The science of scary films: fear or fun?

Love them or hate them, horror films are extremely popular. In 2017, ‘It’, based on the novel by Stephen King, grossed $123.4 million in its opening weekend alone.

It seems against our evolutionary code that we should take pleasure in the idea of murderers stalking us through the night, or clowns waiting in the sewers, but this doesn’t stop thousands of people flooding to see midnight showings of ‘Saw’ or ‘Psycho’ on Halloween.

Why do we like scary films so much?

So, why do we like scary films so much? Fear is an evolutionary survival mechanism meant to stimulate us to recognise and respond to danger, specifically concerning the amygdala: a primitive part of the brain. Do you still remember the scenes from that scary film you snuck a peek at when you were eight? When stimulated by the tension or horror depicted on screen, the amygdala will provoke the classic physical responses associated with fear: shaking, sweating, rapid breath.

However, this primal response also creates strong associations with the perceived environment and the danger you are in, and its connection to the hippocampus forms memories. This is why creepy soundtracks can make you shiver, and why your childhood fear is still so strong in your mind. For young children, seeing is believing. The forebrain, a higher evolved area of the brain, can override the amygdala, but is less likely to in youth.

One reason for our fascination with the grim could be the possibility of ‘risk-free thrill’. Just like how people love the simulated plunge into nothingness on rollercoasters, the danger being safely confined behind a screen can partially overcome the grip of the amygdala. A fear stimulus causes a rush of neurotransmitters in these situations: serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline. This pushes us into a state of readiness that we would need to face, for example, a sabre-toothed tiger. It makes us feel as if we are in the place of the protagonist, but without any of the danger: since there is no real threat, we are able to feel the true ‘high’ of these chemicals.

Horror films exploit our own innate self-preservation systems to create fear

This is supported by a psychological study conducted in 1994: participants were shown a series of gruesome documentary clips, which 90% turned off before they had finished, finding it disturbing. However, these same people would willingly pay money to see the same level of gore in the cinema.

Horror can also be cathartic to our own fears: it explains why, as young children, we are afraid of animalistic monsters; it is the ingrained fear of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. When our brains develop, the films we are drawn to reflect our societal fears. An example of this is Godzilla, made in Japan in the 1950s, it depicts a hulking monster and reflecting the fear of nuclear destruction.

Seeing these fears play out in a fictional context can be satisfying, exploring the unknown and putting this to light. It is clear that our own innate self-preservation systems are still present in our day to day life. Horror films exploit this response to create fear, and maybe even some enjoyment, using our own neurotransmitters against us.

Image by Matthias Ripp via Flickr and Creative Commons.

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