Why We Watch Horror Movies. Should We Watch Horror Movies? - Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

Well, it’s almost Halloween and movie theaters are showing slasher films again (thinking about bringing the kids?). Not that this stops during the rest of the year, but October for many people is the time for retrospectives of the classics and catching up on shockers you may have missed. Still have you ever wondered why we watch horror movies?

Is it even healthy?

I have a post coming out soon about how children’s literature is full of scares and it can be a way for children to safely watch someone going through something scary—they can learn how to manage those fears in a safe place. For adults, though–well, the good guys don’t always win and with the prevalent “torture porn” films it’s hard to make a positive case for watching horror.

Jody Keisner in Women’s Studies Journal argues that many horror movies focus more on the woman as victim and Bruce Ballon and Molyn Leszcz used the term ‘cinematic neurosis’ to talk about how, depending on what a person may be dealing with in his or her life, a horror movie could be triggering (leave it to the mental health professionals to take the fun out of fear). Yet Ballon & Leszcz also say that the movies can allow the person to deal with challenges on the screen as a less threatening place than in real life. This is why it’s believed that there is so much death and fear in children’s stories. Jeffrey H. Goldstein has a whole book with chapters by people in different fields that explores human’s attraction to violence.

Whatever the academics or doctors say, horror movies aren’t going away. So should you watch?

Are You Watching for Someone Else?

Well, the first question is, Do you want to? I’ve talked to some people who watch these movies to please a partner. They hate them, have horrible dreams (if they’re able to fall asleep), and spend the movie peering through their fingers. Some questions come up for me when I hear this:

  • Are you torturing yourself to please your partner?
  • Do you think your partner wants you to do that?
  • Why can’t they find a friend who actually enjoys horror movies to go with?
  • Is there something you do find fascinating about the movies–like watching a car accident on the highway?

Sacrifices are often made in relationships and compromising is important. Is this a place for it? Only you guys can figure that out.

The Fantasy to Deal with the Fear

Fears and anxieties are made very real in horror movies. There are whole movies devoted to different phobias. The movies often use fears in the zeitgeist and explore and explode the worst case scenarios.

  • One Missed Call tells the story of getting a voice mail from yourself in the future that details your death.
  • 28 Days Later is one of the many movies that uses our panic of viruses to full effect
  • Audition is possibly the worst movie to watch if you’re a lonely widower who is looking for love.

Brilliant marketing, but do the films help you deal with your fears or do they exacerbate them? According to the academics…it depends.

Rule of Thumb

If you’ve been freaking yourself out with every new tweet about Ebola—don’t watch a virus movie. If you’re a little nervous and are looking for some place to have this play out in a safe place that you can laugh about later on—that’s a different story. Terrorist movies seem to be made and watched after terrorist attacks—maybe not that night, but in the ensuing months, these get produced and they sell tickets.

Or maybe (spoiler alert) Sigourney Weaver in Cabin in the Woods was right.

Happy Halloween, everyone!


Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working in family and men’s counseling for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.