What do horror stories and romance have in common? My husband is an avid horror movie buff and he reads sci-fi and medical thrillers, but he also likes to watch romance movies and those reunion clips on YouTube. You know the ones where a military person is reunited with their child, spouse or other family member. It always makes me cry.
I have never loved horror movies. I like vampires and werewolves, and some horror/thriller movies. I enjoy reading some of the darker books with some horror elements but I don’t consider myself a true horror fan. I have worked in haunted houses and I’ve marched in parades dressed as a clown, yet find it difficult to go into a haunted house and clowns can be a bit creepy.
While I was doing research for this blog, I was curious about what scientist and psychologist say about our love for horror. As a romance author, I have heard speakers talk about the affects of romance novels on readers. Stories can make people more empathetic, understanding, open-minded and there is a feminism to modern romance stories. Yes, readers still want the happy ever after of old but we see women who choose careers over having a family, we see their love-interest being supportive of their goals and willing to make sacrifices to help them achieve them. There are still some traditional romances where the couple marries and have a family, but they aren’t the only option. What surprised me when I was doing the research was that horror fans are also thought to be more empathetic and intuitive. While it’s true, some movies can feed aggressive behavior, such as movies where there is a lot of fighting, and the theme is might is always right. For the most part, as the master Stephen King explains, horror itself is a sort of safety valve, a symbolic cantharis for our cruel and aggressive behavior.
From WebMD blog “Why We Love Scary Movies” by Richard Sine, his interview with Joanne Cantor, PhD, director of the Center of Communication Research at University of Wisconsin, Madison states, “most people like to experience pleasant emotions.” We fall in love alongside the characters in a romance, experience their journey to their happy ending and are left feeling as if we’ve just fallen in love.
Professor Glen Sparks believes horror movies may be similar to our ancient rite of passage rituals. Young men especially feel the need to pit themselves against something bigger, meaner, and prove themselves. In watching a scary movie, the fear is real. Our bodies haven’t learned to filter out what is on screen and what is real danger. We react as if we are the ones hunted by the monster; our heartbeats increase, our palms sweat, skin temperature drops, muscles tense, and our blood pressure spikes.
Psychologist Glenn D. Walters identified three factors that feed the attraction to horror entertainment: 1) Tension-by including elements of mystery, suspense, gore, terror, and shock it ramps up the tension. 2) Relevance-including elements viewers identify with which plays on the psychology of fear, the most universal, the fear of death, the unknown, or cultural relevance. 3) Unrealism-having all of these “real” elements coupled with the knowledge that it is not real and probably won’t ever happen, allows the viewer to experience the fear, test their mettle within a safe environment.
Stories were originally told as a form of education. Don’t go too far from the cave or you’ll be eaten by dinosaurs. Don’t go into the woods or you’ll be attacked by wolves. Our first stories were horror stories told to keep us safe and warn of dangers.
Going into a haunted house or watching a scary movie allows us to conquer our fears. For many, horror and other violent entertainment is a way to deal with actual fears and real violence. Just as a person might learn how they wish to be treated by a lover from a romance book or movie, they can also learn to cope with evil from watching or reading horror. Fiction, no matter the genre has a way of telling us what other options are available to us. It can open our eyes to possibilities. While I don’t expect to meet a Duke and live in a mansion, having a husband who treats me as his priority and he mine, is a big part of what romance taught me. Being brave enough to face down demons from hell with only a bottle of holy water and a crucifix, well, maybe not so much. I think I’d prefer to be armed with a flamethrower at least. But whether you are a fan of horror or romance, sci-fi or action-adventure, I hope you will open your eyes and heart to people, their differences and similarities. Most of us, no matter where we come from, the color of our skin or our religion, we’re just trying to survive, find love and enjoy a few moments of peace and happiness.
WebMD-Why We Love Scary Movies by Richard Sine
Washington Post-Why We Like Scary Things by Richard Sima
RWR-Romance Writers of America