Sunday, August 16, 2009
Mad science: The scientific implications of drooling slasher fans.
An article in Psychology Today discusses an a psych research experiment that used Jason Voorhees's mom as it's stimuli:
Sensation seekers are also particularly drawn to pornographic and horror films. In one study, subjects viewed a 20-minute segment of Friday the 13th. Sensation-seeking people didn't just enjoy the movie more; they actually salivated more, indicating higher levels of alertness and cognitive processing.
Measuring drool might sound like a surreal way to measure attention, but the link has long been exploited by experimental psychologists. The famous drooling dogs in Pavlov's experiments were not drooling out of hunger, but rather from increased levels of attention. On hearing the bell, they began actively searching for other signs that food would be coming. In theory, they could have been trained to associate the bell with walks or petting and they still would have shown spikes in salivation.
The context for the experiment is the idea that certain cultural products appeal to certain personality types. The hypothesis is that fans of horror and porn are "extroverts—lively, active, social people who crave sensory excitement in the art they seek out. You don't have to be a sensation seeker to be an extrovert, but it helps. 'They're bored without high levels of stimulation,' explains Gosling. 'They love the bright lights and hustle and bustle, and they like to take risks and seek thrills.'"
Honestly, I'm not sure I dig this particular hypothesis. I've got two separate, but related, objections. First, the thrill-hunter model seems to best explain the impact of watching a slasher movie in a decontextualized, one-off way. Slasher fans, I find, watch tons of the stuff and, in my experience, value it as much for its formulaic monotony as for the pleasurable shock of emotion. They enjoy the thrill, but aren't big on risk. I mean, c'mon: Can we all agree that the moment it becomes a wallpaper theme, something has officially become not dangerous?
Slasher fans are hardly alone in this. Most horror fans, when it comes to the form and content of their favorite genre, approach works with a profound conservatism. Despite rhetoric about the desperate need for originality and innovation, fans support the general trend of remakes and rip-offs by voting with their dollars. When asked to produce "best of" lists, remakes and franchise flicks regularly appear in higher spots. There are thrill-junkies, of course, and people who want novelty for its own sake, but the characterization of horror fans as craving innovation ignores the same-but-different quality of most horror films.
Which brings us to the dubious link between horror and porn. Though I've always been fond of the "body genres" theory that proposes a link between horror and porn as the two genres that aim for the gut and not the mind, we have to admit that it’s a pretty shaky premise. Sure the shriek of the horror fan and the orgasm of the porn watcher are obvious signs of the physical impact of the films they're watching; but what about the sobs of the person watching a tear-jerker (even the description implies the almost involuntary physical response these films are meant to evoke) or the gut-level thrill one gets from watching an action movie? It also assume there's no intellectual angle to horror films, which is a more haughty way of restating the intellectually-lazy canard that some films, especially those featuring sensational levels of violence, aren't really about anything other than violence. For example, I find most slasher flicks dumb as can be. However, it would be bullshit for me to pretend that many very intelligent folks have teased out all manner of themes and insights from the very same films. More over, it ignores the difference in reception. Horror fans, as mentioned above, create best of lists, debate narrative details, argue the relative values of works, and otherwise engage their favorite works in way that are still relatively rare in world of porn consumption. Whatever the similarities between the genres, there are crucial differences that, in my amateur opinion, make their easy conflation dubious.