The Sixth Sense (1999)

Last week’s movie screening was Sixth Sense. It was a horror film about a boy with the ability to see and communicate with the dead. With the help of his counsellor, the boy finally manages to overcome his fear by putting his ability to use through helping the dead fulfilling their last wishes. The movie ended with a twist whereby the counsellor too, was actually a ghost. Although I liked the plot of the story, I am never a fan for horror movies. In fact, I never watched any horror films in cinema. In  my opinion, movies are supposed to be enjoyed and not make us feeling more tensed after watching it. I remember when I was younger, my cousins used to rent movies where we will watched it together in the evenings. Once, they rented a horror film called It (1990) about a clown who lure children only to kill them. After watching it, I never sleep with lights off or go to the bathroom alone for a long long time.

Having said that, many people do enjoy this genre of films, which otherwise, Holywood producers would not invest one version after another films like Paranormal Activity and Saw. Based on The Numbers  (a statistic counter for box office sales) reported that the sales of Horror films ranked above other genres like Documentary and Musical, and just slightly below Romantic Comedy. Therefore, given the choice between An Inconvenient Truth (2007) or I am Legend (2007), a person is more likely to choose the latter one, and just slightly more people may prefer Enchanted (2007).

Picture: Audience for Paranormal Activity (Paranormal Activity 3 was ranked 27th highest top grossing film with $104,007,828 of annual box office sales in 2011 above movies like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt1, The Black Swan, Alvin & the Chipmunks)

Nonetheless, what puzzles me is that liking for horror films seemed paradoxical. How is it possible we like movies that induce fear on us? Psychologist has attempted to answer this question through different theories such as

  • Catharsis Theory
    • Horror films serve as purgatives that draws out negative emotions such as fear, rage and disgust that provide save channel to express the “unsafe” emotions
    • PROBLEM studies found that in movies that have high content of anger instilled higher anger on participants after watching. Emotions were intensified rather than reduced after watching certain movies.
  • Sensation-seeking Individuals
    • Studies suggest that individuals who enjoyed horror movies are more likely to score higher in Sensation-Seeking Scale, whereby these individuals have higher tendency to seek for intense stimulation.
    • PROBLEM Results from these studies are consistent but rather weak (approx. r=.18 to .29)
  • Sex Role Reinforcement Theory
    • Attraction to horror films allows both sexes to reinforce their traditional gender roles.

      “While watching horror films, men can prove their fearlessness and competence by remaining stoic in the face of blood and dismemberment, and women can show their sensitivity and need for protection by expressing fear” p.151, McCauley, 1992

    • PROBLEM Because this theory is based on social roles, it may not explain people who enjoyed horror films without the presence of others.
  • The Relief Hypothesis
    • This theory suggest that people enjoyed horror films was because it provides a closure to their induced negative emotions at the end of the film. It is equivalent to negative reinforcement. When a negative stimulus is removed, such as the antagonist was captured or resolved, or the case of the Sixth Sense (1999), the boy finally able to make peace with his ghost, makes the audience   to anticipate watching the movie to know the ending of the story.
    • PROBLEM You have guessed it right if you doubt that not all horror movies have closures. Some may even have tragic endings.

After reviewing these theories, it seems that they may not be perfect explanations to explain the paradox of horror films. Although there is no definitive answer as yet to explain why certain people enjoy horror film, these theories give me a general overview of the paradox.

In fact, while I was writing this piece of review, some of my friends agree to what said, and some don’t. Also, they suggest that there is also the tendency to continuously remind themselves, that “it is not real” that allows them to swallow the blood-gushing, gory, fear-inducing moments in the film. Perhaps I should adopt that technique and try to watch some horror movie one day (if I have enough gut).

Last but not least, how much do you agree with these theories? Or what are some take-home techniques that you would like to share with someone with a faint-heart for horror films?


Goldstein, J. H. (1998). Why we watch: The attractions of violent entertainment. New York: Oxford University Press.


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