Griz Chat: UM Philosophy Professor Talks Popularity of Scary and Scary-Bad Movies

Matt Strohl, a UM professor of philosophy, combines film criticism with philosophy of art to study why audiences enjoy scary and scary-bad movies.    

By Abigail Lauten-Scrivner, UM News Service

MISSOULA – It’s said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve expert status. Regardless of whether that’s true, University of Montana Philosophy Professor Matt Strohl has far exceeded that number of hours, estimating he’s watched over 10,000 separate movies during his life as both a film enthusiast and researcher.

Combining philosophy of art with film criticism, Strohl’s research ranges from Aristotle’s theory of pleasure to how audiences emotionally respond to scary movies. 

That aura of academia might suggest that Strohl spends all his time musing over esoteric, avant-garde arthouse films, but don’t be fooled. Strohl’s affinity for defending disreputable movies has proudly earned him the title of “cinematic bottom feeder,” as he’s described in his 2022 book “Why It’s OK to Love Bad Movies.” A thematic follow-up, tentatively titled “Hard to Watch: How to Fall in Love with Difficult Movies,” is slated to publish next year.

“I love movies of all kinds, but bad ones for sure,” Strohl said. “What draws me to bad movies is the display of human eccentricity. Humans are weird.”

With cult-followings for films like “The Room,” Strohl is far from alone in enjoying “bad movies.” His book examines the paradox of why so many people love art they also claim to hate, and digs deeper into how that fondness might involve something more sincere than irony. 

A fan of paradoxes, Strohl also studies why audiences relish the seemingly negative experience of being horrified, disturbed or grossed-out by scary movies. 

“There are a lot of competing explanations. Part of my work on this has been concerned with the idea that most of these explanations don’t actually conflict with each other,” Strohl said. “Different people are attracted to different emotional responses for different reasons.”

Just in time for a chilly Halloween ideal for cozying up indoors and turning on a spooky flick, Strohl spoke with UM News to discuss why viewers might choose a scary or scary-bad film this spooky season. 

UM News: It might seem contradictory to enjoy movies that are grotesque or frightening. Yet, scary movies are popular among audiences and even critics. Why do such films delight viewers, and why might this not be so paradoxical? 

It’s understandable why one would think the popularity of art that provokes uncomfortable emotions is paradoxical, but the paradox dissolves when one recognizes that enjoyment and discomfort aren’t strictly opposed to each other.

Our experiences are complex, and they can gain an overall favorable character partly in virtue of involving elements of discomfort. This is how it works when we go on a long, grueling hike and the discomfort of our exhaustion feeds into our overall sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. The negative emotions that horror provokes in us are not the whole story. These emotions can feed into positive aspects of our engagement with horror. For instance, watching horror movies together with friends is a classic bonding experience, where the group is brought closer together by their shared experience of an intense range of emotions.

UM News: Are there benefits to getting a good scare from the comfort of a couch or theater? What about risks?

It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. People are very different from each other, and our particular psychologies predispose some of us to get a lot more out of horror than others. For some of us, horror can be both fun and beneficial to our mental health. It gives us practice coping with fears, including for instance a general fear of mortality, and in social contexts it can enhance our feeling of belonging and connectedness with others. 

But some people are predisposed to have a rough time with horror, because they are very emotionally sensitive or they have trouble maintaining a sense of distance from horror fiction. What they see on the screen feels “too real” to them. 

I wish that people on both ends of the spectrum would refrain from judging each other. Some people who hate horror imagine the worst of people who love it, and that’s really not fair. It’s okay to love horror – it doesn’t make you an amoral ghoul – but it’s also okay if it’s not your thing. 

UM News: Genuine fear isn’t always the main draw when it comes to popular Halloween movies. Viewers can’t help but return to ridiculous flicks like the “Leprechaun” franchise, despite its lowbrow nature. What is it about campy, absurd or just plain bad movies that makes us love them?

When it comes to something like “Leprechaun,” there’s no question that the absurd, ridiculous, low budget, trashy character of the films is a big part of the appeal. For me the core appeal of something like “Leprechaun 4: In Space” is the wild creativity on display. The stakes are low for a movie like this – no one is going to get rich off it – and with low stakes comes great freedom. 

UM News: You’ve been called a “cinematic bottom feeder” and “defender of disreputable films.” Why do you advocate for these so-called rotten tomatoes?

Because too many of us are in the grips of unjustified assumptions about what is and isn’t worthwhile. Our social media feeds and streaming algorithms tell us what is and is not worth our time, and most of us just go along with it. When people are told by Rotten Tomatoes and their Twitter friends that something is worthless trash, they tend to just go along with this narrative, and if they watch the movie at all, they approach it ironically, from a posture of presumed superiority. 

I want to do my best to discard all these culturally instilled assumptions and consider what values might be lurking in the pile of so-called trash that we’ve been told isn’t worth our time.

UM News: Your book is titled “Why it’s OK to Love Bad Movies.” Why did you want to tell people that it’s OK to love films considered to be trash? What do you hope readers get out of the book? 

I think that it’s better for us all for there to be a diversity of sensibilities in the world. I worry that our tastes are becoming too homogenous. The movies in the theater are mostly the same. The shows that are popular on TV are mostly the same. To promote diversity, we need to seek it out, and we won’t do this if we buy into the narrow mindset that says “see all those movies over there? Those are all trash and you either should skip them or watch them ironically.” 

I want to explore values that this mindset hasn’t even imagined. I hope that readers will feel liberated by these ideas: They shouldn’t feel guilty about their disreputable pleasures. Instead, they should embrace the naughty thrill of enjoying things they’ve been told they aren’t supposed to enjoy.

UM News: What scary or scary-bad movies do you recommend for getting in the Halloween spirit?

For a genuinely scary movie, I recommend “Messiah of Evil.” It’s a wonderful example of the rich tradition of American regional horror. It’s deeply strange, and I find every second of it disconcerting.

For a “bad” horror movie that I love, I recommend “Death Spa.” Starting from the prompt “make a movie called ‘Death Spa,’” I don’t think you could do much better.  


Contact: Matt Strohl, UM professor of philosophy, 406-243-4076,