Why—it's a question that seems not to go away—do people pay money to watch films in which they know they will experience emotions that they avoid in ordinary life? Two recent papers reflect on the question.
Paul Silvia says aesthetics are usually about taking pleasure in things, for instance because they are beautiful. He offers what he calls a tour of unusual emotions that can't be grouped with pleasure. He describes three families of such emotions: knowledge emotions (interest, confusion, and surprise), hostile emotions (anger disgust and contempt), and self conscious emotions (pride, shame and embarrassment) which occur in fiction. About the self conscious emotions Sylvia says:
Understanding personal and collective feelings of pride, shame, guilt, regret, and embarrassment is central to a mature science of aesthetics, but our field knows so little about these emotions. Of the emotion families, self-consciousness emotions afford the most to researchers looking for untrod terrain (p. 50).Silvia says the the field of aesthetics should have more to say about why people have these emotions in their encounters with the arts but, in this article, he does not offer an explanation of the paradox of people seeking the seemingly unpleasurable.
Norman Holland (2010) starts a brief piece in Psychology Today by discussing a horror film he saw recently. The film seemed designed to make him feel fear. He does come up with an explanation.
I think that fictionality (= non-acting in response to an emotional stimulus) leads to pleasure. Actuality (= having to decide about acting in response to an emotional stimulus) leads, not to pleasure, but to planning motor activity … I think that … knowing that we won't have to do anything [in fiction] … is in and of itself pleasurable.It seems possible that being in an emotional state has enjoyable aspects to it. What is unpleasurable, according to Holland, are the possible consequences for our own life, and here emotions signal that we have to do something about them.
Film, in particular, is designed to lead us through sequences of emotional states. Murray Smith (1995) argues that the basis of these emotions is identification with characters. It is the characters who absorb our interest. It is with them that we become emotionally involved. Perhaps the root reason for our engagement with emotion is that because we are inherently social creatures we are fascinated by what can go on in the social world, for ourselves and others, be it positive or negative.
Norman Holland (2010). Why are there horror movies? Psychology Today, January 4.
Paul Silvia (2009). Looking past pleasure: anger, confusion, disgust, pride, surprise, and other unusual aesthetic emotions. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3, 48-51.
Murray Smith (1995). Engaging characters: Fiction, emotion, and the cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press.