Hollywood had a dismal summer at the box office, with Daily Variety declaring it the worst in over a decade. Then at the end of the season, a horror film based on Stephen King's "It" scared audiences across the globe, generating $500 million in worldwide revenue right out of the gate.
But why were regular films flopping while a horror film filled expensive theater seats night after night? James Kendrick, Ph.D., associate professor of film and digital media at Baylor University, says people like to be scared when they know they are in a safe environment.
"That's a kind of very primitive emotion," Kendrick told ConsumerAffairs. "It may be kind of a catharsis. Some argue that we go to horror movies to expunge all of these negative feelings through the safety of going to a movie.”
“It's thrilling but also safe. You know it's not going to actually hurt you, so it's a way of experiencing the horror but also purging those feelings."
Horror changes by era
Kendrick has a simple way of distilling what is scary about a film. Whatever people find scary in a particular era is usually projected on the screen.
The first true horror films emerged in the 1930s, when the world was suffering an economic depression and fascism was on the rise in Europe. In those movies, Kendrick says the monster was always something external to us.
"It was something out there," he said. "Dracula in his castle in Transylvania, or Victor Frankenstein making a monster out of body parts in an isolated manor at the top of a cliff. They were always set in the past, drawing on a sense of the Gothic.”
In the 1950s, fears of nuclear annihilation produced films about giant insects or man-eating blobs being produced by out-of-control atomic power.
"Some of the really smart horror films are the ones that key into what's going on in the outside world and they find ways to incorporate that into their stories," Kendrick said. "Horror films offer a really good way of commenting on what we fear in any given era."
Horror films became more sophisticated in the 1960's. Kendrick says Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was one of the real turning points.
"Hitchcock drew from some of that Gothic imagery -- the mansion behind the Bates Motel -- but what ultimately freaked people out was your worst nightmare could be behind the desk at a nondescript roadside motel and seemed so normal," Kendrick said. "You couldn't recognize the monster visually."
In today's horror films, what scares us the most is how familiar, seemingly safe things can suddenly turn on us. A Manhattan bike path or a Las Vegas outdoor concert can suddenly become a scene of horror in an instant.
"If there is a connection, it's a fear of lack of safety, that violence can visit you at any time," Kendrick said. "Despite having the appearance of safety, these familiar places are not really that safe, and I think that's what really freaks people out."