It is women who love horror. Gloat over it. Feed on it. Are nourished by it. Shudder and cling and cry out — and come back for more. — Bela Lugosi, star of Dracula (1931)
In 1979, a new film rendition of Dracula was released in theaters on Friday the 13th and I begged my mom to take me since it was R-rated and I couldn’t go by myself. I was fifteen and had been a horror movie fan since I was small. I especially loved vampire and werewolf movies.
I recall sitting in the Richmond movie theater in a row together: my mom, my sister, me and one or two girlfriends. We were prepared to be scared. We were not prepared to seduced. As the credits ended and the lights rose, I remember exchanging glances, as we took deep breaths to regain our composure. We were ALL smitten with the vampire.
And I don’t suppose I ever completely got over it!
Frank Langella reprised his Broadway lead role on the screen to great effect. And the effect was not lost on audiences, to be sure. In an interview, the star said the most frequent thing men mentioned when meeting him was “Did my wife ever make love to me that night!”
The movie also starred the beautiful Kate Nelligan and the estimable Laurence Olivier. This version of the Bram Stoker classic featured romantic themes, period costumes and sets, lush cinematography and a score the New York Times called “ravishing.” Notably, the cinematographer (Gilbert Taylor) and composer (John Williams) also worked on Star Wars.
And all that made for a wonderful movie. However, it took me years to understand why I, like so many women, responded so strongly and favorably to a character who was essentially a monster.
(Other than the fact that Frank Langella was 6’4″, gorgeous, charismatic, deep-voiced and sexy in every way. And don’t even get me started on Capricorns!)
As the female lead, Lucy, in the movie states, “Oh, I love to be frightened.”
There is a strong theme about the shifting tension between power and submission in romantic relationships in this film. is Oddly, in certain, controlled circumstances where no real danger is present, it turns out that at least some women (maybe men, too, I don’t kn0w) get turned on — or at least exhilarated — by fear and the appearance of dominance. Whether this is a misattribution of the physical arousal to fear or an evolutionary adaptive response to the selection of a mate (or combination of those factors) is a matter of debate among psychologists and researchers.
This version of Dracula was pretty sexy…and 1979 was a year that was on the tail end of the sexual revolution: a movement that changed attitudes about women’s sexuality and power in relationships.
Dracula was distinct from other horror movies (particularly the Hammer films) in that the female lead (Kate Nelligan) was not so much a victim of the charismatic Count as a willing participant. She was in love with him and the wanted the freedom he offered her: a mate who did not embrace the social conventions of the period that she found so constraining to women. And she wasn’t shy about telling him so.
In interviews, Frank Langella was frank (sorry) about his decision to play up the dominant yet romantic nature in his interpretation of the character of the Count:
“It gets down to something primal, like a man saying to a female, ‘You are mine. You are to do what I say.’ Dracula must have Miss Lucy or he dies. A woman can be totally passive with the Count, which can be very attractive. Men can find that appealing, too,” he said with a grin.
In the film, the Count may be dominant, but Lucy (they switched the names of the female characters in this film version) holds real power and control in the dynamic.
I don’t know if it is overstating it to say this is a reflection of late 1970s women’s increasing self-actualization but it may be. From the first lines in the movie where Lucy proclaims that women are not chattel to her first night’s encounter with the Count when she contradicts him and also offers to teach him to dance, it is apparent that Lucy is her own woman with an independent spirit.
In this particular respect, the movie continues the theme of Nosferatu (1922) and its 1979 reprise, in which the victim orchestrates and controls the outcome of the encounter to her advantage to wield power over the vampire.
This romantic Dracula may have also been a forerunner for shifting power/control relationship themes presented in other vampire films, such as the Twilight series.
And could it be that the audience is also participating in a power/control dynamic with the movie producers?
After all, horror movie viewers are willing participants who consent to a novel, startling experience in a safe and controlled environment in order to experience a pleasurable thrill and a sense of well-being afterwards — feelings that result from the release of chemicals in the body. Directors know what audiences want. They orchestrate cinematic scenes to elicit a powerful, physical and emotional response in their audiences, just as a lover might do with his partner.
Like roller coaster thrill rides, horror movies are safe ways to experience fear in a safe manner, because people consent to experiencing them (some degree of control exists) and they know they won’t actually suffer injury or death. Additionally, the fiction of the film provides a layer of emotional protection from the distress of watching violent or fear-inducing scenes — just as the safety bar on a roller coaster reassures the rider.
Arousal in humans is a peculiar phenomenon. Whether it is sexual or non-sexual, it may feel physically similar, when experienced. When startled by a terrifying scene, people experience an involuntary fright or flight response involving physiological changes that mimic the changes experienced during sexual arousal, to include, sometimes, actual sexual arousal!
Researchers found in experiments that women, in particular, were more physically aroused sexually when watching an intimate scene after having watched a fearful one than after having watched an emotionally neutral one.
Does that change your date night plans a little bit?
Several physical changes occur in arousal — and when it happens in the context of watching a horror movie, people are not always consciously aware of the similiarities. Blood rushes to the extremities. In women, the cervix and uterus lifts, the vaginal canal elongates, and even breasts increase slightly in size; in men, the testes enlarge and draw close to the body. The sweat glands emit a different odor, so much so, that men in studies were able to detect which women were aroused by smell alone.
(Let’s hope the smell of warm popcorn mitigates for that effect).
In addition to pheromones, chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol are released. The body releases feel-good endorphins. The immune system is activated. Heart rate and brain function increases. Senses are heightened. Dopamine – the same chemical present when we fall in love – is also released and remains in the body for some time after the movie is over, when catharsis and a feeling of well being takes place. There is also evidence that horror movies provide temporary respite to viewers who suffer depression or anxiety.
This rush can become addictive! Dopamine creates feelings of euphoria. It is the same chemical that is released when people use cocaine. It partially accounts for why people will seek to be frightened by horror movies again and again.
No wonder Miss Lucy “loves to be frightened!”
People may experience these sensations when alone but, just as in physical intimacy, these feelings can be intensified when experienced with a romantic partner. Whether they realize it or not, when people are frightened, they bond by sharing an emotional experience together. People draw physically close to each other for comfort and safety when they are frightened, as they have evolved to do. Oxytocin is then released, making them feel calm and safe.
For this reason, watching horror movies together can become the ultimate date night. Marriage counselors have even advised long-term couples to reignite their passion for each other by watching horror movies together (or riding roller coasters or skydiving). Studies have found that couples who watched horror movies together were especially happy. Another study found that the male in a couple enjoyed the horror movie more if he knew his female partner was frightened by it (also known as the “snuggle theory” of gender socialization to horror).
I experienced this myself with a former boyfriend who also liked scary movies. I found that we bonded while watching horror films together, the more suspenseful and implausible, the better (The Ring, Blair Witch Project, Insidious, Boy, etc.). I was very frightened by these movies (because I am ridiculous), and clutched onto him during the scary parts, which added to his enjoyment and feelings of personal power and dominance, while I found my big, bad boyfriend to be a protective factor that allowed me to safely enjoy the lively emotional and physical sensations watching horror movies provided.
Horror movie producers understand that in order for audiences to watch a fearful and suspenseful scene, they have to lower their protective inhibitions and momentarily suspend their disbelief in the feasibility of the plot. In essence, they have to willingly submit to the experience in order to enjoy the heightened emotional and physical sensations that bring enjoyable endorphins.
In the 1931 version of Dracula, the movie director and screenwriter employed humorous scenes to get audiences to let down their guard and disinhibit. Then when an unrelated scary scene was next presented, the audience was more startled and experienced a more powerful sensation (which is chemically more pleasurable).
In the 1979 version of Dracula, the director and screenwriter presented their audience with romantic scenes involving seduction and intimacy. To view this kind of content, audiences have to lower their inhibitions because social conventions dictate that we not become voyeurs to these types of private encounters in real life. While our guard is down, the horror scene that is presented to them next is all the more scary. I still remember one graveyard scene in the movie that scared me to pieces. Spoiler: don’t watch this clip if you are planning to see Dracula and want to really get scared when you do.
Strange but true, horror movies can also alleviate real-life fears. Much has been said about the power of laughter to dispel discomfort. However, the powerful sensations experienced by watching horror movies are also potent enough to temporarily distract people from their personal anxieties and concerns. In this way, watching horror movies can alleviate stress, grief and anxiety, sometimes even more effectively than non-horror films.
But what is is it about vampires that make them so, well, sexy?
Personally, I find vampire films more enjoyable horror films than graphic serial killer films because vampire films are implausible, while still being frightening. I know that vampires don’t exist. My fear ends when the movie does.
But serial killers do exist. And they don’t sleep in coffins; they live among us. A movie that dramatizes their kills seems to make that reality all the more plausible. So my heightened sensations after watching a serial killer movie persist beyond an almost intolerable level, moving me from “thrill” to unpleasant fearfulness. (Even though I still watch them occasionally, like the almost operatic Texas Chainsaw Massacre).
In fact, people who prefer gory films and serial killer films and people who choose to watch vampire films have very different psychological motivations for seeking out that kind of content, according to one researcher.
The former audience tends to be males who are less empathic and oriented to seek high-intensity sensations (like risks). Other studies found that the primary audiences for slasher films were rebellious adolescents. They liked the intensity of realistic special effects, extreme violence, gore and gross-out shock. The turn-on is a kind of sadistic voyeurism, probably inextricably and understandably emotionally linked to adolescent issues of vulnerability, lack of personal autonomy and a desire for power, even to the point of omnipotence, not to mention the often-present physiological difference of possessing a less sensitive frontal cerebral cortex.
Disturbingly, they identify with the killer. They — ahem — root for him. Subconciously, let us hope!
The latter (hello, there!) tend to be more sensitive and empathic while also enjoying the suspense and thrill aspects of horror movies. They identify with the victim (like Dracula’s victims or even the Final Girl).
An interesting study found that disgusting imagery lowered sexual response in women while fear did not. Since the thrill of horror movies is akin to the thrill of sexual response, I can see why movies like The Wolf Man (1945) are more enjoyable for me than An American Werewolf in London (1981). I enjoyed both movies but I cringed with the latter. I was all prepared to be thrilled (not concious at all of why) and then…you lost me, movie producers. Oh yes, I laughed along with the witty parts, but the gore of some scenes put a damper on the experience of it for me (even though I saw the racier UK version and was sitting next to a guy I was infatuated with), whereas it probably exhilarated other members of the audience.
Still, it was a really good movie and it scared me to death.
Now, I’m not super comfortable making generalizations about gender because I know they don’t always hold true. I make them and I think — did I just write something sexist? So, I hope I’m not being sexist in this post. But I think it’s fair to say that there are some gender trends about horror movies, not written in stone, with exceptions, of course. For example, consider that when the women’s magazine Marie Claire listed their 14 best serial killer movies, they included suspense thrillers like Zodiac, Psycho, Monster and even Arsenic and Old Lace. All good movies. Some very handsome actors. Lots of suspense but low on gore.
But, interestingly, when Esquire compiled their list, they included those movies but also more of the gorier examples of the genre, such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which I still kind of love) and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (which was considered so graphic, it was given an “X” rating). So, maybe there is something to the male/female thing.
I suppose my ex and I fit the stereotype. We both liked a lot of the same horror movies, and I stuck with him gamely with the serial killer ones. But I retreated to a book in the bedroom (much to his annoyance) when he watched zombie films. That was my threshold. Even the funny ones. I just could not tolerate zombie movies at all, because of the extreme gore, the decomposition (yuck) and graphic violence. After all, zombies, as monsters, retain no remants of their emotional, inner life. They don’t even talk, usually. Apparently, that’s a plus for those low-empath boyfriends I seem to attract. But I like my villains to have wit. I associate those emotionless, zombie qualities with toxic masculinity (emotional repression, bullying and misogyny), if that’s not taking it too far.
Vampires and werewolves, on the other hand, while cruel and predatory, can still be strong, impressive love objects… (spoiler alert!)
But we both enjoyed watching suspense-driven movies about psycho killers or supernatural forces (like The Ring, below) because they provided enough shocky stimulation for him and for me, there were sufficient “good guys” and victims to relate to and find emotional catharsis in their triumph over the “bad guy” to weather the scarier parts of viewing.
This 1979 version of Dracula — and all 1930s and 1940s horror movies — appeal strongly to me because. along with the positive qualities of romantic plot, suspense, thrills, handsome anti-hero, and beautiful settings, there is a minimum and tolerable amount of blood, not more than a woman is accustomed to see with a menstrual period.
Perhaps women also tend to prefer vampire protagonists because of how they evolved to seek strong, protective mates with resources, as this Psychology Today author states. Vampires are immortal, debonair and well off (something you cannot say about any zombie!)…and hot in the sack.
Dracula has his castle, Twilight‘s Edward has a whole island for his honeymoon, Matthew (be still, my beating heart) in A Discovery of Witches has generations of wealth at his disposal.
At least some women also like vampires because they prefer alpha males: dominant (even their fangs/canines signal this to females), powerful and nearly invincible. This too, has been said to be more a function of our evolution than concious choice.
These appealing alpha-monsters always have one weakness…and it tends to be female. It is cannot be coincidental that the male vampire’s heart is his most vulnerable spot.
The fact that Dracula may have multiple attractive wives (Dracula, 1931; Bram Stokers Dracula, 1992; Van Helsing, 2004) would seem to be a deal-breaker for women on the surface but from an evolutionary standard, it demonstrates that they have “high mate-value through the visible evidence of social proof”!
Well, I think I’ve just about beaten this topic to death, so to speak, so I’ll end it here. I can’t help but be fascinated that evolution still has some sway over my psyche to this extent, though. Without me even willing it to. Tell me. Do you like vampire movies? What do you like about them?