sealPurdue News

October 16, 1998

7 Deadly Films: Purdue survey reveals scariest flicks

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- If you want to scare yourself silly this Halloween, a Purdue University researcher has seven sure-fire suggestions on how to do it.

Glenn Sparks, professor of communication, teamed up with national celebrity and cultural analyst Dr. Will Miller to find out what people regard as the scariest movies they've ever seen. The topic was part of a larger research project to understand how media messages affect people.

In a random sample telephone survey of 200 respondents in a small Midwestern city, the duo found 44 movies that people deemed particularly scary. The survey, taken last December, found that seven movies accounted for 58 percent of all the nominations. In order of most frequent mentions, Sparks says "The Seven Deadly Films" are:

  • Scream
  • Friday the 13th
  • The Shining
  • Halloween
  • Nightmare on Elm Street
  • The Exorcist
  • Poltergeist

Of particular interest to the researchers is the fact that most of these films feature strong depictions of paranormal or supernatural content. Sparks' most recent research focuses on beliefs in the paranormal based on media exposure. Miller, a psychotherapist, formerly hosted a TV talk show on NBC called "The Other Side," which explored people's perceptions of the paranormal.

Sparks suggests that fear of the unknown makes these films the eeriest. "The world of the paranormal represents a hazy category between pure fantasy and reality," he says. "The uncertainty viewers might have about the possibility of such dark and powerful forces may be one of the main reasons that these films evoke such terror."

Sparks, who has spent many years studying the effects of frightening films on children, suggests that parents not make watching these movies a family event.

Research shows that children ages 9 to 11 are the most susceptible to having a regretful, frightening experience with some mass media offering. "At this age range, kids recognize that some things depicted could happen in the real world. But they don't have a good grasp of how likely certain things are to actually happen to them," Sparks says.

"At the same time, they don't have much practice coping with the harsh images that the media serve up. It is not uncommon for kids to develop specific fears about their own environment based on nothing more than a movie image."

For parents who want to learn more on this topic, Sparks and Miller recommend the recently released book, "Mommy, I'm Scared," (Harcourt Brace & Co., $13) by Joanne Cantor. Sparks says the book is written for parents who are trying to manage mass-media effects on children and avoid negative consequences. Cantor is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During his doctoral studies, Sparks worked with Cantor for three years on research investigating the effects of frightening films on children's emotional reactions.

Source: Glenn Sparks, (765) 494-3316; e-mail,

Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; e-mail,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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