Sunday, October 9, 2011

Empathy, gore-watching and the horror genre

IT began when a demon possessed a little girl and the Catholic Church, instead of exorcising, decided to research her to find some kind of medical cure for demonic possession. This turned out to be a bad idea because they accidentally made the demonic possession contagious instead: anyone bitten by a possessed person had seconds before being taken with a murderous animal rage themselves.

Before long an entire building was infected with blood-drenched human monsters – and here the sequel begins.

This is the premise behind REC, a Spanish horror film whose sequel REC 2 is in Irish cinemas now. REC 2 is disturbing and dark, building tension slowly and then exploding in violence as the possessed cannibalistic adults and children hurl themselves screaming at their victims. All of the footage is taken from the perspective of cameras held by the characters – a teenager’s camcorder, a journalist’s TV camera and the helmet cameras of a Spanish SWAT team – giving the cinematography a dizzy realism.

The directors of REC 2 want to terrify people. And people, in their millions, voluntarily pay to subject themselves to terror. Fear is a negative emotion, but some seek it out and insist that it gives them pleasure.

Some scientists have compared horror with rollercoasters, which mimic danger while keeping consumers safe. Both fill the users with fear but leave them safely in relief.

‘I don’t think anybody enjoys the sense of fear,’ explains Professor Glenn Sparks from Purdue University in Indiana. ‘People might be scared during the movie, but after the movie is over people are relieved that it’s over. There’s all this fear arousal in the body, and that takes time to decay. People come away from these experiences feeling a very intense sort of high.’

At the screening for REC 2 occasional ripples of laughter passed through the audience: relief after a particularly nasty scare, and amusement when the demon finally appears in humanoid form and looks more ridiculous than terrifying. Apart from representing individuals’ own feelings, this laughter was shared in a collective relief; some researchers have pointed to the importance of other audience members’ reactions to an individual’s enjoyment of the horror film.

Sparks’s research looking at immediate physiological effects on viewers watching horror, such as increased skin temperature and conductivity, suggested another explanation, one that exposed the sexual disparity in horror fans. Boys tend to have a higher preference for horror than girls do.

‘It’s not that males are not scared. For males, the scarier the better. The more scared males were during these films – and I actually measured this physiologically – the more arousal they had in their bodies, the more they end up enjoying it at the end.’

Sparks concluded that males were enjoying a sense of mastery over the fear. Young men, who in primitive cultures might demonstrate strength and bravery with hunts and tribal raids, were now using the medium of cinema to prove their masculine domination over danger. Violent horror is the new rite of passage.

Odder still was another study that examined mixed-sex couples observing horror. Where males were seen to show no fear, ‘mastery’ over the footage, the female partners found them more attractive. Where females covered their eyes and exhibited ‘the proper distress queues’, the males partners found them more attractive. Perhaps couples attend horror in the expectation of playing specific gender roles that boost their sexual attractiveness.

Still, some people who view horror are thrilled by the experience while others feel deep unease. Something distinguishes the horror-seekers and the rest.

One study in Texas State University looked at a list of physiological responses by test subjects viewing a 10-minute compilation of scenes from horror films. Each subject was first given a questionnaire that the researchers used to build up psychological profiles based on traits like coldheartness, fearlessness, egocentrism and so on. They found significant changes in systolic blood pressure (SBP) among the participants during screening, and this change correlated specifically with two kind of participants.

Those with high levels of fearlessness tended to have lower reaction: their blood pressure did not change much during the film compared with its baseline before the film. This was an unsurprising result.

‘Individuals scoring highly on this scale are more eager to engage in risky activities such as sky-diving and fast driving, less likely to feel anxiety in anticipation of physical danger,’ they explained. ‘The relationship of Fearlessness to SBP was to be expected because if a person is not scared easily by things, then they should exhibit less of a physiological reaction to films than others.’

There was another kind of subject who showed a rather more interesting result; people with high levels of coldheartness tended to experience higher increases in SBP than other subjects did.

‘The fact that the higher the level of Coldheartedness, the higher the SBP level suggests that people who are more coldhearted react more to the film, but whether this is a positive (i.e. excited) reaction or a negative (i.e. scared) one is worthy of further examination.’

So people with coldheartness – low levels of empathy – seem to be more aroused by horror than others. Possibly their indifference to others’ suffering as shown in torture horror makes their experience more pleasurable and exciting.

The relationship between empathy and horror-appreciation is complex, however. Another study found that a major motivation for students to watch horror was ‘thrill-watching’ – the deliberate desire to seek fear for a thrill. Those students who reported this motivation tended to have higher levels of sensation-seeking and also, interestingly, higher levels of empathy. This time high levels of empathy could make their emotional attachment to the victims more intense, boosting the thrill of the chase. Other students in the same study reported ‘gore-watching’ as a motivation, and these students tended to have low levels of fear and empathy. People may watch the same horror film for quite different reasons.

So the audience comes to horror with their own personal traits, but horror in turn influences the audience and changes how they think about the world. Occasionally perpetrators of terrible violent crimes are retrospectively found to be fans of horror or extremely violent music forms. In 2004 an 11-year-old Japanese girl murdered a classmate with a paper cutter; she was a fan of the Japanese novel Battle Royale, which had teenage students murder one another, and had seen the paper cutter used to kill in a television drama. Violent people may be drawn to violent media, but do the media also weaken one’s aversion to violence? In the short term, yes.

‘People desensitise pretty quickly to pictures of violence, even within the same film,’ explains Sparks. ‘We don’t react with the same emotional intensity.’

It is the same principle used to treat sufferers of a phobia. Repeated exposure to an irrational fear can desensitise people to it.

‘There is some research that says viewing sexually violent “slasher” films increases the acceptance of violence against women; and that research shows that watching violent rapes in movies makes the crime seem less severe,’ says Professor Joanne Cantor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Cantor argues that extreme horror and other violent genres have clear, negative effects on their audiences. By regularly watching scenes of extraordinary violence, consumers can become complacent about violence. Sparks says this can manifest in a reduced tendency to react to real-life situations where people are victims of violence. But could desensitisation to violence have a positive effect, by leaving people better able to defend themselves from violence?

‘That’s an interesting idea,’ says Cantor. ‘However, desensitisation doesn’t always happen, and it could be argued that horror films, which usually don’t have a positive resolution, are less likely to cause desensitisation than other types of violent media, where the “good guys” usually triumph in the end and the threat is resolved. Exposure to horror films may produced the opposite of desensitisation – that is, sensitisation, which makes subsequent exposure to frightening situations more, rather than less likely to produce emotional disturbances.

‘So if I were going to design a desensitisation program, it would include a plot about overcoming a threatening situation – the opposite of what most horror films provide.’

Instead, extreme violence in media leaves an uncomfortable legacy. A University of California study in 1995 subjected a group of subjects to repeated exposure to sexually violent films. Three days after the final film participants ‘expressed significantly less sympathy for domestic violence victims, and rated their injuries as less severe’ than a control group not exposed to the videos.

Another study, in 1998, had participants view violent or non-violent films for four consecutive days. On the fifth day they found themselves able to help or hinder a stranger in her career. The stranger treated some of the participants well and others badly, but the participants who had been exposed to violent films were all hostile to the stranger and hindered her career – regardless of how she had treated them. Researchers concluded that violent films had increased their general hostility to others.

We know that violent horror can affect how people see the world, but also that horror is changing. The old vampire and werewolf films considered terrifying decades ago seem tame compared with the ‘torture porn’ and extreme horror today. Teenagers who grow up with horror of their generation need ever more extreme shocks to keep the thrills coming, so each generation of horror becomes more brutal and graphic and terrifying than the last. REC 2 has zombie-like characters, but these are swift and vicious rather than shambling idiots wandering around muttering, ‘Brains!’

‘Hollywood has an intuitive sense of audiences and knows that it has to keep upping the ante,’ says Sparks. ‘It’s hard to see this end.

‘In general it’s not very functional for society to be entertained by these gruesome images.’

Still, he says these negative effects are most pronounced for vulnerable people who bring unhealthy psychological effects to the cinema in the first place. Once REC 2 was over the audience rose and politely filed out the door and back into society, laughing and discussing the film: no noticeable sign of hostility in sight.

As it happens, physiological measurements were being taken at that screening too, along with another press screening in London. Three journalists were tested for heart rate throughout the film and each one shows specific peaks when the heart raced way above its baseline. The Irish journalist had five peaks, including a scene where one of the SWAT men spent his ammunition and was locked in a bathroom with the demonic zombie smashing down the door outside. Another climactic scene had four characters enter a pitch black room, using only the night vision on the TV camera to find the monster who was blundering around blindly among them. Both are disturbing and scary scenes, courtesy of directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. Balagueró and Plaze refuse credit for all this violence and terror, however.

‘On many occasions, during the presentation of the film to mixed audiences, spectators would approach us with questions and offering angles we’d not previously encountered,’ they said. ‘Strange and apparently salient details we weren’t aware of. Then one day we met up to discuss the secrets and mysteries we ourselves had created. We wanted to know more about them. To investigate the possibilities of what we’d only sketched out. To discover more and recount it once again.

REC 2 comes courtesy of the audiences who infused life into its predecessor. Their enthusiasm and imagination. In some way they’re the ones who created it. It’s their fault.’


This article was due for publication last year when REC 2 was in cinemas in Ireland, withdrawn after a change of editor in the publication. The image is from ClipartPal.

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