Thrill-seeking has been documented in multiple species; it isn’t an intrinsically human experience. However, humans obviously have more options to choose from to get their adrenaline pumping, and one of the most popular is horror films, simply because they are more accessible to the average person. Since the release of the first horror film in the late 1800s, the exhilaration of being afraid has continued to captivate audiences; and a lot of the films tend to circle the same themes. The question is: why do these themes scare us?
Why Are Horror Films So Popular?
A lot of people love horror films. They love to be scared because it is exhilarating. Some people have grown up with horror films; their parents loved them and passed that love onto them. These films then become a nostalgic experience. There is also a popular theory that everybody has capabilities of brutality and violence, and watching horror films fulfils this need. In contrast, there is also the idea that people identify with the protagonist, seeing themselves, which allows them to champion them throughout the events of the film.
Horror films also provide a safe space for people to explore darker themes in the comfort of their own homes. Obviously, there is no real danger, which is why being scared becomes so fun. There are no consequences to this fear. Despite the dangers or the fears having no real basis, it still provides a spike in adrenaline. Finally, a lot of horror films also address social issues like racism, fascism or domestic violence, which provides a new lens through which to explore these issues and further your understanding of them.
The Unrelenting Pursuit of Death
Death does indeed come for us all, which could be part of why this theme is so common and so terrifying. There are hundreds of films that personify death and intimate that fate is inescapable; once you are marked for death, it will come for you regardless of what you do. There are, of course, several ways that you can find yourself on deaths hitlist.
Perhaps you have watched something you shouldn’t, had a premonition and changed plans last minute; you might also have visited a cursed place or touched a cursed item. Screenwriters and directors are continually looking for ways to interpret this theme. However, today, they do tend to feel a bit played out. Ultimately, it comes down to the pacing of the film and the relentlessness of the pursuer.
Honourable mentions from this trope include It Follows, the Final Destination franchise and Truth or Dare.
The Evil of Everyday People
We, as people, move through life very rarely, being touched by the evil that some people are capable of. There is always this enduring idea that people are inherently good. Another favourite horror trope is perfectly nice, normal people or person being hunted and victimised by others for no real reason – usually to an incredibly gory end. This is often scary to us because evil does obviously exist, and there is a possibility that it could befoul you or someone you care about.
Often, these people find themselves in an isolated setting of some sort; obviously, this hinders their chance of escape. The protagonists are decidedly average, and they don’t do anything wrong apart from inhabiting a cabin or having their car break down or whatever the case may be. They are then pursued relentlessly by locals or other people who have one goal: to kill them in as bloody a way as possible.
Good examples of this trope are The Strangers, Hush, Ready or Not and Get Out.
Ghouls, Goblins & Demonic Possession
While there is no evidence that the supernatural exists, it continues to fascinate and terrify the masses. Many people believe in ghosts and the supernatural at large, but it still represents an unknown entity for the most part and is what is truly frightening. The very idea that we are watched by invisible demonic forces preys upon very real fears.
The films following this trope are pretty diverse. The protagonist could be cursed with an item possessed by a demonic entity. They could stumble upon a haunted location – usually a wood, cabin, castle or underground structure. The antagonist is often not revealed until a particularly traumatising jump scare. They either look relatively human-esque or not totally otherworldly, and because they do not follow the laws of the universe, they are all but impossible to defeat.
Classic films that rely on this trope include The Exorcist, Paranormal Activity and Hereditary.
The Drive to Survive
This theme is arguably within the same vein as the evil of everyday people, but arguably it is a little more nuanced. There is a whole genre of horror films dedicated to following a protagonist through trials and tribulations as they do everything they can to survive the events that they find themselves in. Again, they may or may not have chosen to put themselves in said situation in order to gain some sort of reward – usually financial.
The protagonist often has money woes that simply cannot be solved in any other way than to sign up for a fight to the death. God forbid they check out Online Casinos and try to win themselves some money or follow one of the other normal routes like taking out a loan. Of course, they don’t always choose it for themselves; sometimes, they are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Eventually, after either killing or watching all other contestants be killed. The protagonist makes it to the end, forever changed by the events.
Films like the Saw franchise, The Hunt, Would You Rather, and Nine Dead are all great examples of this.
The Bottom Line
Society’s fascination with horror films, and the macabre in general, says a lot about us. It exposes a deep interest in the dark side of human nature, fatalism and the supernatural. Often, these films also offer some form of social commentary, highlighting failures within the system. Your favourite form of horror film says a lot about you. The above list is by no means exhaustive in terms of horror film genres, but these are the tropes that we see repeating themselves over and over again, and with good reason, they are incredibly effective at making us confront basic human truths.