The frisson of ambivalent feelings
TECHSPLOITATION A couple of economic researchers have proven via scientific experimentation something that artists have known for millennia: people can feel pain and have fun at the same time. At last, we have a scientific theory that explains why the torture-tastic movie Saw is so popular. Not to mention the writings of Franz Kafka.
Eduardo Andrade and Joel Cohen, both business professors interested in consumer behavior, wanted to know why people are willing to plunk down money for what they called "negative feelings," the sensations of disgust and nastiness that arise during hideous but financially successful flicks like Hostel, the Jason and Freddy franchises, and The Silence of the Lambs. It's a good question, especially if you're one of those business types who want to peddle gore to the fake bloodloving masses. As a huge consumer of gore myself, I was immediately intrigued by the scholarly article Andrade and Cohen produced, which sums up four experiments they did with hapless undergraduates paid to watch bad horror movies and describe how this exercise made them feel. The researchers had two basic questions: Do audiences experience fear and pleasure at the same time while watching somebody get dismembered? If yes, how?
First, a word about the researchers' methods. Let it be known that they did not display discerning taste in horror movies. As a connoisseur of the genre, I'd have made those students watch Hostel, with its shocking scenes of eyeball gouging. Or perhaps 28 Days Later, with its white-knuckle zombie chase scenes. But Andrade and Cohen picked the 1973 seen-it-so-many-times-it's-no-longer-frightening flick The Exorcist and the craptastic, unscary 2004 version of 'Salem's Lot. Hey guys, call me before you do the next round of experiments, OK?
Aesthetic choices aside, the results of these movie-watching experiments were intriguing. Students were shown "scary" clips from both films and asked to rate how they felt during and after watching. Previous scholars had suggested that people who enjoy horror movies have a reduced capacity to feel fear or have fun only when the yuck is over and they leave the theater. What Andrade and Cohen found, however, was that students who loved horror movies reported nearly the same levels of fear as students who avoided these movies. Plus the horror lovers reported having fun during the movies, not just afterward. So, as I said earlier, science uncovered what literary critics have known forever: ambivalent feelings are the shit.
Horror movies appeal because humans like to feel grossed out and entertained pleasurably at the same time. There's a payoff in coexperiencing two conflicting emotions.
But Andrade and Cohen are careful to explain that the fun of ambivalence doesn't work for everyone and may not translate into real-world horrors. They suggest that people who enjoy the yuck-yay feeling of horror movies are masters at psychological framing and distancing. Horror viewers who have the most fun are also the ones who are most convinced that what they're watching isn't real. People who sympathize too much with tortured characters feel only horror. That also means horror fans who see real-life violence won't get a kick out of it.
The researchers proved this point by showing people horror films alongside biographies of the actors playing the main characters, constantly reminding viewers that these were just movies and the "victims" were playing roles. Even viewers who normally avoid horror movies reported that they were a lot more comfortable and had some fun when they were reminded that the action was staged.
I would argue that Andrade and Cohen's research into distancing is the key to understanding horror fans. Our pleasure in horror is not depraved it is purely a function of our understanding that what we're seeing isn't real. This knowledge frees us to revel in the frisson of ambivalent feelings, which are the cornerstone of art both great and small. *
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose book about horror movies only involved experiments on herself.