The Science of Real-Life Horror Movies: Why We Keep Going Back For More

It seems as if the world is falling deeper in love with the horror genre. Netflix is overflowing with true-crime and paranormal dramas, and the silver screen has been lighting up with supernatural themes. These incarnations of chilling, haunting, often belief-defying events become even more terrifying due to the fact they are all, to some extent, grounded in reality.

Conjuring Up The Frights

For example, , telling the story of famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren as they travel to England to help a woman dealing with poltergeist activity in her home.

The film , one of England’s more publicized and intriguing paranormal phenomena. You’ll have seen the words “based on a true story” on every poster for the movie, and if you’re a horror fan, that verbiage is probably more familiar to you than your own name. That isn’t to say, of course, that this is a bad thing. While tropey, some of the most famous and successful horror movies of all time are loosely based on true stories, however loosely that may be.

Actual photographs taken of the Hodgson family.

Actual photographs taken of the Hodgson family.

Ed and Lorraine’s first outing on the big screen in The Conjuring also focused on real-life events, exploring the haunting of the Perron family, who experienced various paranormal happenings in their home during the ’70s. Due to the first movie’s success, The Conjuring 2 sticks with this winning true-life formula, and billed the film’s story as “England’s Amityville” — a title that calls upon one of the most famous hauntings in modern American history. What’s important about this is that and an investigation in which Ed and Lorraine were also directly involved. So it’s clear that the major selling point of the movie is that it is grounded in reality, if we are to believe the stories of those involved.

Regan of "The Exorcist" was OK, but Pazuzu? Nuh-uh.
Regan of “The Exorcist” was OK, but Pazuzu? Nuh-uh.

Not The Exclusive Domain Of The Paranormal

Of course, it makes sense for film studios to focus on this as a selling point. , and the fact that it was based on the real-life exorcism of one Roland Doe was one of many reasons it sent shivers down the collective spines of its audience. Using this success as a platform, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a movie based on the story of Anneliese Michel, shows how true stories can still be feared by audiences due to the idea that these terrifying incidents, according to some, actually happened — even more than 40 years after Regan MacNeil first graced our screens.

But this scare technique isn’t exclusive to the paranormal. For example, there are a whole host of films loosely based on the life and actions of real serial killers. , has been a particular favorite of Hollywood horror culture, and he is just one of many killers to inspire several of the scariest movies in history.

"Silence of the Lambs" Dr. Lecter was one scary shrink.

“Silence of the Lambs” Dr. Lecter was one scary shrink.

These “based on true story” horror films continue to be produce and continue to be popular. So what is it that makes us, as viewers, want to willingly scare ourselves to the extent that we cannot sleep at night?

Could It Be The Result Of A Counterphobic Attitude?

Because science. A counterphobic attitude is explained by early 1900s psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel as the desire and compulsion to actively seek out things that are frightening to us, or things that make us feel anxious. Scientifically speaking, horror movies have been seen to fall into the bracket of indulging a counterphobic impulse, though admittedly they do lie at the milder end of the spectrum (amid extreme sports and sheer reckless abandon). We watch these films with the aim of being scared and feeling afraid, and Hollywood recognizes this challenge — and embraces it.

Do you prefer your horror movies to be ‘based on a true story’?0 Votes

“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” Big Bad Leatherface.

It’s All Psycho Logical

The dominant psychological theory when it comes to morbid curiosity of horror fans shows that, by pointing this out to our contemporaries, you could even be doing them a favor. Popular theories suggest that we, as humans, are driven to assess any potential dangerous situation so that if it should ever befall us, we will be better equipped to deal with it. For example, we can learn from those celluloid victims in these movies, take heed of the warnings that often include, “Don’t go into the dark and ominous forest without a torch or literally anything to defend yourself!” or, “Don’t follow the man with chainsaws for hands to find out where he murders his victims!” and actually learn something. I guess our friends can thank us later.

So while it can seem more like a studio gimmick, there’s actually much more to why we love movies billed as “based on a true story.” Long may this horror film trope continue, long may we endure sleepless nights with a blunt object kept next to the bed “just in case,” and long may we put those skeptics in their places!

Tell us about your favorite real-life horror!


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