“The mythic horror movie, like the sick joke, has a dirty job to do,” writes Stephen King in his article “Why We Crave Horror Movies.” That dirty job is to connect with the vile aspects of ourselves that society would prefer to eliminate. Once connected to a movie or a sick joke, those vile aspects have a safe outlet for release. King names these aspects anticivilization_ emotions._ He says they “don’t go away, and they demand periodic exercise.” By viewing violent deaths, detachment of body parts, and monsters ambushing the innocent, King says we do society the favor of not doing those things to other people. Our bad sides can “be let loose to scream and roll around on the grass” in our imaginations, without any real people getting hurt. But is that true? Does catharsis really work? The possibility of purging dangerous emotions vicariously is a familiar defense for showing a lot of violence on television and video games marketed to children. In doing a Google search of the Web for “catharsis theory,” I found that popular belief and scientific results do not agree with each other. Popular belief in the theory is widespread, while scientific studies weigh in heavily against it. In favor of catharsis, Freud and Aristotle line up on Stephen King’s side of the debate. Freud believed that the subconscious holds our dangerous, antisocial emotions. Since most people do not regularly commit violent acts, he reasoned that dangerous emotions must be siphoned off without the person actually having to act out in violence or even imagine himself doing so. Aristotle had similar thoughts about art. Expressing one’s feelings through art, actively or passively, were refined behaviors associated with cultured people who did not publicly act uncivilized. Aristotle reasoned that art could reduce the need to act antisocially. King, Freud and Aristotle are persuasive voices. When they support the social benefit of horror movies and violent content in art, we are...
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