|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 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
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.
|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,
||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:
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.