Amanda Fontaine, Ph.D., enjoys feeling fear while watching horror movies. Whether she’s seeing a religious horror film like The Omen or a monster movie like The Relic, Fontaine says fright triggers a release of adrenaline that leaves thrill seekers like her with increased sensations. Amidst these responses, Fontaine notes that people may be drawn to this genre to grapple with death and violence.
“People are generally scared of their own mortality, but they like to see death play out and explore ideas of what it looks like and what happens next,” says the Politics, Law, and Society lecturer whose research focuses on criminology and medical sociology. In her “Population and Society” course that’s scheduled for the spring, students will further explore mortality as it relates to the health of societies by examining content that provides insights into how nations are doing.
Fontaine explains that death and violence are still relatively taboo subjects, so viewing these topics safely through the lens of film can decrease people’s apprehension and give them a sense of relief.
“There’s always that boundary that lets people get right up to the edge of some of those uncomfortable feelings while still being safe enough to walk away,” Fontaine says.
How people process horror-related content depends on whether they are watching the movie alone or with friends and family. Fontaine says social groups act as a bubble and help individuals interpret stimuli that cause fear. So, while a film may be scary, there’s a level of comfort that comes from having trusted people around.
She notes that in addition to horror, serial killer and organized crime documentaries have captured people’s attention — especially in recent years where streaming services like Netflix have released limited series on Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer.
“There’s a real desire for people to understand where others go wrong,” Fontaine says.
Since horror-related content is readily available to the public, deciding what is and is not acceptable has been a major debate in cultural sociology. According to Fontaine, research suggests that media acts as a strong agent of socialization, teaching people — especially children — about what is acceptable or even expected of them in society.
Some media, including TV, movies, and video games, have been implicated in how youth come to see violence as acceptable, but there is still more work to be done to determine its full effects on communicating messages about violence to young minds. As Fontaine sees it, the appropriate age for viewing horror depends on an individual’s maturity level since the brain does not fully develop until the early 20s.
Fontaine believes society is becoming more desensitized to death and violence because of national and global events that continually call for people’s attention; these circumstances could result in an increase of horror-related films, so people have appropriate ways to interact with uncomfortable topics.
“Ultimately, the curiosity is there, and film gives people a safe way to express and explore ideas,” Fontaine says.