Do Atheists Get Scared During Supernatural Horror Movies?

Atheists don't believe in gods or ghosts, so how do they enjoy horror movies?: originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.


Answer by Robert Frost, Cinephile and engineer/instructor at NASA

This is a very reasonable and good question.

The point of the question is quite clear: if members of the audience have absolutely no fear of the events being depicted, how do they experience the fear reaction that is a big part of the reason why people watch particular types of horror movie?

Why do horror movies have more impact on us when we view them as children, than as adults? I remember watching "The Entity" when I was a kid and then screaming my head off when an item fell off my bookshelf, because I thought a demon was coming to get me. I remember watching Poltergeist as a kid and being paranoid for weeks that my house was built on an Indian burial ground (it didn't help that my grandfather, who is Cherokee, told me it was and he could hear them howling at night). Those same two movies, watched recently, don't hold up as well. They are still entertaining -- but they don't scare me anymore.

The difference is that as children we didn't have as much of a complete worldview to separate fact and fiction. As adults, we've firmed up our view of the world, become less imaginative and decided that things that aren't part of our experience aren't reality, they are fiction.

One can easily see how people that have grown up in a particular tradition (Christianity, Native American, Wiccan, whatever) would still find a movie scary if it touched on primal elements of those traditions. A Christian might find The Exorcist or The Conjuring scarier because their traditions might not have discounted the possibility of demonic possession.

So, if the point of watching a scary movie is to be scared, and one has no part of their worldview that accepts the possibility of the events being depicted happening in some way to themselves, how can a scary movie do its job, for them?

The answer is that the movie makers use other elements than the obvious plot to engage the fear response.

They use tension and surprise (I have no fear of black cats, but when that damn cat jumped out of the cabinet in "Something Wicked This Way Comes", I about had a coronary).

They use misdirection of fear. It isn't the fictional monster in "Frankenstein" that scares us, it's the reactions of the townsfolk. Often the supernatural elements are just the gimmick to frame and sell the story. The real conflicts are more grounded.

And quite often, they just avoid the supernatural and stick to more mundane horrors. For every The Conjuring there are half a dozen Hostels. Storytellers seek out the things that will scare their audiences, even in an ever changing world. Theists and Athiests alike can sleep with the light on after watching a scary movie about a serial killer clown or one about a rabid Saint Bernard dog.

But no matter what the storyteller does, the story doesn't work if the audience doesn't have an imagination. Suspension of disbelief in conjunction with imagination can allow us to be emotionally engaged in the story and be scared if we are supposed to be scared, regardless of whether we accept the possibility of the events depicted.

So, atheists can certainly get a thrill from supernatural movies, but they do miss out on the scariness being prolonged after the theater lights come back on. That's a thrill reserved to those that can believe in the possibility of ghosts and demons.

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