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They are produced in copious amounts, are intended to give an adrenaline kick, and they are a staple feature of pop culture, especially amongst adolescents. So, what’s so wrong with horror films?

First, let me be clear on one thing: I have no intention of wrapping my children in cotton wool. In time, I will be happy for them to view such films as The Batman Trilogy, Schindler’s List, even The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

I grew up watching The Lord of the Rings, which has no shortage of fantastical creatures, more malevolent than good. They were pure evil, murderous and grotesque to look at. But they held a purpose other than to entertain. They acted as allegory for the battle against good and evil in our own world, indeed, in each of our own selves.

At least 18 new horror films released this year according to Google. $733 million was made in ticket sales in 2017 alone– the highest on record. The market for them is huge. But it is naïve to believe they don’t effect the human psyche negatively.

Discovering the journal Heath Ledger kept during the production of Batman — in which he plays the iconic macabre villain, The Joker — The Daily Mail claims that “while [his] death was ruled accidental, the diary does reveal he was struggling with the deeply twisted role and his own emotions.”

If that’s not enough to make you think twice about the horror genre, here’s another three reasons why you should.

Firstly, we are not biologically and physiologically geared to view, for a sustained amount of time, situations of trauma, terror and human brutality. A horror movie’s audience is meant to share in the plight of the story’s victim. Accordingly, it traumatizes, terrorizes and brutalizes.

My experience of horror films is minimal. But after watching one in particular– as a teen– I was put off for life. At the time, it robbed me of my trust in the goodness of humanity — a trust that took a while to retrieve. In a twisted irony, it should have got full marks as an outstanding example of its genre.

If people could really act as they were portrayed in this film, what goodness was there? And yet I watched Schindler’s List around the same time. Couldn’t I say the same about that depiction of the Holocaust? The case could possibly be argued.

Schindler’s List: Schindler sees a girl in red during the liquidation
of the Kraków ghetto. Screenshot (
Fair use, via Wikipedia

But the purpose of Schindler’s List was not to give its audience cheap adrenaline rushes; rather, it was to inform them of the plight of a people in recent history, and the capacity of civilized people to degenerate into savages. It was educative and, in the proper sense, edifying.

These types of films– historical drama, mythical allegory, and suspense– more characteristically give a glimpse of redemption, a flicker of hope and of heroism. They often feature a noble individual making a stand against the atrocities committed by others, often under the spell of group-think. They fight for the rights of those unable to fight for themselves, often risking and sacrificing their own lives in the process.

Horror films aren’t produced for that purpose. Their only aim is to terrify, shock and disturb; they have no interest in showing any redeeming factor in humanity. Typically, there’s no hero– no Batmans or Oskar Schindlers– in a horror flick. Only a series of sadistic deaths on which the curtain drops.

Secondly, American sociologist Brene Brown who points to our need for emotional stimulation says:

“We watch horror movies to seek out emotional intensity vicariously, because when we are emotionally numb, we need a great deal of stimulation to feel something, anything, but it’s only ersatz emotion—it doesn’t teach us anything about ourselves or the world.”

We might kid ourselves that watching a highly distressing film will give us more practice to mature and refine our raw emotions. But as Brown explains, watching horror films induces a emotive reaction not representative of reality. So instead, they can simultaneously instill irrational fears and desensitize viewers to real life trauma and crisis.

Thirdly, we are evolutionarily wired for fight or flight. We evaluate our environment, identify any threat, and act accordingly. But this mechanism in our nature is cumulative. Every new experience restructures and supposedly refines this inbuilt defense system to be better prepared in the face of new threats.

Watching a horror film modifies this inbuilt tool, reformulating it to filter out positive perceptions and experiences of reality, while feeding the viewer inordinate amounts of human perversion and cruelty. This can paralyze the viewer’s sense of benevolence towards the wider human community. (You never know who is a macho, sadistic serial killer.)

I have had grown men tell me they wish they could unwatch horror films they once saw, even years before. Because once watched, these images are seared into the viewer’s memory. It triggers negative associations with certain people and places that could otherwise have more positive (and accurate) associations through other stories and genres.

I hope to rear my children to be, at the appropriate time, aware of the real horrors humanity has proved to be capable of committing, but also of the heroes who withstood and fought against those evils. In other words, I want them to have a well proportioned view of the world; one in which hope, justice and personal courage is very real and a powerful force for good.

Watching horror for entertainment would only be working against that goal, whilst throwing a dark and pervasive gloom over my children’s outlook on this world. No adrenaline kick is worth that cost. Horror films have no place in our home.

Veronika Winkels writes from Melbourne. She is married with two young children.

Veronika Winkels

Veronika Winkels writes from Melbourne. She is the mother of three young children.