Horror movies have been pronounced dead more times than Freddie Kruger but, like the Nightmare on Elm Street's bogey man, have risen from the grave every single time. Recent attention-getting scarefests have included Get Out, A Quiet Place and Hereditary and there are many more in the pipeline, from originals such as Slenderman and The Little Stranger to remakes or reboots of classics Halloween, Predator and Suspiria. They must be doing something right, but what? Why do we pay, year after year, to have the living oh-my-goodness scared out of us?

For such a low-rent genre, horror sure has attracted plenty of pointy-headed speculation, but none more widely accepted or plausible than the splendidly named "Zillman's excitation transfer paradigm". Dolf Zillman was a teacher of psychology at the University of Alabama, who theorised that when we watch horror we get excited about the hero being in danger and then more excited about seeing the villain punished, the second feeling being stronger because there is residual emotion transferred over to it from the first.

Most of us will recognise in this the feeling of relief at the end of a horror movie, which can be experienced as mild euphoria. Our heart rate and blood pressure have risen and this state lasts for some time afterwards.

Philosophically, we're likely to notice how much better the real world is after the movie than the imaginary world where we have just spent the past two hours.

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In this way, for all their fantastical elements and remoteness from our own lives, horror movies help us deal with reality. Famously, they reflect real world preoccupations. The things we are really worried about are dealt with symbolically on screen.

American horror movie expert James Kendrick, of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, cites kidnapping horror Get Out, one of the growing number of genre horror films to end up nominated for mainstream awards as an example of horror responding to the zeitgeist.

"The film intelligently mixes its various horror conventions, including stalk-and-slash scares, fears about secret cults and medical horror, with both comedy and social satire to make a point about troubled race relations in our 'post-racial' nation," he says. "The protagonist is an African-American who finds himself increasingly concerned about the intentions of all the white people around him. In effect, polite, wealthy white society becomes the film's raging monster."

Get Out made its message explicit, but people have been overlaying horror themes over contemporary concerns since at least the 1950s when all those mutant monsters were said to reflect Cold War atom bomb paranoia.

A firm believer that horror movies are about the real world is Lorna Piatti-Farnell, associate professor of Popular Media and Culture at Auckland University of Technology and president of the Gothic Association of New Zealand and Australia.

"If we live in a tumultuous time politically and socially and we are struggling to make sense of it," says Piatti-Farnell, "it's inevitable that horror ... will have a surge, because we will have that desire to have it manifested and it will help us deal with it."

She says that also explains why the popularity of horror is cyclical. When things are good we don't need horror so much, and when there are problems there will be a resurgence. But in between, they don't disappear altogether.

Hereditary has prompted one think-piece suggesting that it is too scary. Is that even possible? After all, different people react more or less extremely to the same movie - one person's meat is another's maggot-infested severed limb that falls out of a cupboard. But there is no clear evidence that any more people have succumbed to heart attacks during midnight horror screenings than at Michael Bolton concerts.

"There's always been a perception that horror pushes boundaries but at same time we don't want to see too much. To be honest, what is the bottom line? People who say it's too scary perhaps are saying it's not commercial or broad enough," says Piatti-Farnell.

She says horror can be divided into commercial and not so commercial versions. The latter will be seen as too scary in commercial terms, but are not too scary for their intended - usually smaller - audience. The question has arisen because of the resurgence of commercial horror movies aimed at a wider audience than such low-budget classics as Basket Case or The Human Centipede, which she describes as "I can't believe you did that" movies ever were.

Horror fan Jahmaine Paki would agree with her. The Auckland-based actor and television presenter is, so to speak, a voice from the other side, having worked at horror theme park Spookers, where his key performance indicator was to dress up and terrify the paying customers.

"It is a one-of-a-kind experience to be on that end of things," says Paki.

"Scaring people literally makes you feel like the scary person in a horror movie. I've had a reaction where people have cried and broken down and said: 'No, get me out!' and you have to break character and let them out."

Paki personally can handle most kinds of horror but baulks a little at ghost stories, because "my own belief is that they might be real, so seeing it on a movie is really scary". But he says audience reaction in his own experience is often contrary to expectations: "You get people who are big and strong but they're the most scared of everyone. Then you get a little girl who's laughing her arse off."

There is some scary research showing horror movie reactions divide people up neatly into traditional gender roles. In one study males liked a horror movie more when they saw it with a female who was scared, while females liked the movie more when they saw it with a male who wasn't scared. A related theory has it males prefer horror movies because it stirs up the old hunter/warrior feelings that have been civilised away.

Not to worry. Ever adaptable, the genre has recently spawned some fine feminist horror films such as The Babadook and Hush.

Perhaps that's the best twist ending of all.

HORRIBLE ENDS

The conclusions of horror movies tend to fall into a few specific categories. Here are five types with excellent examples of each (no spoilers.)

• Terrible endings that you really don't want to think about: Drag Me To Hell.
• The "he's not really dead after all" ending: The Silence of the Lambs.
• Leave it open enough for a sequel if this goes off: Hereditary.
• Happy endings because the victim comes out on top: Carrie.
• Twist endings that tell us things were even more terrible than we thought: Orphan.

RESPECTABLE DIRECTORS WHO MADE HORROR FILMS

Kathryn Bigelow: Near Dark
James Cameron: Piranha II: The Spawning
Francis Ford Coppola: Dementia 13
Alfred Hitchcock: Psycho
Peter Jackson: Brain Dead
Stanley Kubrick: The Shining
Fritz Lang: M
Oliver Stone: The Hand

WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF?

According to Psychology Today, these are the top 10 things that make horror movies scary:

1. Fear of death
2. The dark
3. Creepy, crawly things
4. Scary places
5. Disfigurement
6. Dismemberment
7. Suspense (anticipation and expectations)
8. Spooky music
9. Lightning and thunder
10. Fear of the unusual (especially taking something normally seen as benign, such as a doll, and turning it into something scary).