Marvin Zuckerman
Professor Emeritus, University of Delaware

The Psychology of Horror Films

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As the psychologist explains, a very basic learning pattern stands as the basis for the increasingly violent nature of cinema.

Marvin Zuckerman

Dr. Marvin Zuckerman is Professor Emeritus at the University of Delaware. His research involves the sensation-seeking trait, affect assessment, and its role in risk-taking behaviors and its biological bases. A fellow of the American Psychological Society, a fellow of its Division of Personality and Social Psychology and a diplomate of the American Board of Examiners in Professional Psychology-Clinical Psychology, Zuckerman has served as president of the International Society for the Study of Individual Differences. He also is a board member of the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems and the Delaware Addictions Coalition.

He is the author of more than 200 articles and book chapters and several books, including Vulnerability to Psychopathology: A Biosocial Model, Psychobiology of Personality and Behavioral Expression and Biosocial Bases of Personality. He also serves on the editorial board of Personality and Individual Differences.

Zuckerman received his bachelor's and doctoral degrees from New York University.




Question: Why are violent films more prominent today than in the past?

Marvin Zuckerman: Well, there’s a thing that happens with sensation-seeking. Habituation. Habituation is a basic law of learning, the lowest organisms. When you expose them to something repeatedly, over and over, they respond less to it. They are less aroused by it even though initially it was arousing when they get used to it then nothing particular happens they get less aroused. Now in the violence around sex this occurs too. Habituation. So, what was initially very arousing, let’s say in sex, you know the honeymoon, with time becomes still pleasurable, but less arousing and that’s why the high sensation seekers have to look for new sources of arousal. Now this occurs in films too. You start out with simple horror films and the high sensation seekers say, “Eh, that’s fine.” But they get bored by it and so when they are allowed to legally and recently society has loosened the laws about the depiction of violence and sex in the media. So, they keep pushing it to the extreme because that as high sensation seekers become habituated, they become bored with it and they need something more. They go to something that’s more exciting.

Same think in thrill seekers. Skydivers, they find that very initially very exciting and that’s why they like it. Then they become used to it and they have to do new things like they do the stunting and things like this, and group things, and then that become boring. Some of them even go on to even more dangerous ones like base jumping. You know what base jumping is. Base jumping is; you jump not from an airplane, but from a cliff or a building even, or something where you have very little time to open your parachute. Timing is very important and a lot more people die with that sort of parachuting. Okay. And yet, why do they do it? Because it’s really more exciting due to the fact that they have less time, it’s not that they do it because they’ve become habituated to less arousing form, but for them now less arousing form them. So that’s why everything tends to escalate in the sensation seekers from lesser expression to sometimes more dangerous expressions.