I find myself growing ever more annoyed and disappointed with the prevalance -- growing prevalance -- of horror movies in cinema (and television as well).
My personal view is that seeing a person getting tortured or maimed or otherwise suffering in some horrific way is UNPLEASANT. If it would be unpleasant to chop your own arm off, it should also be similarly unpleasant to watch another person chop their own arm off. At least, this should be the case if you have a healthy sense of empathy for other people. Why would anyone want to spend their valuable free time intentionally seeking out horrifying images of people suffering? I cannot wrap my head around it, though I have tried.
It is not enough to say it is enjoyable because you know the people are just acting. If it is unpleasant to see some one in pain, why would it be pleasant to see a person ACTING as if he or she were in pain? I'll grant it may be LESS unpleasant to see a person in pain if you know they are acting, rather than truly suffering. But this does not convert it from an unpleasant activity into a pleasant one.
Some may claim there is a pleasurable cathartic release, when you conjure up negative emotions like horror and the, at the end of the film, you then have it washed away with the awareness it did not really happen after all, and you are safe nd fine. However, this seems akin to wearing shoes that hurt your feet so you can feel a rush of blissful sensation when you take off the offending footwear. My gut-level assessment would be that, in such situations, the pain you endure leading up to the relief cancels out the relief. You have to be pretty hard up for pleasure to seek it through the process of inflicting pain on yourself (psychic or physical) so that you can then enjoy the cessation of that pain.
Let's assume, for the sake of argument, there may be some psychological benefit or pleasure from watching a fictional horror story unfold. Well, that does not end the inquiry as to this genre, because you still have to weigh the pros against the cons. What are the cons of the horror genre?
For one, they are the stuff of nightmares. Is that not enough? I recall as a small child being extremely upset seeing a horror movie where people were torn limb from limb, teeth were pulled out of screaming victims, heads were squeezed to the point of disfigurement (but not death) for the vicims, etc. Clearly, one could blame the parents who do not keep a watchful eye on what their children watch. However, my parents were reasonably attentive. The fact is, in this day and age, it is nearly impossible to safeguard one's children perfectly from the risk of seeing something horrific. Those images stayed with me for years and caused me great psychological distress.
So, I think the growth of horrific media necessarily seems into the awareness of young children to some degree, despite best efforts. This adverse effect grows each generation, as the amount of horrific media, and the ways media can be accessed, both are growing by leaps and bounds.
Another issue is the numbing effect. It seems common sense to suggest that a person watching others suffer necessarily steels himself or herself against the negative emotions that rise up. Over time, the person gets number and number to the negative emotions. While this is a good thing in some respects (the emergency room doctor should not break down weeping every time he or she seeks a patient with a terrible wound), I think it is more often than not a negative effect, as we train ourselves to empathize less and less with the suffering of others.
This numbing effect is, in my view, tied somewhat to the concept of "machoism." I think older boys and young men try to toughen themselves emotionally, to avoid a perception of being feminine, weak and sensitive. So just as adolescent males dare one another to do dangerous stunts on bicycles or skateboards, or to defy authority by shoplifting a magazine or a beer, so too do they dare one enough to view horrifying images without turning away from them. It becomes a point of pride and masculinity to proclaim that you do NOT mind horrific imagines or, taken further, that you actually enjoy watching them. It compares to the bravado of one who claims to laugh in the face of danger.
I'm not saying that being tough is a bad thing. Again, for an ER doctor or a soldier at war, it may be a very good and necessary thing. However, those environments -- the hosptial, the battlefield -- do the toughening well enough. There is no need to toughen up our entire population through cinematic exposure to horrific images and ideas so that the few who truly need such toughness will have it.
If I am correct that horror in cinema is a bad thing, what is the solution? How do we take away what is now in demand by (apparently) much of the population? I do not favor censorship. I do favor reasoned debate, discussion among those who like this sort of thing, so we can try to get to the bottom of why it is liked, why the cost might be too high for liking it, and why it might be better for those who like this to forego it EVEN THOUGH THEY LIKE IT, to make this personal sacrifice so the demand dries up and so we, as a species, evolve in a direction that is more empathetic and loving toward one another. It is not as if those who enjoy horror movies ONLY enjoy horror movies; rather, they can also enjoy a comedy or a drama. It is not much different than agreeing that nutrasweet, while sweet, is too carcinogenic, so we should stick with other sweeteners (or artificial sweeteners). No one is saying go without a sweetener, just pick and choose wisely.
In fact, I'm not even saying you cannot have horror to some degree in cinema, but it should be a tool, not a goal, to be used when it is appropriate to advance a meaningful plot. Today's horror movies are, by and large, essentially plotless, having only enough storyline to hold together the latest notion of how to create an even more horrific situation or image and thereby one-up the competition.
I can draw an analogy between this and food-eating contests. As most are aware, there are now worldwide competitions to see who can eat, say, the most hot dogs in a short span of time. This is a disgusting competition with no redeeming quality, as far as I can tell. It wastes food. It is unhealthy for the participants. It does not help people develop or strive for any postive personal attribute (people already eat too fast and do not chew their food enough according to most medical literature on this subject). Yet, people are competitive and so if you give them a competition, they will compete or root. It is in their nature. So, there seems to be a cinematic competition to out-horrify one another. Sorry, just because you CAN do something, does not mean you SHOULD do it. Trying to create the most horrific cinematic notion is something you can do, not something you should do, same as trying to become the world's fastest hot dog eater.
The fact that there is a growing market and audience for food eating contests, and for horror movies, is a sign of the times, a sign of moral decline, a sign that we are restless and lost, longing for but not finding an adequate purpose to justify our lives, and so we stagnate and self-destruct.
There is a bit of irony to be found in all this, though I would not call it a happy irony. Cinema originated in a male-dominated society, controlled largely by men. I'm not saying there was a conscious decision to use film images to advance male goals, but I think this did happen on a collective subconcious, Jungian level. Men are driven by sex. It is imprinted into us to rank this as one of most powerful drives. So when men create films, if that tool of cinema can get men more sex, men will use it in that fashion whether they are doing it consciously or not. This accounts not only for the casting couch, but also for movies prominently featuring women who were more "easy" and less virtuous.
Essentially, men created female characters who, as role models, would imprint the female audience members with the notion that premarital sex, or casual sex, or kinky sex, was not so bad. Males write the script showing women behaving how they wish they would behave. Women go to theatres and get imprinted with those role models, and generation after generation women evolve in th 20th century (and beyond) to have a more masculine view towards sexuality. (I have to credit Southpark somewhat for an episode that plays on this notion. I think that episode was exaggerated for humor, but is premised on a true phenomenon.) Which means, in blunt terms, that women act sluttier in the movies than they do in real life, and this leads the next upcoming generation to be sluttier than the preceding generation. I don't think this is rocket science, I think most people have long recognized this is happening.
The ironic backlash I see is this: if a type of movie stirs a female to lust (or even mere willingness) then the male gets a reward for taking the female to see that movie. Now we have a Pavlovian connection between the movie and the reward. With respect to horror movies, it is often suggested that the draw of such movies is that they create an adrenaline rush that gets people aroused or "turned on," which effectively increases the chance males getting rewarded with sex when they take a woman to see such a movie. This then imprints a "like" or positive association between the male and the horror movie. This association may also be imprinted in the female if she enjoys the sexual encounter as well.
So men may have created and/or proliferated the horror genre because it improved their sex lives. However, presumably men did not desire, expect or predict that it would have the consequence of linking pleasure and horror on in their minds, with the results we are seeing nowadays. Alas, I believe this trend will continue unless consciously broken.
More and more, I think people need to try to be aware not only of their own psychological issues, but of the larger, collective, societal psychology we all share and how (and why) it is evolving. I believe in CONSCIOUS control over our evolution and destiny, and I think we are better off honestly assessing how we are evolving, how we are creating our own evolutionary paths, and then we can make a conscious choice what we want the Human Race to be like. Do we want to be jaded, numb and selfish, or loving, empathetic and sentitive?
The bottom line is, I am quite sure I can learn to appreciate horror movies. Yes, even me. Or even speed food-eating contests. While I CAN learn to appreciate these things, I do not believe I SHOULD learn to appreciate them because I think they head the human species in a different direction than where I want us, as a species, to go through our evolutionary journey.