Horror Movies: Are They Desensitizing Us To Violence, Or Misrepresenting It?


Noah Herridge

Teenagers are increasingly desensitized to horror movie violence.

Sophie Bauer

Halloween: The season of trick-or-treating, jump scares, and, of course, horror movies. Watching a horror movie on a dark, stormy night with friends is the perfect way to get into the Halloween spirit  — but as the movies have become more gruesome, and their popularity no less prevalent, it has raised important questions about the effect that horror movies have been having. The words that seem always to come up are ‘desensitization’, which, while accurate according to studies, are… kind of overrated.

Horror movies aren’t the first violent media form to come under the chopping block. At first it was video games, television, etc. The arguments are always the same, and, to be honest, only serve to show that the issue is more complicated than most people give it credit for.

Like television, video games, and movies in general, the violence levels demonstrated in horror movies have been on the rise, due partly to what kinds of content studios have found will make money, and partly because of the increased technology currently available to the industry.

It stands to reason that the increased level of violence would only exacerbate whatever negative effects the movies would have to begin with, desensitization included.

At its core, desensitization is a phenomenon in which prolonged exposure to certain types of content dims the emotional response to that type of content, and Highland AP Psychology teacher Ted Sierer would agree with those who say that horror movies are contributing to it.

“There’s study after study that shows when we see that type of behavior, we do desensitized to it.” Sierer said, pointing out that there may be more danger than we’ve realized with these movies.

“On top of that,” Seirer said “We learn a lot of behaviors from observing.”

The theory goes that we learn by observing behavior to exhibit those behaviors ourselves. Behaviors that we’ve observed in horror movies again and again. Sierer does see a way to stop the so-called problem, however.

“The main thing that would help the industry is if those’(gorey)’types of movies stopped making money. Unfortunately, as long as those movies keep making money, they’re going to keep making those movies.”
The issue, however, isn’t as cut-and-paste as it might appear to be. Because there is, potentially, something that’s been overlooked; that being that the problem of desensitization to violence, isn’t a problem to begin with. The argument is summed up neatly by SPA student and horror movie fan Boston Ravarino.

“Horror movies go out of their way to go over the top.”

Ravarino, who likes slashers, and is especially a fan of Nightmare on Elm Street, points to a scene in the series in which a television starts bleeding.

“A t.v starts bleeding,” Ravarino says,seemingly awestruck. “A t.v.!”

His incredulity at this occurrence just about covers the issue at hand. Horror movies may depict violent behavior, but many —  Me included — would argue that a large number of them depict behavior so outlandish that it bears little-to-no resemblance to real life violence. Modern technology, such as increasingly powerful CGI, allows the industry to film even crazier, more out-of-this-world scenes, so that, in the end, we’re watching violence through a fun-house mirror.

This kind of violence, the kind that doesn’t relate in the least to the real world, isn’t something that we should worry about being desensitized towards, because it’s not going to be able to have that effect when it comes to real violence. Perhaps more simply, however, one can just take Ravarino’s word for it:

“They are so over the top, they can’t desensitize anyone.”

Desensitization is bad, but if we’re being desensitized through these movies, we’re being desensitized to things that are never going to happen, and that we’re never going to have to react to. Plus, though we might not feel that affected by the 17th brutal murder in a two- and-a-half hour movie, we would definitely feel strongly if we were witnessing a murder, brutal or not, in real life.

So while horror movies may have somewhat of a desensitizing effect towards purposefully exaggerated media violence, it’s clear that they’re not going to stop violence from emotionally affecting us when we actually witness it.