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The Mass Media

Empathy in horror

When you picture the climax of a scary movie, what do you see? You might imagine a chainsaw-wielding maniac chasing down an unfortunate high schooler. Perhaps a mad scientist being threatened by their very own creation. Some may even imagine a sudden alien invasion or maybe a zombie apocalypse. Regardless of what you imagine, there is a good chance that someone is in danger.

To be clear, putting characters in peril for a climax is not only for horror movies. We see this happen in almost every genre. Yet, this begs the question, how are horror movies able to make these situations scary? An entire town could be in danger in a new Avengers movie, but I doubt anyone who watches is full of dread. In reality, it’s all in the execution. Avengers movies don’t use scary angles and haunting music. There’s more to it than that. What makes horror movies scary is the audience’s empathy for the main characters.

I’m sure some people would completely disagree with this. Someone may argue that no one really cares about some basic teenagers in a slasher movie. However, this kind of aids my point. An audience will most likely not care about a movie that’s characters are cliché. They may also care less overall about the movie. In a case like this, the filmmakers failed to make their characters compelling enough. The truly horrifying movies are the ones that get you to care about the main characters. In this way, horror relies on empathy more than any other genre. Without empathy, an action flick is still an action flick, a comedy is still a comedy. In the case of scary movies, then they aren’t the scariest of scary movies.

Of course, I am generalizing here. A person may find a book scary because of the graphic descriptions. However, when writing about art, it can be useful to generalize and find common techniques. For most horror stories, haunting prose isn’t what inspires terror. It’s the fear that at any given moment, something might happen to the characters we’ve grown to care for. For example, most stories called “Dracula” don’t star Dracula. They revolve around John Harker and Mina Murray, two people who get caught up in vampire terror. If Dracula was the true star, would the stories still be scary? If we’re meant to cheer on a monster, would that monster induce screams? No, they wouldn’t. The fear comes from seeing people make plans and talk about what they want out of life. That’s why teens are such compelling protagonists in horror films. Their life is just beginning and just about nobody wants to see them cut short. Referring back to the main characters in “Dracula”, they are a young couple who have yet to get married. They have a happy future waiting for them after John comes back from Castle Dracula. These aren’t just nameless victims. They have lives, which makes it all the more unfortunate that they may die. It’s not only due to people abstractly fearing death. We want to see people live life and be happy. We care enough about these characters that we become invested in them. As an audience, we get concerned about them. Horror is an exercise in humanity, making you care about others to a massive degree. In short, it’s more than someone just saying, “Boo!”

About the Contributor
Kyle Makkas, Humor Writer