shows gratuitous gore without any real movement of plot. But these sorts of movies are enjoyable to watch not because blood and guts are fun. They're enjoyable because watching a character live through something makes us feel like we could live through something like that too. If that guy can saw his leg off to survive, maybe I can get through the rest of today.

  6. From the viewpoint of a cinephile, many great Directors got their start in Horror films. It is a way to get into the film business and a way for a young person to expose his inner thoughts in a raw and visceral way which prepares him(or her) for the experience of directing quality heart felt work. Masterpieces of Horror by Directors who moved on to great fame in mainstream cinema include:
    Francis Ford Coppola – Dementia 13
    Sam Fuller – Shock Corridor (his first non-studio work, I believe)
    Roman Polanski – Knife in the Water, Repulsion
    Darren Aranofsky – Pi
    David Fincher – Alien 3
    Steven Spielberg – Duel
    Tim Burton – Frankenweenie
    David Lynch – Eraserhead
    Sam Raimi – Evil Dead
    Quentin Tarantino – Natural Born Killers (first script sold I believe)
    James Cameron – Piranha 2 (just kidding, this movie sucks)

    But you get the idea, the first step in becoming an adult intellectually is to face your own mortality. That is the definition of horror.

  7. Goodness, so many questions. Was there a 2-for-1 offer or something 🙂

    Why do we watch horror movies?
    That's an easy one. Have you ever seen parents playing with very young infants. Two of the most popular games are: making scary faces at them, normally accompanied by shouting "Boo" at them; or throwing them up into the air and catching them again. Considered in the cold light of day, these are horrible activities, surely you're scaring the children doing these things? Actually,no, the child laughs rather than cries because the child knows that it is a game so although there is the appearance of danger, they know that there is no real danger. Later on, some people grow up to enjoy rollercoaster rides. Why? Same reason – the appearance of danger but without any real danger.  So why do we watch horror movies? Same reason – to be scared but in a safe environment where the danger is not real.

    How can you be sure it isn't real?
    Because they tell you. Go to the copyright usually at the end of the movie. it will say something like: "This is a fictional story. Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental". Even allegedly historical works will have something like "although this film is based on real people and real events, no claim is made to historical accuracy".

    Yes, I know that they claim to be based on true events. But that's the point: they are based on true events, not an accurate depiction of true events. If I were to tell you that the bald, black Samuel L Jackson version of Nick Fury is based on the white  Nick Fury with a full head of hair who originally appeared in comics about World War II as Sgt Fury and the Howling Commandos, that would be true: both characters are called Nick Fury and both have an eye patch and both work for SHIELD. That's it.

    Positive Reasons to view horror movies
    There is only one: because you enjoy it. What other reason do you need? Do you need a positive reason to enjoy a sunset? No. Well then, why do you need a reason to enjoy anything other than that you enjoy it?

    What must one take away from such films?
    What? These are horror movies. They're pure entertainment full of nonsense cliches. They're not educational. They don't contain morals. They do contain a number of brain-numbing cliches that you should not take seriously: any couple who enjoy sex will automatically die; pretty women are self-centred and stupid; there aren't many ethnic minorities in that setting; nerds wear glasses, blah, blah, blah. It's the excessive use of cliches that was one of the reasons, I stopped watching them. In the first 5 minutes, you can work out who is going to die and who is going to survive to the end. In fact, you can even work out the order they're going to die in and even when the shower/bath scene will be.

    If you want educational, try science fiction. I would suggest "Doomwatch" but it's an old series and its difficult to get hold of.

    Thanks for the A2A

  8. To be scared. People enjoy the visceral experience of being frightened. Since the beginning of time, people have enjoyed the cathartic experience of purging their fears, guilt, shame, etc. by watching others go through it on stage or on screen. It's also like riding a roller coaster. Why do people jump out of planes or off of cliffs? People love to be scared and thrilled, and come close to death. For those of us less ambitious, we'll just settle for the thrills and fright we can get from a movie.

  9. Investigators generally use one of two theories to explain why people like Splatter or horror movies. The first is that the person is not actually afraid, but excited by the movie. The second explanation is that they are willing to endure the terror in order to enjoy a euphoric sense of relief at the end. But, a new study by Eduardo Andrade (University of California, Berkeley) and Joel B. Cohen (University of Florida) appearing in the August issue of the Journal of Consumer Research argues that neither of these theories is correct:

    "We believe that a reevaluation of the two dominant explanations for people's willingness to consume "negative" experiences (both of which assume that people can not experience negative and positive emotions simultaneously) is in order," explain Andrade and Cohen in their study. The authors argue that horror movie viewers are happy to be unhappy. This novel approach to emotion reveals that people experience both negative and positive emotions simultaneously — people may actually enjoy being scared, not just relief when the threat is removed. As the authors put it, "the most pleasant moments of a particular event may also be the most fearful."

  10. When we talk about movies like SAW, I do agree that there would be many who wouldn't be able to stand the violence and bloodshed depicted in the movie,but then that is there choice and we have to always respect an individual and their views. At the same time there may be many who do like to watch these kind of movies and reasons may be varied from sheer thrill and suspense to those catering satisfaction to some of their psychological conditions. As far as I am concerned I prefer to watch all kind of movies from soft romantic,action to that of extreme violence and bloodshed, the reason I believe is that it helps me broaden my outlook towards the human psychology. These movies educate me of the extreme human tendencies and the probable ways of overcoming it. The basic question is that we should be aware of all the things happening around us and that is what would help us to have a balanced approach towards life. If movies are watched with the intent of learning human tendencies and situations, then i believe it would help us to be mentally prepared for dealing with any real life situations(good or bad), moreover good things are always appreciated and things which are disgusting are detested, hence if we are aware of what is good and what is bad and how our activities effect other people around us then it helps us to understand and control our actions. The logic is simple- When we ourselves do something wrong we may not realise it until we see something similar happen to people and visualise the after effects and extent of damage that is caused and I guess these kind of movies help us understand exactly that but then again it depends with what perspective we view it.

  11. I once watched a screening of "Snuff Movie" and director Bernard Rose was present and gave a view of horror that rang true with me and has stayed my best explanation of why I like horror. Though I have many reasons.

    Most people like action movies. In action movies you're invited to identify with the "hero" as he goes out and kill the bad guys, emerging victorious in a world where evil has been defeated. Who the "good" guys and "bad" guys are is defined by plot and perspective, but you're generally rooting for the protagonist doing the hunting and killing. A soldier, a police man or just a vigilante.

    In horror movies, you're invited to identify with the victim. Hunted and in mortal terror, you're expected to root for their survival and to feel the terror of being hunted and persecuted with no real reason except perhaps carelessness or curiosity. Again, who's "good" and who's "bad" is defined by plot and perspective, but you're generally rooting for the protagonist fighting for their life. A regular Joe or Jane.

    Of course it's not hard to find counter-examples, but I think it's clear that it's generally true and it's definitely something to think about. And in general, that's why I love horror movies. They allow us to explore what's good and what's evil, why do we assign these roles and how does that fit in with fear, anger, hate and all those dark emotion that are integral to making us human.

    Horror wakes up the part of us that allowed our ancestors to escape predators, survive wars, pestilence, crime and helped keep their children safe. It rings true and after all is said and done, you're left with the comfortable contrast with your own, safe life.

  12. Shock. 

    We as a society like to see things that shock us.  It's why we used to watch executions on the square.  It's why crowds gathered for hangings.  It's why we slow down on the freeway to view that car accident.  It's why we watch those shocking videos on Youtube. 

    We loved to be shocked.  And what drives this is curiosity.  We are a very curious race.  We ask strange questions to ourselves in the dark of night. 

    "I wonder what it's like to rob a bank?"

    "I wonder what it's like to kill someone?" 

    "I wonder what it's like to see someone tortured?" 

    "I wonder what it is like to be a serial killer?"

    These are dark questions that our curiosity within can't help but ask.  It's about our minds trying to make sense of it all.  Trying to figure out how such things can happen, why they happen, how they happen, and how we would feel if it happened to us.

    Thankfully, most of us have the moral compass to reject such notions and to reject taking such curiosity to dangerous and immoral levels.    

    With Saw, and other horror movies, we allow the filmmakers to present answers to such questions for us.  And we experience them in a moral manner without guilt because we know that in the end, it's all smoke and mirrors.  An illusion.  No one is really getting hurt.  And back in olden times, when public executions were a town, and sometimes family, event to witness, those citizens had detachment of guilt and shame because it was an authoritative action that they had no control over.     

    Our curiosity leads us to the thrill of being shocked.  That's why the Saw films are so successful.  That's why the horror genre is so impenetrable and has been since films like Nosferatu. 

    Beyond the ever present gore of the Saw franchise films, the added brilliance of them is not necessarily the end result of the physical and psychological torture, but the tension that is built in those moments before the character's eventual fate.  It's a thrill.  A shocking thrill that gets our adrenaline going.

  13. The particular bit which I like about it is the various situations that are created and how the human psychology and nature is unfolded. You get to understand human nature even better. As Hannibal says – "I did it as I would like to see what would you do"

    Another angle which is same vein as Kevin Greutert's answer – usually people who have faced trauma or loss, go ahead to have a paradigm shift in appreciation of life , knowing what matters most and chasing dreams. It may be loss of job, loss of money, etc. This is the extreme case of losing oneself or loved ones.

    Yes there is lot of bloodshed and gore, but yes seeing past it or through it is important.

  14. The main reason I liked the first two (they're not great, I'll admit) is, as some have pointed out, it's a scenario that I think a lot of people (myself included) liked imagining what THEY'D do in the scenario.  You see the difficult decisions the victims have to make and start wondering how you'd handle it.  What kind of person you imagine yourself being in this predicament.  Do you see yourself as the "Save yourself, screw everyone else," or do you see yourself as the martyr, or doing something other than the typical stereotypes? 

    It's kind of a dark "what if" scenario people like putting themselves in.  It's kinda the same reason why people ask those "Would you rather" hypotheticals.  It's fun to think of crazy hypotheticals to put yourself in, and SAW is movie pretty much based around a hypothetical.

  15. I’m the guy who has seen pretty much every infamous “extreme film” such as A Serbian Film, Salo, Cannibal Holocaust, I Spit on Your Grave, etc. A lot of them several times.

    Firstly, you used the word “enjoy”. I would not say I enjoy them like I enjoy a hot bath, that first cup of coffee in the morning or a good night’s sleep. I might get enjoyment out of knowing I got through an extreme film without being horribly disturbed, but watching them makes me feel more like I’m satisying a morbid curiosity, and more importantly, it’s the good feeling I get of knowing that I don’t have a problem with films that are considered dangerous, shocking, or threatening.

    From a psychological standpoint, I actually might have found an answer to why this is. When I was a kid, I caught David Cronenberg’s famously horrific The Fly on television and found it really interesting because I was already curious about horror films and very much into bugs and stuff. But it was too difficult for me, thematically and visually. I found it so grotesque that I just had to switch it off. I even taped it, had the tape for years, but I could never get all the way to the very end of the film because it was so graphic and upsetting for the 7 or 8 year old me. I ended up seeing the whole thing many years later and loved it very much. Watching the “making of” documentary helped quite a bit, actually – seeing that rubber applied to Jeff Goldblum. It broke the illusion. Eventually it became my favorite film ever. I love it very much.

    So, I spent a lot of my childhood wanting to see all of The Fly because it was so provocative and crazy and interesting, but it was that intensely disturbing that I wasn’t able to watch the whole thing. My mind would not allow seeing those images. So, when I watch extreme films now, I’m subconsciously trying to make myself feel that something like that can’t happen again. A film could be gory as hell, but I can make it to the end now. I am at peace with extreme horror. I have power over it now, and not the other way around, like The Fly had power over me way back.

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    • Watching a horror movie is a way of reassuring oneself. When watching horrible things happening to another, usually through violent disruption of their bodies followed by death, the viewer can say, "I'm sure glad that didn't happen to me. I'm still safe," and follow it with the laughter of survivors. After all, you know it wasn't real.
    • That is pretty much what ancient Roman audiences felt when they saw fighting against insurmountable odds by gladiators, perhaps to be followed by a bloody death. That is what Europeans could feel as they watched a public execution by torture from medieval times up until the 18th century.
    • Audiences today have anxieties from living in societies where at any time someone can take automatic weapons and kill dozens in a minute in almost any place. Everybody lives with some kind of fear of mutilation and death at any random time, and there is an audience over almost the entire world who will watch depictions of horrors just so they can experience the relief of saying, "It didn't happen to me."
  17. I do, but it depends.

    I love horror movies that are actually realistic, not the ones that have ghosts that chase the character or the character hides from the ghost. In other words, I hate horror movies that make my heart beat fast for a long time. Jumpscares really suit me better. So, I like Conjuring more than Insidious.

    I don’t really understand why I like horror movies. Probably it’s because of my curious feeling for the story of horror genres or I just need some scares to make me not feel bored.

    Oh, and when it’s about horror video games, it’s a whole different story.

  18. the same reason people read fairy tales to thier children (before the PR police watered them down), and the same reason some members of the pulpit like to preach only about fire and brimstone. sometimes being scared and hearing what the worst case scenario are the only learning techniques available to teach you how to live. horror stories are nothing more than fairy tales for adults. we watch good horror (and read it) not because we are gore mongers, or are sadists, but because we want to know how the participants make it out. and the ones that do(usually a virginal final girl) we root for them. we want the satisfaction of good winning in the end. just like we did when we were kids.

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