ACL Abstract Journal
Previous Article Next Article
The psychological appeal of your favorite movie monsters
By Stuart Fischoff, Alexandra Dimopoulos, FranÇois Nguyen, Leslie Hurry, And Rachel Gordon

      The film industry is one of today's most successful enterprises, bringing in billions in revenue. But why and how are filmgoers, film renters, and film buyers allured? The answer may lie in what films do for their viewers. Given previous research results on viewer reactions to films, different film genres may be expected to provide different vicarious and emotional experiences. In the case of horror films, it is commonly believed that the thrill of fright, the awe of the horrific, and the experience of the dark, forbidden side of human behavior lures people into the dark mouth of the theater to be spooked.

      According to recent statistics, approximately 15 (6%) of the films that are released annually are of the horror genre. Since the early part of the 20th century, when the horror film genre was born, scary movies have developed into different clusters of themes. Silent-film-era horror films, primarily European, were a mixed bag of legends and science fiction. The 1930s and 40s gave rise to the now-legendary era of sympathetic monsters, as exemplified by Universal Studio's Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy. Audiences identified with these monsters because they were often portrayed as tormented souls. The 1970s and 80s brought a new wave of monsters directed toward a different audience. This new audience was the youth market, and the monsters and their monstrous behaviors addressed the sensibilities of young males and females. The transition from the multigenerational appeal of films, particularly horror films, to a principally youth-oriented market developed as the buying power of the young began to increase exponentially in the late 1960s. As horror films became more gruesome, more explicit, more horrifying than terrifying, and more shocking than suspenseful, the older audiences began to stay away in droves.

      A trend can be observed: As viewers age, their appetite for violence decreases and their attraction to the new, bloodier horror genre decreases as well.1 A momentum begins and, in response, Hollywood shifts from targeting adult market audiences to targeting primarily teen market audiences.

      Yet, as the annual Halloween film festivals on television attest and horror movie spoofs continue to demonstrate, the vintage monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula are still popular. Their appeal seems to coexist with that of the modern-day monsters like Freddy Kreuger of Nightmare on Elm Street and Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th. Do two sets of monsters exist in contemporary popular culture, each with its own set of physical and psychological properties? Is each set embraced on its own terms—one set a fond relic of the past and the other set a contemporary expression of changed values, modern film technologies, and a youth market with an appetite for murder and violence? This article describes the results of a study designed to identify our favorite movie monsters, explore why we feel connected to them,2 and clarify the differences between age groups and cultural generations as to what characteristics are attractive in movie monsters.

Procedure and methodology

      Members of the Media Psychology Lab at California State University, Los Angeles, under the direction of Dr. Fischoff, conducted a year-long, nationwide survey of, among other things, the preferences people have for certain movie monsters. Data were collected between September 2000 and August 2001. A variety of direct and indirect contact venues were employed to garner responses from academic and nonacademic settings, which resulted in a cross-sectional, convenience sample of 1166 participants with a similar ratio of males to females. The participants ranged in age from 6 through 91 with a mean age of 34.2. Respondents came from the four major racial/ethnic groups: Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, and African-American.

      The survey questionnaire was developed over a number of open-ended pilot studies to elicit items addressing reason for individual monster preferences. People were asked to respond to potential monster preference reasons on a four-point Likert Scale of 0–3, indicating sentiments ranging from "no influence" to very influential." The final survey contained 44 closed-ended reasons for liking a monster, and opportunities to add additional reasons why a particular monster was a favorite. In order to collect more data on favorite movie monster citations when people did not have the time to fill out a long list of reasons behind the selection, a short version of the survey was designed and administered in rapid response street interviews.

Results

      Results of the study indicated that, for both genders and across age groups, the vampire, and Dracula in particular, is the king of monsters. This was true for males and females and for people of all ages, except for those younger than 26, for whom Dracula ranked second to Freddy Krueger. With a few exceptions, males and females were generally attracted to the same monsters for similar reasons. As predicted, younger people were more likely to prefer recent and more violent and murderous monsters, liking them for their killing prowess. By contrast, older people were more attracted to less murderous monsters and were attracted for reasons concerned with a monster's torment, sensitivity, and alienation from normal society. Overall, though, monsters were liked for their intelligence, superhuman powers, and their ability to show us the dark side of human nature, thus allowing us to participate vicariously in some of these normally forbidden activities.

      Mass murderer monsters such as Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers (Halloween), Chucky (Child's Play), closely followed by Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs), are indeed most appreciated for being killing machines. By contrast, none of the classic horror figures (Frankenstein, Godzilla, vampires, King Kong, or even the Alien from Aliens) were anointed for their killing prowess. Rather, it is the sensitivity, intelligence, compassion, and ostracization of the classic horror figures that principally grab respondent attention.

Dracula's appeal to audiences

      In terms of favorite monsters, the vampire species, particularly Bela Lugosi's Dracula, is the king of the film monster netherworld. Why is a serial murderer like Dracula considered sexy and attractive? Often, Dracula is represented as a very attractive male. Psychological research has reaffirmed commonly held belief repeatedly in studies showing that we are more willing to empathize with and excuse handsome or beautiful people when they commit crimes than we are with nonhandsome or nonbeautiful defendants.3 We also tend to attribute more positive personality characteristics to attractive people.4 Even in "monsterland," it seems, it pays to be beautiful or handsome.

      Vampires have an additional virtue of sorts. As a western society, we fear aging and death. The vampire character is ideally tempting in both regards—he never ages and never dies. He also has supernatural powers that may appeal to those who feel powerless.

      In general, different monsters are adored for different reasons but, overall, characteristics such as superhuman strength, intelligence, luxuriating in the joy of being evil, and being unfettered by moral restraints are some of the most popular reasons favored by the sample. Moreover, monsters are admired for holding a mirror up to our darker sides and assisting us in understanding evil. But beyond what monsters may show us about ourselves and our darker sides, the results indicate that what monsters must do above all is behave horrifically and evoke in us extreme emotions, especially the adrenalized emotion of fear. Looking scary is useful as well. Moviegoers also relish their monsters displaying such positive traits as compassion, sensitivity, humor, and intelligence. Moreover, the supernatural powers that monsters possess are attractive. Whether we're rooting for Superman or Dracula, good or evil, superhuman powers are an audience favorite.

References

1.Fischoff S. Favorite film choices: influences of beholder and the beheld. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association Convention, San Francisco, CA, August 13–18, 1998.
2.Fischoff S, Dimopoulus A, Nguyen F. Favorite movie monsters and their psychological appeal. Abstract presented at the 110th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Chicago, IL, August 22–25, 2002.
3.Stewart II JE. Defendant's attractiveness as a factor in the outcome of trials. J Appl Soc Psych 1980; 10:348–61.
4.Tesser A. Advances in social psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.

Dr. Fischoff is Professor of Media Psychology, Department of Psychology, California State University, Los Angeles, 5151 State University Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90032, U.S.A.; tel.: 323-343-5617; fax: 323-343-2281; e-mail: sfischo@calstatela.edu. Ms. Dimopoulos, Mr. Nguyen, and Ms. Hurry are members of the Media Psychology Lab, California State Univesity, Los Angeles, CA, U.S.A., and Ms. Gordon is Executive Editor, Journal of Media Psychology, Los Angeles, CA, U.S.A. The authors would like to thank Ana Franco and Angela Hernandez for their assistance with this research.


Copyright © 2003 International Scientific Communications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.