Why are people so drawn to horror and violence? Dr. Jeffrey Kottler has spent his career trying to figure out the answer. He’s a professor of counseling at the University of California-Fullerton and author of the book, Lust For Blood: Why We Are Fascinated by Death, Murder, Horror and Violence. He told EarthSky:
I had hoped there would be a relatively simple explanation, and found out there were more than a dozen reasons to account for our attraction to violence.
Kottler analyzed data on violence and interviewed everyone from serial killers to folks in line for horror flicks. He said:
We all have within us the remnants of the capacity to respond violently to conflict, or confusion, or fear. And yet it’s no longer functional in modern life. Rarely do we come across a saber-tooth tiger or a warring tribe attacking. So we need alternative ways to deal with our violent impulses.
Kottler said it’s often normal to be drawn to violence in sports, video games, or movies. He said it can serve an important part of our lives, if it doesn’t get of control, and if it doesn’t activate us in a way that makes us more violent or more abusive in our own behavior.
A slasher movie, for example, lets us experience violence vicariously, in a controlled way in which people are not injured, he said.
The responses we’re experiencing physiologically are sometimes indistinguishable from what it would be like if we were actually being chased in real life. It can sometimes feel like a level of reality, but one in which, when the lights come on, we’re safe.
The goal of his research, said Kottler, is to understand the violent aspect of ourselves in order to do a better job of controlling violent behavior.
He said that there are a lot of mixed messages in research on violence. Kottler told EarthSky:
There’s a lot of bad publicity and poorly done research – studies showing that entertainment violence destroys our kids brains, and makes them serial killers, and makes them school shooters. While there’s some anecdotal evidence of a few instances in which that’s occurred, by and large that’s not the universal response.
One of the reasons for our fascination with violence involves self-protection, Kottler said. He gave an example, adding that our fascination with violence can play out in different ways, some of them mundane.
Just yesterday I’m driving down the freeway – this is something everyone sees – and this there’s traffic. Traffic stops, it takes you a half hour to get past this spot, and then you realize that there’s nothing blocking the road, but there was an accident on the other side of the road. There’s nothing blocking the road – what are people looking at?
There’s actually highly functional aspects of our behavior that we’re fascinated to find out how people die, what happens, so we can protect ourselves from a similar fate.
Kottler said that, while me might think of modern culture as being violent, we live in one of the least violent eras in human history. He explained there are fewer deaths in war than have ever occurred in the human race per capita. And violent crime has been going down every decade since the Middle Ages. “Maybe entertainment violence is helping reduce that?” he wondered aloud.
He said that data show 90% of people have – at some point – fantasized about killing someone. Of course, most people don’t act on such fantasies. Having interviewed many people on the subject of violence, he said there’s one thing that marks a difference in a normal verus abnormal response to violence.
What makes the research so confusing is that watching violence – a fight in a school, watching a violent movie, seeing a car accident, watching a football game – some people are activated by that and become more aggressive and become more prone to violence.
The majority of people don’t. “Normal” people – meaning people that aren’t activated by the violence they see – actually experience a calmer response afterwards, it’s like they’re physically or emotionally drained or exhausted.
He said violence, beyond its scientific fascination, also tells an incredible historical story.
Since the beginning of human history, you go back to Aztec times with public sacrifices, where thousands of people were murdered in a day, to the delight of audiences. Or certainly during the Roman times with gladiators, where emperors kept their power in a way largely determined by the kind of violent spectacles they could put together – sometimes tens of thousands of people killed for the entertainment of the masses. It’s always been a part of the human experience.
Jeffrey Kottler’s book about why people are so drawn to violence is called Lust For Blood: Why We Are Fascinated by Death, Murder, Horror and Violence.
Beth Lebwohl researches, writes and helps produce science content in audio and video formats for EarthSky. She is one of the authors on EarthSky.org, a script-writer for our podcasts, and helps host our English science podcasts in 90-second, 8-minute and 22-minute formats. Beth came to EarthSky in 2006 from the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Astrophysics, where she was surrounded by some of the greatest telescope-building, equation-wielding, code-writing physicists of our time. And they made her think . . . this science thing . . . it's pretty cool.