By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The horror film revival of the last 10 years has a new victim: teen slashers. Netflix is releasing an entire film trilogy based on R. L. Stine’s Fear Street books, in hopes of bringing back the “scream teen” genre. Why do audiences love horror?
Streaming service Netflix has released a film trilogy for the binge generation: a series of R-rated, “scream teen” genre of horror movies, which each went online just one week apart. The Fear Street trilogy is the latest example of the resurgence in horror films that has happened in the last 10 to 15 years, as Hollywood seeks to reinvent the genre for newer audiences.
The closely released trilogy not only speaks to the age of binge-watching, but also to the perseverance of horror entertainment. Why do audiences continue to flock to horror films like frightened teens fleeing a bulky maniac? In the video series Monsters Within…, Dr. Daniel Breyer, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Illinois State University, examined the genre and our love for it.
Building a Better Monster
“The philosopher Noel Carroll thinks that monsters are so important to the horror genre that we can’t really have horror without them,” Dr. Breyer said. “But what is a monster? According to Carroll, a monster is something ‘unnatural’—what he means is that a monster violates the natural order.”
In this sense, Dr. Breyer said, the “natural order” is defined as the cutting-edge of contemporary science. For example, everything we know about the world from a scientific perspective tells us that zombies aren’t real. However, this broad definition also includes superheroe; so when examining horror, it’s helpful to narrow the scope just a bit.
“The monsters that are so essential to horror films are ‘horrific monsters,'” Dr. Breyer said. “What distinguishes horrific monsters from all other kinds of monsters is that they instill in us a sense of danger and impurity. In other words, we experience distinct emotional responses—we feel fear and disgust.”
When discussing “impurity,” according to Dr. Breyer, we’re discussing the contradiction of two or more categories of our understanding of how the world works. For example, horror monsters like zombies, mummies, vampires, and ghosts are somehow simultaneously living and dead. They haunt and stalk and prey on us but they cannot be killed.
This causes a conflict in our understanding of what it means to be alive and what it means to be dead. This conflict violates the natural order of contemporary science and is embodied through these creatures.
I Can’t Believe You Watch That Stuff
Why do audiences want to experience horror films if they so often evoke such fear and disgust? According to Dr. Breyer, one leading theory is that the fear and disgust aren’t the source of enjoyment in horror; they’re more like the price audiences pay. The source of enjoyment comes from the intellectual fascination with the horrific monsters that violate our expectations—the process of discovery as we satisfy our curiosities.
“Our curiosity is intensified by the narrative, which pushes us to wonder what the monsters are like, whether they exist, and how things will play out,” Dr. Breyer said. “The truth is that we know that none of this is real when we’re watching a movie or reading a book, and so those negative emotions of fear and disgust are dampened just enough that, at least for those of us who enjoy horror, they’re easily outweighed by the pleasures of curiosity.”
At the same time, another view of the enjoyment of horror involves a concept known as hedonic reversal. Much like how some people enjoy eating spicy peppers because they invoke a bit of a sting of pain in the mouth, Dr. Breyer said some people seem to enjoy horror movies specifically because they’re unsettling.
“[A hedonic reversal] is where something that used to be painful or unpleasant gets entangled with its opposite—with what’s pleasant or pleasurable,” he said. “This is related to what psychologist Paul Rozin calls ‘benign masochism.’ Eating a hot pepper is painful, sure, but it’s relatively safe; it’s not going to seriously hurt us.
“Watching a horror movie is unsettling, sure, but it’s relatively safe; we’re not in any real danger.”
Our brains are initially fooled by the threat of a horror scare, but as we realize the truth, some of us feel a pleasure that Rozin calls a mastery of mind over body. It’s benign because it’s safe, but it’s masochistic because our bodies end up enjoying what we initially reject.
The Fear Street trilogy is out now on Netflix.