Why Do I Like Horror Films?

creepy walk in the fog

After mentioning that I am a fan of horror flicks, a friend asked why I thought people liked such films. I said I wasn't sure but that I assumed people liked them for all sorts of reasons. People are different and what they find appealing about horror films varies from fan to fan. I'm sure there are some common reasons but few we could consider universal. "Fair enough," she said, "why do you like them so much?" This should be a much easier question, but it was more difficult to answer than I thought it would be.

Part of what makes the question challenging is that I don't like all or even most of them. There are subgenres within horror I don't care for, though there are exceptions. I don't usually like films described as "torture porn," but there have been a few I have found worthwhile (e.g., Audition). I mention this because the reasons I like one horror subgenre might have little to do with why I like another. For some, the appeal is the special effects or the cinematography. For others, it is the plot and character development. It makes it tough to answer the question in a general sense, but I'll do so anyway.

What Do My Favorite Horror Films Have in Common?

The best way to approach this question is to consider what I look for and what characteristics my favorites have in common. In other words, what makes a horror film great rather than just good? The great ones are scary and/or disturbing. I don't watch horror because I'm looking for a laugh; I watch them because I want to be scared and/or disturbed. I want to find myself thinking about it the next day. I recognize that others may be looking for different things, but that is what I'm looking for.

My favorite horror films have some things in common:

  • Creepy atmosphere. I have enjoyed films that didn't deliver here, but most of my favorites create a creepy atmosphere. They keep the audience unsettled through much of the film (e.g., Session 9). There are films I like for no other reason than the atmosphere in a few key scenes (e.g., An American Werewolf in London).
  • Effective character development. This is where most horror films fail, and nothing ruins one for me like the lack of characters I care about. When I don't care about the characters or find them annoying, there is no possibility of fear. I can still sometimes enjoy such a film, but I have to do so for other reasons (e.g., special effects in the kill scenes).
  • Supernatural elements. Many of my favorites involve some aspect of the supernatural. While I find many without these elements more disturbing (e.g., Eden Lake), I usually prefer those with at least some hint of the supernatural.
  • Emotional impact. My favorites are memorable in that they make an emotional impact that leads me to think about them the next day. Two of my favorites (Poltergeist and A Nightmare on Elm Street) had such an impact that they still transport me back in time when I watch them today.
  • Art. Even if a film fails to deliver on most of the points above, I can often appreciate it if it delivers on the art. Many of Argento's films fall into this category for me. I adore Suspiria as a work of art despite its flaws. I seem to appreciate it more every time I see it.

Of course, there are always exceptions. I can identify films I have added to my collection that do not have any of these characteristics. They aren't my favorites, but that doesn't mean I don't still enjoy some of them.

Why Do I Like Horror Films?

I like different films for different reasons, but I can identify a few things that apply in most cases:

  1. I like horror films for their ability to evoke strong emotions without placing me at risk. They make me feel something that other genres rarely do, and this is the main attraction.
  2. I appreciate the art involved in many of them (e.g., writing, special effects, cinematography). This often helps me enjoy those that don't deliver on the first point.
  3. I find their low cost appealing, as they allow new filmmakers to break into film-making. I love to see what new filmmakers can do on small budgets.
  4. I find that horror is one of the few genres where I can actually enjoy bad films.

How about you? If you are a horror fan, what do you most like about the genre?

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An earlier version of this post was written in 2015. It was revised in 2022 to update a number of broken links and improve the formatting.