Humanity’s Hunger for Horror
An “odd obsession” with horror films turns into research that makes you jump out of your skin.
Sociology student Kelsey Berry spent months analyzing 52 horror films.
“Being able to put one of my all-time favorite passions into research was something that I honestly never dreamed of,” Berry said. “I love horror. I’ve always been oddly obsessed with horror.”
Berry’s path to sociology was fueled by her passion for people and how they interact. Over the years she had been interested in the film industry and social justice. She eventually landed on a career direction of heading into the nonprofit sector. She enrolled in the joint Sociology-Public Administration combined degree program, which enables students to earn a bachelor’s in Sociology and a master’s in Public Administration in just five years. The combined program allows students to study a range of social problems and their policy implications.
In social theory, taught by Associate Professor Kyle Green, PhD, the students were instructed to connect what they learn in class to a creative project.
“I had the idea of connecting the theorist that we learn and their different concepts to film,” Berry said.
She narrowed her topic to horror films alone. “I choose horror because it’s such a visceral reaction,” Berry said. “It brings out emotion.” The objective was to find out what was so scary, why people watch them, and how do these films reflect and teach us about society.
Berry organized her project by creating a list of movies from 2016 to 2022 based off box office earnings and those critically acclaimed by reviewers .
“Instead of watching all of them, because that is a lot of horror films, I would just go and watch the trailer for each of these films. And read the plot on Wikipedia,” Berry explained. “If it was very vague trailer … then I would watch that film.”
With each film she collected information about the plot, characters (paying particular attention to depictions of sexuality and how people of color were represented), the fear, tropes, and the use of monsters. Berry assumed that most of the movies would have storylines about cults or religion, but that’s not what she found. Instead, she found changes in how gender roles were approached and a consistent use of motherhood storylines.
“What I found the most fascinating, and I think we will keep seeing it is, the shift in gender roles and how we approach gender roles,” said Berry. In horror films from the 1950s to 1980s, men were often the heroes. The women were often fulfilling stereotypical gender roles or being saved or being punished.
That’s changed in recent films.
“It’s almost like we’ve completely ignored men now,” Berry said. “No longer are they the heroes. In fact, they’re either dead, stupid, or ignorant, (when) they don’t believe the woman’s pain, suffering or fear.”
And there is a new formula for women characters, too.
“What is utterly insane for me is they’re like, we want a horror movie, we’re going to have a female lead character, but she needs to be a grieving mom, a single mom, or a killer mom. There is a huge emphasis on motherhood especially in the highest-grossing films,” Berry said.
Berry questions what these new storylines are saying about society.
“Are we putting more women on screen and having better representation? Yeah, that’s awesome. But what are we actually doing to them?” Berry asks. “Are we making them strong people? Or giving them more trauma and only assigning them roles such as motherhood, such as wife, or such as a domestic violence victim?”
Since completing her research, Berry has presented at multiple conferences and at Scholars Day. She loves sharing her findings and opening the conversation to dive deeper.
“Kelsey’s project is a great example of how creative a sociologist can be with their research and how you can turn your personal passions into an exciting project through sociology. I think this is why people have such positive reactions when they hear about the work, whether students, faculty, or just random people at coffee shops,” said Green.