You might think that when our lives are filled with stress and fear we would seek outlets that calm and counteract those tensions. When it comes to movie appetites the opposite seems to be true. It has long been contended that movies and specifically horror movies gain popularity when national and or global issues are at their perceived worse. The cold war launched many “alien” and “horror” movies most of which were veiled and sometimes not so veiled warnings against communism. The horrors of Vietnam sparked a run of 1970’s horror films and combined with the grindhouse movement added sexual horror to our venue of choices.
That trend in horror film distribution is true today. In terms of film releases we have seen a steady increase in yearly count since 2002 – the year after the 9/11 tragedy. What really “scares” America however might surprise you as the numbers reveal some interesting suggestions.
Horror and its sister genre Suspense/Thriller have, with few exceptions, maintained consistent market share since 1995. It’s difficult to speak about one and not the other because often the movies included in one could have easily been included in the other. For example, The Sixth Sense is considered a Suspense/Thriller, while Prometheus is Horror. Hannibal is lumped into Horror but Se7en is a Suspense Thriller. The criteria may be the selection of the film company and it is hardly worth quibbling over the placement. A producer is far better off to release a Suspense/Thriller than a Horror film much in the same way an author has a larger audience in Suspense than Horror. Regardless, Horror has maintained an average market share of about 4.5% over the past twenty or so years and Suspense a little higher at around 8.5%. So regardless of the number of movies in release they don’t seem to dilute their market share – which means – people want to see these films.
And production is up. If we follow the argument, we can conclude that in a supply and demand world the supply is matching the demand and the demand is increasing. Market share does spike when we get a film that is either real big or real different. For example we saw market share double in the years that – Scream, The Blair Witch Project, I Am Legend and of course Paranormal Activity were each released. We saw other smaller spikes from movies like The Ring and The Grudge. So when you give us horror and good/new stuff…we come out in droves.
And personal fears drive us to these movies. Now one might surmise that nothing is more fearful than a country at war. And certainly the attacks of 9/11 changed much about this country’s views on safety. Those events are reflected in the number of horror and suspense movies released. Between 1995 and 2001 there were an average of 18 horror films released each year. Between 2002 and 2008 the average number of releases nearly doubled to 35 per year. It makes sense – people are fearful of war and terrorism. What might surprise you is there is something that Americans fear even more – the loss of the richness of their daily lives.
If the contention that societal fear is a breeding ground for horror then the bad economy is far more fearful than a war. During the years of 2009 to present the average number of horror movies released per year has skyrocketed to 53. One might argue that the increase is just based on the an overall increase in movie goers – except ticket sales count have remained fairly constant since 1995. And comedies are maintaining the same number of titles per year, but losing market share – people don’t want to laugh as much as they want to be frightened apparently.
Now even if we combine horror with suspense, their combined market share is still not topping the list. However the combined release totals of Horror and Suspense since 1995 is 890 compared to Comedy’s 1751 – but Horror and Suspense movies made 24 billion (26 million each) while Comedy made 44 billion (25 million each) – so there is an argument that if you produced more in Horror and Suspense the sales and market share might be equal – and most of that is driven by what has occurred in the past ten years. So the numbers aren’t a reflection of movie-goers avoidance of a good scare. It is a reflection of some of the films we pass off as being worth $10 and a relatively low number of releases. When the world becomes a scary place and the industry gives us something good – horror and suspense never fails to bring in the dollars.