Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How to refute the claims about horror fans made by Alice Robb at The New Republic

We knew you were like this, and now we have proof!
Um, NO, YOU DON'T!! 

We all know it will happen.  You’ll be at a family gathering, with co-workers in the lunchroom, or hanging out with friends at a bar.  And someone who knows you like horror films will bring up this online story from The New Republicand wonder how you could be such a monster. 

You can say the author had preconceived notions of horror fans (which she obviously does, but I’ll get to that).  However, I’m sure the person bringing up the article will mention all the studies cited in the story, so what Alice Robb wrote about horror fans must be true.

Well, here at The Shadow Over Portland, we share your concerns.  And while I can offer numerous personal rebuttals, I’m sure anyone mentioning this article will not be swayed by such antidotal insights.  So I’ve taken upon myself to offer some rebuttals to the article and the studies involved.  

Now, I only read the abstracts from the links provided by the article.  But these summations, along with the tone of the article and how the author twists the studies to support her conclusion, is enough to deflate her argument.  So, here’s five simple ways to show Robb got horror fans wrong.

Admit Robb was right on one minor point.  

To be fair, admit that Robb did get one thing right.  Horror films do invoke the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in an increased heart rate and the release of stress hormones into one’s circulatory system.   The problem is, she follows with the statement, “For some, horror movies can even be fatal.”

It's just like a cardio workout....

It’s a bold assertion, one she is unable to justify.  Her first example of a death by fright involves a woman dying of a heart attack at a screening of The Passion of the Christ.  Sure, the film utilizes makeup effects similar to a horror film, but it’s wrong to imply the death in a religious film, no matter how gory or horrific, in any way backs up her statement.

The next example is a man with high blood pressure dying during a screening of Avatar.  Again, this is not a horror film.  And, though I make no claim to being able to provide the math to prove it, I think the statistical probability of someone dying during the run of the top grossing movie of all time is pretty high, based only on the number of people in the world who saw it in the theaters. 

And neither movie is directly linked to any deaths.  The first example is based on a CNN article, with no details about the woman’s medical history.  The movie could have triggered the event, or maybe it was just bad timing for her to be in the theater.

As for the latter example, the man had high blood pressure, and (according to the link provided in the article) the attending doctor speculated that the stroke was “likely” caused by “over-excitement from watching the movie.”  Such a statement is in no way conclusive evidence supporting Robb’s statement that, “Avatar was the last straw.”

But this isn’t the first time the author makes a leap of logic that rivals Evil Knievel’s jump over the Snake River Canyon.  Following is my rebuttal to each subheading in Robb’s article.

Liking horror films does not imply a lack of empathy

Of course, this is an unrealistic portrait of a horror fan.
Most of us wish we were this good looking!

Robb’s next claim is that horror fans lack empathy.  Again, I only read the abstract to this paper, but her assertion isn’t supported by the study. 

She writes, “Students who scored higher on measures of empathy- agreeing more strongly with statements like, ‘I am often touched by things I see happen’ and ‘I really get involved with the feelings of a character in a novel’- were more likely (emphasis added) to report negative responses like sleep disturbances and feelings of distress.” 

This does not imply that horror fans lack empathy, only that viewers who score higher on a psychological test tend to have negative reactions.  And, as far as the abstract goes, the study doesn’t suggest the possibility that these people might have similar reactions to dramas with bad endings, or classic tragedies. 

Instead, one could suggest that people who score higher on the test administered by the researchers might have a difficult time showing a disconnection between real tragedies and fictional portrayals in the media.  Perhaps horror fans have a better grasp of the difference between fictional horrors and those in real life, but neither the abstract, nor Robb, suggest that possibility.

Liking horror films does not imply aggression or thrill seeking behavior.

Robb cites a 1998 study of eighth-grade children exposed to cartoon clips, than were asked whether they found the scene funny, thrilling or violent.  The researchers asked the children’s teachers to evaluate the student’s personality traits and discovered the children who thought the “…violent scenes were thrilling or funny were likely to be perceived as more aggressive and excitable by their teachers.”

The abstract of this study raises several problems.  As I did not read the study, I do not know if the clips were from classic Looney Tunes shorts or 80s toy commercial like G. I. Joe or Transformers..  Also, the researchers asked the children if they thought the clips were “funny, thrilling or violent,” yet Robb assures readers twice in the article the clips were violent. 

But violence does not mean the clips had anything to do with horror.  As I mentioned earlier, the clips could have come from The Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  And, had the clips came from a Road Runner cartoon, most people would have laughed when the coyote fell off a cliff. 

Yeah, doesn't matter if you're in the eighth grade or an adult.  
If you like The Three Stooges, you're snickering right now.

And proclaiming the children who found the “violent scenes” thrilling or funny were considered unruly by their teachers is rather subjective assessment to say the least.  

And be sure to mention eighth graders are not adults. 

Next, Robb mentions a 1985 study of “over 300 undergraduates” showed that students who sought out horror films were “…more likely than others to say they would like to watch an autopsy being performed, would attend gladiator fights if they could travel back in time, and would slow down to watch a car accident.”

I can’t dispute her statement about the autopsy or gladiator fights, but the abstract to this study is quite reveling.   According to the link Robb provided:

“The study was designed to examine the relationships of sensation seeking, extraversion, neuroticism and psychoticism with an interest in the presentation of violent or morbid and sexual events in the media and in live sports.  Scales of curiosity about morbid and sexual events and self-ratings of attendance of horror and X-rated erotic movies were developed and given to 89 male and 213 female undergraduates, along with the personality scale.”
In the article, Robb fails to mention the researchers also included pornographic material in their questions.  And, as this was an autobiographical survey, it opens up the possibility of the subjects (male or female) sculpting their responses to fit societal gender expectations.  And the researchers might have stacked the deck, as most of the 300 students in the study were female. 

Horror fans do not have to be male

We're girls, and we don't like horror.

Robb states (thanks to a 15 year old study by Harris and Hoekstra, with no link provided) that men are more tolerant of horror films than women.  Yet she denounces her statement a few lines later, admitting that women “…may be catching up to men in horror film attendance.” 

Perhaps Robb is unwilling to admit that women are as interested in horror films as men, but might not have revelled it to researchers back in the 80s, for fear of being judged.   

Horror fans are not men looking for distressed women

Yes, it's funny,  But it's a stereotype and
not reflective of horror fans!

Oh, this one is annoying.  Robb’s final declaration shows that she is just not willing to let go of her stereotypical view of horror fans as men, only this time she ups the ante by claiming they want to be “…accompanied by a frightened woman.”

Yes, she went there, citing a 80s study by Zillmann et al.  Again, I did not read the study, but the language of the abstract speaks volumes:

“Exposed 36 male and 36 female undergraduates to a horror movie in the presence of a same age, opposite-gender companion of low or high initial appeal who expressed mastery, affective indifference, or distress. 
“We found the men enjoyed the movie most in the company of a distressed woman and least in the company of a mastering woman.  Women, in contrast, enjoyed the movie most in the company of a mastering man and least in the company of a distressed man.  Mastery did not enhance the female companions’ physical appeal.  However, it significantly enhanced that of the low-appeal male companion.”

Okay, aside from the appalling sexism in the abstract’s language, nothing suggests that male horror fans want to spend their time with a “distressed” woman.  The important thing to mention is the subjects were college students, not horror fans.  No mention is made that either party involved in the experiment wanted to see a horror film, or how such a desire might affect the outcome of the study. 

Instead, the study suggests that undergraduates of both genders, when picked up off the street, will fall into stereotypical gender roles during a horror film (and 36 couples is a very small sample when compared to the general population).  And such men liked the attention given to them by a scared (distressed) woman, while the women wanted the man to not be as scared as they were during the film. 

Robb plays off a stereotypical view of horror movie fans being male, attending such movies with the intention of driving their “distressed” dates into a state that encouraged close physical contact, and perhaps more.  This might be true of young men in general (perhaps explaining the large draw of horror movies during opening weekend that are roundly criticized by horror fans and experience a significant drop the following week), but is not a portrait of a horror fan.

Seriously, did anyone at The New Republic even see The Babadook before writing the headline for Robb's article?

Robb’s biggest crime, however, is the headline linking this article to The Babadook, one of the most critically acclaimed horror film in recent years.  Had Robb spent a little time on Goggle, she might have discovered her article is out of date and sexist.  Women not only like horror films, as she grudgingly admits, they are making them.  

Be sure to mention to your distressed friends/family members that The Babadook was written and directed by Jennifer Kent, than mention other women in horror like The Soska Twins, Lori Bowen and Jovanka Vuckovic, to name just a few. 

And don’t forget to point out the studies cited in the article used children and undergraduates as their subjects.  Nothing in any of the studies she mentions implies that horror fans fall into Robb’s opinion of them, no matter how she tries to weave her misguided assertions. 

Robb might not like horror films, which is fine.  To each their own.  But she has no business telling people what she thinks horror fans are like, as it’s obvious she has no clue.

1 comment: