'The horror,' says this critic, who's no fan

Science still looking for clues as to what draws us to genre

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Horror movies repel me. They make me more nervous than I can stand, and the anxiety over what monster might jump out of the closet or which protagonist might get hacked to pieces doesn't wear off until long after the credits have rolled. I worried this disinclination might hinder my dreams of becoming a film critic, but so far so good. After all, does a French chef need to master the art of the tamale?

Yet, I can't help feel I'm concealing a secret shame. Horror movie fans are everywhere. Just look at the box office, where they propel small-budget movies to big-time profits. The bloodthirsty seem to be multiplying, some seemingly less concerned with quality than fear factor, as with 2012's "The Devil Inside." Critic Mark Jenkins called it a "pestilence of infectious claptrap" in his review for The Washington Post, yet the film, which cost $1 million to make, brought in more than $100 million.

So far this year, "Mama," "Evil Dead," "The Purge" and "The Conjuring" have landed the top spot at the box office during each movie's opening weekend. "The Purge," one of 2013's biggest surprises, proved filmgoers would much rather see Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey fend off masked murderers than watch Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson fast talk their way into a job at Google. The home-invasion horror flick demolished "The Internship," bringing in more than $34 million its opening weekend (on a budget of $3 million) compared to the latter's $17 million. (And "The Internship" cost a reported $58 million to make.)

You couldn't pay me to see "The Purge," and I mean that literally; my editor tried to assign me the movie to review, and I'm not proud to admit that I resorted to sad eyes and mild whining to avoid the assignment. But that was an improvement over a 2009 incident when another editor sought a reviewer for "The Human Centipede," a movie about three hostages who are sewn together to create one long digestive tract, and I responded by dry heaving while fellow critic Michael O'Sullivan said something along the lines of, "Oh, that looks interesting."

Such movies polarize

Why do some flock to bloodshed, while others avoid it? Horror movies are as polarizing as cilantro (which is delicious, by the way. What's wrong with you?). Research has shown that genetics account for our food preferences. Is there a similarly scientific explanation for our divisive reaction to scary films?

"The going theory is that these are fears that we have, and that what horror movies allow us to do is to either come to terms with them or to overcome them," says Keith Oatley, a novelist and psychologist who has researched extensively the effects of fiction on the human psyche. "You know that children have fears. After they fear strangers, then they tend to fear ghosts and things under the bed and so on. So it's a kind of elaboration on that idea that what movies do is to externalize these fears in a way that we can take part in them ... We've confronted these demons."

Questions remain, but researchers are working on the answers. Neurocinematics, a fairly new field, seeks to understand how different visual experiences affect brain waves. Notably, a group of psychologists and neuroscientists from Princeton and New York University tested how different scenes were able to seize control over a viewer's brain; the images came from the film "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." Results indicated that the first and last segments engaged viewers' minds most effectively. Of course, it may not be merely the content of the clips that was compelling; direction, editing and a host of other factors could also contribute to a viewer's enjoyment.

Lacking scientific evidence, some folks will likely attribute the popularity of watching decent people get massacred to our debauched culture (Dad, I'm looking at you), but horror movies are nearly as old as cinema. F.W. Murnau incited vampire-related jitters and an interest in Dracula with his silent film "Nosferatu" in 1922, while "Cat People" (1942) might still make Web surfers consider the dark souls behind those cute and cuddly pictures. Hitchcock made horror terrifyingly naturalistic with "Psycho" (1960), while Dario Argento transformed the genre into arthouse fare. The head-spinning terror of "The Exorcist" (1973), made audiences queasy.

Not always like this

I wasn't always wary of horror, and as a child of the 1980s, I watched all the slashers. A favorite was "Nightmare on Elm Street." I thought it was particularly hilarious when Johnny Depp got sucked into his bed, which then spit him back out as a geyser of blood. That being said, another scene in that movie left me unable to take a bath for years.

As a teenager, I bought a ticket for "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America" and snuck into "Scream" instead, because the cashier was a stickler -- I was too young for "Scream's" R rating. Maybe that was part of the appeal back then, the knowledge that I was doing something I shouldn't.

I can almost pinpoint the moment things turned. I watched about five minutes of "Saw," a movie so popular it spawned several sequels. But instead of feeling some kind of thrill, I was nauseated by the twisted game involving amputated feet. Was this a sign I was evolving into a more empathetic person? Or was I just merely turning into the wimp I was destined to become?

In some ways I blame the rise of torture porn, which many find difficult to watch. (My underage accomplices who joined me for "Scream" had similar experiences, although their transformative films were "Hostel" and 2003's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre redux.") But maybe there's another explanation for why people age out of horror.

"I think what's happening in late adolescence is that kids are trying to find out who they are and what they're about, and so they experiment more widely both in presenting themselves in certain kinds of ways and getting into certain kinds of situations," Oatley said. "I think movies and other kinds of fiction then are ways of doing this."

More on the way

Some predilections remain unexplained, but one thing is clear: There are more horror films coming.

First up is "Insidious: Chapter 2," the sequel to the 2010 surprise hit, which comes to theaters, appropriately, on Friday the 13th. The movie was co-written by Leigh Whannel and director James Wan, the "Saw" masterminds, and follows a family haunted by terrifying spirits (see review on page 30). The English language adaptation of the 2010 Mexican movie "We Are What We Are," opening later this month, tells the story of a family whose members follow ancient rituals, including consuming human flesh. And the highly anticipated remake of "Carrie," starring Chloe Grace Moretz as the outcast with supernatural powers, arrives Oct. 18, just in time for Halloween.

A large group of filmgoers will be drawn like magnets to these movies, and I genuinely hope those brave souls enjoy the petrifying experience. I'll be hiding under my desk from my editor, who is looking for a reviewer.