One of the most common criticisms of horror movies, regardless of their story or message, is that they encourage people to be violent. That they glamorise murder and assault and show you how to get away with it. When people complain about horror movie screenings, it is usually because they are afraid that they will corrupt their community’s delicate sensibilities. Despite this, evidence is mounting that the opposite could be true – that horror movies can reduce the amount of violent crime.
A study released in 2003 by economists Gordon Dahl and Stephano Della Vigna analysed widely released horror movies over the course of a decade. They looked at the short-run impact of media in real world settings, as opposed to previous lab-based studies that measured the psychology of people exposed to violence in very controlled environments.
They found that violent crime statistically decreased on days when screenings of graphic horror movies have large theatre audiences. Between 6pm and midnight, during most screenings, violent crime is reduced by up to 2%. Over the rest of the night, until 6am, there is still a significant decrease in assaults.
Using the results of their study, Dahl and Vigna estimate that violent movie screenings prevent over 200 assaults each day. The study didn’t take into account longer term effects, but it would certainly be an interesting addition to the statistics available so far.
A separate study in 2014 was conducted to find out about what, if any, immediate response people have to violent films. It divided control groups by personality type, with people who are naturally prone to aggression in one and naturally non-aggressive people in the other. Each group was first shown a horror movie and then allowed to let their minds wander in a non-stimulating section of the study. Throughout, each participant had their brains scanned to measure their reactions.
During the screening of the film, the aggressive group were found to be completely calm, but showed “unusually high brain activity” afterwards. Conversely, the non-aggressive group showed signs of anxiety during the screen and were calmer when it was over.
Ultimately, the examinations of this study consistently show that the only people who react aggressively to a horror film are those who are already predisposed to aggression.