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The Psychology of What Makes an Image "Horror"

From the cinema to breaking news, our consumption of horrific images speaks volumes about our psyche.

Emotional storytelling manifests in film, but when it comes to the horror genre, images can walk a fine line between fiction and reality. Whether viewing the latest torture porn, or tuning into the ten o’clock news, innate feelings of fear are regularly consumed through pictures.

Video editor Kieron Brennan has been behind the camera for 25 years.

“We desire scary images,” he says. “Films, Halloween and spooky stories.”

Plenty of psychologists, from Freud’s Uncanny to Aristotle’s Catharsis, agree. Anouchka Grose, a psychoanalyst and writer, tells The Creators Project, “Horror cinema can be a really positive way to reflect what’s happening, exploring people’s fears and their discomforts in a really safe environment.”

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Exploring an unpleasant childhood through voyeurism and violence in the 1960 film Peeping Tom. Image courtesy of BFI.

Grose explains that human impulses like aggression or sex are most often acclimatized in order for people to function within society. It’s these urges, she says, that take center stage in horror films, alongside inappropriate thoughts surrounding the impossible, shameful or unknown. Think about those deranged speculations that pop into your head while waiting on a subway platform, for instance.

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Initially, Hitchcock’s Pyscho was required to make changes to its final cut due to the film’s use of sex and violence. Image courtesy of BFI.

“Horror films keep these surges in check,” says Grose. “It’s a way of seeing them, immersing ourselves in them and then leaving them aside in cinema.”

While there’s countless reasons to why horror films are both healthy and enjoyed, visual stimuli, of violence and sex especially, can still carry substantial risk to the viewer.

In the UK, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is an independent body that filters video content for public viewing. Film ratings are given age-appropriate categories, which take into account British law and whether watching a film has the potential to cause personal or societal harm. According to the BBFC’s Guidelines, films that may “desensitize the effects of violence, degrade a sense of empathy or reinforce an unhealthy fantasy” may need to be altered before being considered eligible for screening.

A Serbian Film, a controversial 2010 horror, is a good example. Vigorous scenes of sexual violence, some involving children, led the BBFC to require the film to remove 3 minutes and 48 seconds—a total of 49 cuts—to be acceptable for public viewing.

The BBFC’s Head of Communications Catherine Anderson explains that pornographic images, in particular, require thorough examination to “ensure an element of professional distance, which reduces some of the negative impact that might otherwise arise from repeated exposure to stronger content.”

On average, a single BBFC examiner consumes approximately seven hours of content per day. This continuous consumption of adverse images and content means “the BBFC provides confidential counselling services for all of its staff,” says Anderson. Just last year saw the rise of new pornography censorship laws in the UK which many decried as draconian

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Hellraiser, 1987, is another classic horror that’s faced restrictions prior to its release. It’s pretty gory. Image courtesy of BFI.

Yet for Brennan, knowing that pictures are associated with a fantasy genre such as horror, makes them “not particularly challenging.” Images found in news, where he predominately works, is a different story. “I am not desensitized to graphic images,” he says. “It is one thing to view something truly horrible once, even twice, but such is the nature of video editing that one might be required to play the scene 20 times.”

Brennan, like many video editors and journalists The Creators Project spoke to, has specific shots of violence, disaster and catastrophe burnt into his mind—ones that will never appear on television screens due to broadcasting’s viewer protection standards, comparable to the BBFC. “I never want to see those grainy amateur video clips again,” says Brennan, referring to editing vivid video material filmed on a mobile phone.

Films like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and Paranormal Activity resonate with Brennan’s experience. The found footage—or pseudo-documentary—technique in horror films attempts to create terror through realism, making an audience believe that what they’re watching is real.

Michael Blyth, Programmer for the British Film Institute (BFI) Cult Strand, believes horror films already contain a real world subtext. “I think horror cinema, more than any other filmmaking, is reflective of the world that we live in and reflects the horrors of society back onto us,” he says, making mention of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its common association with the Vietnam War.

Blyth goes on to say, “There are specific things that people are scared by and I think they remain they same throughout history. What shifts are the ways these stories are told.”

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Director John Carpenter notably uses sound to bring his film’s images to terrifying life. This is a scene from the 1982 cult hit The Thing. Image courtesy of BFI.

Developments in technology can now create illusions where audiences are placed directly into a film, but music and lighting must also be considered in a movie’s fright factor.  

“Horror cinema is the type of cinema that affects you physically,” says Blyth. “It’s a sensory experience. You can tell if it’s a successful film by physically sitting in a cinema and seeing whether viewers jump or not.”

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The Shining is often considered to be one of the scariest movies of all time, encompassing the many reasons why we like horror. Image courtesy of BFI.

Movies, roller coasters and unforeseen tragedy—fear appears to be as paramount to human existence as food and water. Images’ power to ignite reaction leads to a response that may be more dependent on who we are, rather than how authentic they are.  

“Images of fear must directly affect the person viewing,” says Brennan, who hopes to make his own horror film one day. “In compassionate people, the predominant emotion in reacting to horror imagery is of wanting to help, to make things better. To tap into that base mortal fear even in 2015, from just a still image, is surely a great and admired talent.”

The BFI Cult Strand has new programs released every month at London’s BFI Southbank, including a range of creepy flicks at the annual BFI London Film Festival. Find out more here.

To date, an uncut version of A Serbian Film has yet to be shown in British theaters.

If you are interested in learning about the effects of reporting on violence, check out the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma.

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