The realization of Fear
Scary movies are nothing new, but films like those in the Saw and Hostel series have offered something different: They focus less on the suspense of the chase and more on the suffering of the victim, leading some to dub them "torture porn." They feature levels of gore and violence once reserved for cult films. And despite the extreme gore, they're attracting big crowds at your local megaplex -- and may already be loaded into your family DVD player.
If you're not a horror movie fan, you may be puzzled about why people put themselves through the ordeal of watching such movies. Many behavioral researchers share your puzzlement, giving rise to a term: the "horror paradox."
"No doubt, there's something really powerful that brings people to watch these things, because it's not logical," Joanne Cantor, PhD, director of the Center for Communication Research at University of Wisconsin, Madison, says. "Most people like to experience pleasant emotions."
Defenders of these movies may say they're just harmless entertainment. But if their attraction is powerful, Cantor says, so is their impact. These impacts are felt by adults as well as children, by the well-adjusted as well as the disturbed. They may linger well after the house lights go up, sometimes for years. And they may be anything but pleasurable.
So is the fear you feel when you watch someone being chased by an axe-wielding murderer any different from the fear you might feel if you were actually being chased by an axe-wielding murderer?
The answer is no, at least not from where Glenn Sparks sits. Sparks, a professor of communication at Purdue University, studies the effects of horror films on viewers' physiology. When people watch horrific images, their heartbeat increases as much as 15 beats per minute, Sparks noted. Their palms sweat, their skin temperature drops several degrees, their muscles tense, and their blood pressure spikes.
"The brain hasn't really adapted to the new...