Terrified and loving it: What’s up with all the scary TV shows?

The gore and violence on shows like "Hannibal" is incredibly realistic.
The gore and violence on shows like “Hannibal” is incredibly realistic.

‘Tis the season for all things that creep, crawl and go bump in the night and, if your TV Guide is any indication, it’s also the year for it.

There’s been a noticeable shift in the medium — where horror used to lurk almost entirely at the box office, we’re seeing a large influx of spooky, scary and sometimes downright disturbing programs on television. From long-running shows like “Dexter” (R.I.P.) to newer fright fests like “American Horror Story” (its third season premieres tonight!) “Bates Motel” and “Hannibal,” there’s no denying that viewers have developed an appetite for TV with darker inclinations.

This begs the question: Why do we love to be scared? And why now, seemingly more than ever? The world is a scary place, and the truth is too often more disturbing than fiction. Why, then, is there an expanding market for fictional shows designed to horrify?

According to Dr. Robert Kraft, a psychology professor at Otterbein University, this curiosity is innately human.

“The world has always been a scary place and people have always enjoyed terrifying stories — from the myths of ancient Greece through … contemporary stories of horror in film and on television,” he says.

However, he agrees that there’s been a shift as of late.

“One change has been the increasingly realistic depiction of graphic violence. More than half a century ago, the famous shower scene in Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ never showed the victim getting stabbed. Today, that scene would be shot with multiple gory close-ups of the actual stabbing. Another change has been the migration of graphic, violent stories from the movies to television,” he says.

Even shows not expressly designed to be scary (dramas like “Breaking Bad” or new FX crime thriller “The Bridge”) depict gore and violence that would have been deemed unairable not so long ago. Meanwhile, shows like “Criminal Minds” allow viewers a chilling peek inside the psyches of psychopaths and serial killers.

And, in a time when what we see on the news should be scary enough to sate anyone’s need for that kind of voyeurism, we seem to be seeking it out more than ever.

“People watch disturbing, gory shows for the excitement, the vicarious experience of violence, the strong emotions and the ultimate resolution of the conflicts,” says Kraft. “Many follow a familiar trajectory that allows people to be scared while also knowing that there will be a clear resolution.”

In other words, we watch because it allows us to channel our real world fears into a compartmentalized, manageable form of entertainment.

Emmy-winning media psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman agrees. “When the murder and mayhem on TV is over, we can turn it off and feel safe,” she says. “It gives us a sense of control.”

So, when we watch some form of the bogeyman wreak unimaginable horrors on a fictional victim, we conversely feel safer.

Kevin Howley, a media studies professor, sums it up. “These shows offer viewers a vehicle to explore the dark side in relative safety and security,” he says.

“In this respect, these programs are part of a longer storytelling tradition — think Grimm’s fairy tales, for instance — that help explain the world, a sometimes dark and scary place, and do so in a thoroughly engrossing and enlightening fashion.”


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