Fans of horror movies are just as kind and compassionate as everyone else

By Matthew Warren

What kind of person wants to watch a movie where a boatload of people gets gruesomely cut in half by a wire, or where a man saws off his own foot to escape the sadistic games of a serial killer? You’d have to be pretty coldhearted and cruel to enjoy that kind of thing, right?

That’s certainly how horror fans have historically been portrayed, at least by some commentators. But a new study finds no evidence for this stereotype. Fans of horror films are just as kind and compassionate as everyone else, according to the preprint published on PsyArXiv — and in some respects may be more so.

First, Coltan Scrivner from Aarhus University examined whether people really do believe that horror fans lack empathy or compassion. He asked 201 participants to view a series of profiles which each presented information about a person, including their age, name, and favourite genre of movie: action, comedy, drama, or horror. Participants had to judge how kind, empathetic, and compassionate each person was.

Participants did indeed see horror fans in a more negative light: they rated these people as significantly less kind than comedy, drama or action fans, and less empathetic and compassionate than comedy or drama fans.

Scrivner then set out to see whether there was any truth to this stereotype. A new group of 244 participants rated the extent to which they enjoyed five sub-genres of horror film: gore/splatter, monster, paranormal, psychological, and slasher. They also completed measures of cognitive empathy (which is about understanding what another person is feeling) and affective empathy (which concerns the ability to share and experience their emotions), as well as a measure of “coldheartedness”, or disregard for others’ wellbeing.

Participants who reported greater enjoyment of the various kinds of horror didn’t score any lower on empathy or higher on coldheartedness. In most cases, enjoyment of horror films wasn’t significantly related to scores on these measures at all, but there were a few instances where horror fans actually seemed more pro-social. For instance, people who enjoyed gore/splatter films had significantly greater cognitive empathy, while those who liked paranormal films scored higher on both kinds of empathy, and lower on coldheartedness. And overall enjoyment of horror across genres was related to lower coldheartness and higher cognitive empathy.

These results suggest that the caricature of the anti-social, depraved horror fan is false. But, Scrivner reasoned, perhaps horror fans act less compassionately or empathetically, even if they don’t score any differently on scales measuring these traits. So, one to two weeks later, the same participants were each told that there were leftover funds from the previous study, and that they had been selected to receive an extra $0.50, alongside half of the other participants. They could choose to donate any amount of this money to another participant who had not received the bonus.

Just over half of participants opted to donate some of the money — but the amount donated was not related to how much they enjoyed horror, or any of the sub-genres of horror. This suggests that people who like horror films act just as kindly and compassionately as others, Scrivner concludes.

The results are hopefully not that surprising — most of us have moved on from the moral panic over “video nasties”, and recognise that we’re unlikely to become corrupted by the media we consume. But it’s nice to see that demonstrated, empirically. 

And this isn’t the only study to do so. Just as horror enthusiasts remain as kind and compassionate as everyone else, players of violent video games don’t become more aggressive, and fans of heavy metal are just as well-adjusted as pop and rock aficionados. If there’s a broader message to all this work, it’s that we should let people enjoy the movies, games, and music that they like, without judging them or blaming them for society’s problems.

Bleeding-heart horror fans: Enjoyment of horror media is not related to reduced empathy or compassion [this paper is a preprint meaning that it has not yet been subjected to peer review and the final published version may differ from the version this report was based on]

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest