So far this year, “Mama,” “Evil Dead,” “The Purge” and “The Conjuring” have landed the top spot at the box office during each movie’s opening weekend. “The Purge,” one of 2013’s biggest surprises, proved filmgoers would much rather see Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey fend off masked murderers than watch Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson fast talk their way into a job at Google. The home-invasion horror flick demolished “The Internship,” bringing in more than $34 million its opening weekend (on a budget of $3 million) compared to the latter’s $17 million. (And “The Internship” cost a reported $58 million to make.)
You couldn’t pay me to see “The Purge,” and I mean that literally; my editor tried to assign me the movie to review, and I’m not proud to admit that I resorted to sad eyes and mild whining to avoid the assignment. But that was an improvement over a 2009 incident when another editor sought a reviewer for “The Human Centipede,” a movie about three hostages who are sewn together to create one long digestive tract, and I responded by dry heaving while fellow critic Michael O’Sullivan said something along the lines of, “Oh, that looks interesting.”
Who are these people?
Why do some people flock to bloodshed, while others avoid it? Horror movies are as polarizing as cilantro (which is delicious, by the way. What’s wrong with you?). Research has shown that genetics account for our food preferences. Is there a similarly scientific explanation for our divisive reaction to scary films?
“The going theory is that these are fears that we have, and that what horror movies allow us to do is to either come to terms with them or to overcome them,” says Keith Oatley, a novelist and psychologist who has researched extensively the effects of fiction on the human psyche.
“You know that children have fears. After they fear strangers, then they tend to fear ghosts and things under the bed and so on. So it’s a kind of elaboration on that idea that what movies do is to externalize these fears in a way that we can take part in them . . . We’ve confronted these demons.”
Questions remain, but researchers are working on finding answers. Neurocinematics, a fairly new field, seeks to understand how different visual experiences affect our brain waves. Notably, a group of psychologists and neuroscientists from Princeton and New York University tested how different scenes were able to seize control over a viewer’s brain; the images came from the film “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Results indicated that the first and last segments engaged viewers’ minds most effectively. Of course, it may not be merely the content of the clips that was compelling; direction, editing and a host of other factors could also contribute to a viewer’s enjoyment.