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The Psychology of Horror Films

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.

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

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