Scary monsters are awesome — there's something undeniably cool about being scared witless by something that won't ever stop or show mercy. But some of the most famous monsters, like Frankenstein's Monster and King Kong, inspire our pity or empathy along with terror. Why would we want to feel sorry for the monsters that terrify us?
We asked a couple of experts on neuroscience, psychology and horror fiction, and here's what they told us.
Lots of people have talked about how empathizing with the heroes/victims in a horror movie might make the movie scarier, notes Heath Matheson, an experimental psychology PhD candidate at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. But fewer people have written about the question of why we'd want to sympathize with the monster or the killer, notes Matheson, who co-writes a blog about horror and neuroscience called Goretical Stimulation: Your Brain on Horror.
And Matheson believes there's a simple explanation for why we might want to understand monsters in order to fear them: Once we understand the monsters' motivations, we believe in their agency. Says Matheson:
That is we come to understand that they are agents with powerful motivations and will work towards them (often seeking revenge on careless teenagers). Though horror movies are often effective when the 'monster' is not an agent (it is a natural disaster or something else mindless), a truly effective monster is one that we feel is goal-directed and able to achieve these goals.
Also, notes Matheson, "Empathizing with both the monster and the victim might allow us to more fully be engrossed by the story." Thus, giving the monster a backstory and a coherent motive, as well as some claim to victimhood of its own, makes the story more engrossing in its own right.
But there's also the fact that empathizing with the monster opens up the most primal fear of all — the fear that we, ourselves, could turn into monsters, says Raymond A. Mar, an assistant professor of psychology at York University and director of the Mar Lab. Says Mar:
I think that the scariest monsters are those in which we are able to see an aspect of humanity present. Evil is scary enough, but the idea that humanity (and perhaps ourselves) are capable of such evil is even more terrifying. Understanding our own capacity to be or become a monster creates true existential fear.
Plus there's also the fact that deep down, we love to root for monsters that are acting out and causing the destruction that we ourselves wish we could wreak, if we were all-powerful and devoid of a moral compass. (This isn't something one of our experts told me, just a hunch on my part.)
At the same time, empathizing with a monster does make it more predicatable, and thus possibly less scary, says Mar:
People want to understand the things that scare them to make them less scary. I think we're driven by an innate and spontaneous tendency to empathize with everything around us in order to try to understand and predict it all. The more we can relate and humanize a creature, hopefully the less scary it becomes.
Of course, both Mar and Matheson point out that we often are scared of things that we can't empathize with — including natural disasters as well as snakes and spiders. Plenty of scary stories do feature creatures that can't be reasoned with or understood.
In general, though, empathy is a key component of our ability to feel other emotions, including fear, says Matheson:
Empathy is associated with fear and all other emotions. It is the social-cognitive skill that allows us to take the perspective of other people and respond emotionally to them and their situations. This is important in any emotional story telling, and weak stories are the ones that often have characters that behave in baffling, unnatural, ways— in ways that prevent us from empathizing with them. Interestingly, many researchers believe that the MORE you empathize with a character's suffering, the LESS you should enjoy horror movies — but this isn't always the case. It seems that a good horror film finds a sweet-spot, and makes us empathize enough to get into the story, but not too much to be put off by it.