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Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Studios 

In just shy of a month, the recent film adaptation of Stephen King's bestselling novel It has accrued a record-breaking $550 million at the box office. Seeing as how the film follows closely after what The Guardian deemed “The Great Clown Panic of 2016,” it may be surprising that the re-adaptation is getting so much attention. After all, Pennywise, the antagonist of the film, is an entity that takes on the form of a killer clown. Considering how many people were afraid (or rather, obsessed), having a movie that encapsulates those fears is a bit jarring—but it may also make perfect sense.

The thought of paying to go see something that will ultimately terrify you for your own amusement is paradoxical, and ultimately makes one wonder: why do people enjoy horror? Of course, there is the element of adrenaline that one may receive from it, like the feeling of ascending a roller coaster and not yet seeing what is over the edge.

Still, there may be a more psychological reason for why people enjoy watching horror films. Aaron Garrett, a professor of philosophy at Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences, explores how exactly the paradox of getting pleasure out of fear may be explained. He explains that if we were faced with a scenario in real life akin to what we witness in a horror film, we would most likely avoid that situation. We also usually avoid feeling fear in our everyday lives, since, from a social perspective, it is usually associated with weakness. He then compares horror to melodrama. In the context of going to see a melodramatic film we willingly witness people suffer, which is another thing people likely avoid in their day-to-day lives (since, normally and hopefully, seeing human suffering makes us feel sad). He comes to the possible conclusion that the contextin which the scene was viewed is what determines what makes fear pleasurable or not. For example, when one is witnessing a film on screen, they acknowledge that no real harm had been done and that it was all a mere fallacy. It was a story, and they can gain meaning and appreciate aspects of film that they wouldn’t know unless it was evoked within the outlet of horror. 

Considering Professor Aaron Garrett’s philosophical reasoning, one should examine how the context of the film It (2017) allows it to be so successful. The film directly separates itself from reality by creating a separate entity (It/Pennywise) that is fulfilling the evil, while also remaining in a fictionalized context. This initiates distance to give the audience an obvious good-and-evil side while also following a simple cinematic arc, into whose clutches the audience can easily fall in order to be scared. Meanwhile, the group of boys in the movie fit the archetype of the good “misfits,” and through them the audience is introduced to characters to which they can relate. Audience members are drawn to the protagonists who act as a surrogate for the viewer. Additionally, the fact that the antagonist of It (2017) is a monster immediately dehumanizes it, even simplifies it to a certain extent. But then the paradox here is that even though we don’t believe it’s real, we feel human emotion towards it. How is this complicated if there is a more complex antagonist?

In a more complex horror film, there is a human villain and the barriers get easily blurred. Some antagonists that may seem monstrous in nature are given human backstories, creating a much more complicated and controversial narrative. It creates and invites uncertain morals by giving villains tragic backstories to which an audience can relate, and an audience may use this as a reason to excuse them for their crimes. Making an audience potentially sympathize with the antagonist is ultimately problematic because in the sense of a horror film, the person with which they may sympathize is a maniacal and psychotic killer. Allowing people to possibly relate or sympathize with them may be a problematic idea. Though this more complex protagonist does not make horror films less enjoyable—but it begs more investment from a viewer. It relies on the audience’s own moral compass to determine what they see as right and wrong rather than making it explicitly clear (like in It).

We enjoy horror films because we can simply separate it from our reality to see a paranormal or supernatural story unfold before us, to gain satisfaction in the guessing game of more mysterious films or to simply feel the adrenaline that they induce upon us.

 



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