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Revenge In Horror Movies: Understanding The Mind

Revenge is hardly a new idea. From Achilles going on a rampage after his best friend and cousin is killed, to the far more literal I Spit On Your Grave, revenge seems to be the hallmark of a tale filled with both lessons and purgation. For many horror and slasher films, an eye for an eye appears to be the motive for killers. You hurt me, so I hurt you, your family, that random bystander that wanders into my land, and occasionally a goofy best friend or two. But why exactly is that? I understand wanting to kill the original bad guy, but why add more bodies to the film’s body count? Today we will explore the necessity for a revenge kill and how that changes everything from the stories dynamic to the chemistry within their brains. 

Revenge is a pressure cooker in many ways. First, you add spice, then the bloody meat. Then comes the pressure. Repeated offenses or a series of events that push you over the brink of insanity. You let off steam and pop of the top. Inside is a dish that many believe is best served cold. 

The Belko Experiment

A revenge plot requires a protagonist to be pushed to do what they never thought they could. Take the Belko Experiment’s Mike Melch, who is steadfast in his moral beliefs throughout the entire film; until someone kills his girlfriend. Beforehand, he thinks killing is the worst option. That lowering yourself to doing whatever the head honcho tells you to do is about as bad as it gets. Things get progressively worse as more coworkers die. A handful that survives are told to kill as many as they can, the winner will be set free.

Eventually, his emotions and psyche are shot. Left with just two of them, and with the rage born from his dead romantic interest, he kills his boss.  But you can’t unring a bell, and you can’t wash the blood from your hands. For someone to revenge kill, you have to find a piece of yourself you never wanted to show, not quite greed and not quite rage. For those watching, it doesn’t seem reasonable either. Any character that actually finishes the job becomes somewhat feral afterwords. If you’ve killed once, why not do it again? One rule broken, why not another? It’s a slippery slope, but on the plus side, it opens the door for an intriguing sequel. 


For Carrie, it gets a bit easier with not one but several bullies so shitty you kind of want them all to get the ax. It also helps when you have supernatural powers, but you get the point. Her letting off steam is a full-blown rampage. She is getting even for a lifetime of maternal abuse, peer disrespect, and sadness. Brains, of course, don’t have a switch you can turn on and off like a pressure cooker though. 

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Back in 2004, a group of Swiss researches took a look-see at the neural activity of several brains, the brains of people who were contemplating revenge. Their thoughts caused a storm of activity in the caudate nucleus. The same part of your mind that lights up when you puff a cigarette and sniff a line of cocaine. And much like the aforementioned drugs, revenge isn’t just desserts. Kevin M. Carlsmith et al. concludes that those who got revenge felt worse afterward, especially if the person had taken revenge themself as opposed to just watching it. And much like beating a dead horse, its pointless and sometimes can hurt you in the process. This, of course, can create a cycle of destruction. Maybe one act wasn’t enough. The first act sets the stage for the next and the next, and so on—an endless cycle of Hatfield’s and McCoys.

The Perfection

In Netflix’s The Perfection from last year, a beautiful musician(Allison Williams) tries to save another from a sex cult disguised as Juilliard. When the movie takes a hard right turn, and neither Charlotte nor her damsel in distress(Logan Browning) is safe, Charlotte takes revenge on the man that has plagued both of their lives. The movie ends with their captor’s eyes sewn shut, limbs amputated, and being forced to listen to our heroes play their cello. Some people have to learn the hard way.

Social psychologist Ian McKee studied what makes a person seek revenge as opposed to forgiving those who wronged them. Those with vengeful tendencies typically had two characteristics, authoritarianism, and social dominance. Those that showed deference to authority and respect for traditions, were more likely to agree with taking revenge and achieving retribution. Nine times out of ten though if you ask someone why they are seeking revenge, their goal is catharsis.

This is described by behavioral scientists as altruistic punishment. You are willing to sacrifice your well being to punish someone who did something bad. To get people to punish one another altruistically, they have to be fooled into it. That circles back around to how our brains feel happy when thinking about revenge but not necessarily after we do it. Those who are able to escape these rewarding feelings about revenge, either through predetermined morals, or physical limitations, are able to avoid the pitfalls of vengeance.

David Chester along with his colleague Nathan DeWall, set up a series of experiments designed to study why one might seek out revenge as opposed to working through their emotions. Two groups were set out, one given a placebo which they were made to believe was a mood inhibiting drug, and the other group nothing. The placebo was spectacularly strong. It prevented group one from taking revenge whereas, the control group, acted far more aggressively and actively sought some form of retribution. It seems the placebo group did not seek revenge because they believe they would feel no pleasure from doing so. 

Economists understand a similar idea in sunk costs. Inherent costs have already occurred and thus can’t be removed from the invoice. Economic theory argues a rational businessman does let sunk costs influence their behavior which is also called the bygones principle. Gordon Gekko from Wallsgtreet never believed in that concept. Revenge is our attempt at getting back those sunk costs. We take on the victim status as our badge that exonerates our behavior and like good old Ahab, we take our ship and crew down with us. 

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