The Psychology of Horror Movies: A Scientist and a Director Explain Why We Love to Be Scared

The Psychology of Horror Movies: A Scientist and a Director Explain Why We Love to Be Scared

Oct 10, 2013

I'll never forget it: I was nine years old, at a sleepover with a group of schoolmates, and one of the girls produced her older brother's VHS copy of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom from her pink Hello Kitty bag like so much contraband, to the tune of wide-eyed gasps and giggles. This being the film primarily responsible for birthing the PG-13 rating, we were woefully below the appropriate age for such viewing material - and we knew it. Tentatively, our young hostess popped the film into her tape player and we settled in to discover what all he fuss was about.

And one infamous, heart-stuttering sacrificial scene silenced our curiosity. The rest of the girls seemed delighted by the horror of the decidedly un-Spielbergian torture sequence, wherein a man's heart is pulled out of his chest and - as the organ is still beating - he remains alive long enough to be lowered into a pit of fire, all the while writhing and screaming in agony. I cannot begin to explain the effect this had on me - a naive kid brought up without cable, I was fed a steady diet of books and long walks outside away from the television. I’d never seen anything even remotely as horrifying as this scene. I didn't sleep for weeks, couldn't stop puzzling over the science of it all – the man's pain. Why hadn't he died right away? And how did it feel, to be held against his will and victimized in that fashion? Worse yet: why was I the only one in a party of 15 girls who seemed truly traumatized by it? Amid squeals of glee and laughter, why was I the one who slunk back, my eyes stinging with tears, my mind reeling? Was there something terribly wrong with me?

That was the beginning of what has become a lifelong battle with gore, torture, jump scares and the other technical effects employed by horror films. Every time I tried to face my fears and put on a scary movie, a moment of drawn-out tension would occur and I'd jump up and run from the room until the scare was over. And if I happened to witness gore, I'd fall down a rabbit hole of research attempting to understand the violent act so I could wipe it from my mind (usually to no avail). At a certain point, I just began flat-out avoiding anything that might possibly upset me, much to the chagrin of friends, and - now that I work as a film writer - colleagues. Every moment of violence in a film returns me to being that nine-year-old girl, puzzling out a victim's unfortunate end in tireless fashion. It's not just inconvenient - it impedes my ability to do my job.

So I decided to consult some experts regarding the psychology of horror in films, to understand how they succeed in scaring us, and why exactly some people are traumatized by terrifying movies, while others are thrilled by them. Namely: Dean Mobbs PhD., Columbia psychology professor and director of the Fear, Anxiety and Biosocial Behavioral lab, which uses brain imaging and behavioral techniques to study the systems that cause fear in humans, and writer-director Scott Derrickson, creator of some of the most terrifying films in the genre, including 2005's The Exorcism of Emily Rose and 2012's Sinister. Here are some of the fascinating scientific and technical points gleaned from our conversations.

 

It’s Possible You’re Shaped by Your First Scary Movie

According to Mobbs, not much research has been done on the subject, but he speculates that it’s entirely possible the first terrifying image or scene from a film that’s burned in your memory (as with Temple of Doom’s sacrifice for me) shapes the way you react to horror, and the type of fear that affects you. “Clearly, emotion events are burned into the emotion systems,” says Mobbs. “Furthermore, our brains are prepared for certain types of fears - for example, a baby will learn to fear an image of a spider faster than an image of an electrical outlet. As for horror movies, I would expect the same, especially if the person is scared of horror movies.”

Derrickson cites the first movie that terrified him, at the age of five or six, as William Castle’s The Tingler (specifically: the scene where a hand emerges from a bathtub filled with blood). It led to a fascination with the genre that was channeled into a horror writing-directing concentration during film school, and it’s shaped the way that he crafts his films. “I grew up afraid as a child – when I think of my childhood, the emotion that I remember most vividly is fear,” says Derrickson. “I've spent my adult life confronting and overcoming things that I find frightening. If something scares me, I move toward it, because I don't want to be afraid of anything. So for the most part, my understanding of fear is purely personal.”

 

Spielberg Got It Right Before Psychologists

There’s a technique called “looming” – which Mobbs says employs, “How the brain switches between different fear states. So when a threat's further away, we know that what we typically see in most animals is a response known as freezing. But when a threat comes closer and closer, you switch into a different defensive response, which is fight or flight. Movie directors have had this down for years, have been very good at knowing what scares people. What is genius about Jaws is the music - where it would get louder and louder and the sound is getting closer and closer, without actually seeing the shark. That's a classic example of looming, that's before psychologists even got into studying looming or distance effects.”

 

If You Read More Fiction, It May Change Your Experience

Mobbs explains that some people have less capacity for distinguishing between something on-screen being fictional and something being real – those viewers tend to be more disturbed by horror films. “There’s this whole concept in social psychology known as the ‘Theory of Mind,’” says Mobbs. “The better your theory of mind, the more empathic you can be towards people, because you know what they're feeling. People who read a lot of fiction have a much stronger theory of mind… they obviously put themselves into understanding the characters, understanding what the characters will do next, and so on.”

Derrickson’s experience writing horror films backs this up, as well. “What is most essential to a good scare is the creation of good characters,” he says. “When you have real characters on-screen, then and only then can you really scare the audience - because when the characters feel real, the scary situation they are in feels real. So, if I have a good character, played by a good actor, within a compelling story, then I've laid the groundwork for making something scary.”

And there’s a scientific explanation behind what may appear to be a simple theory. “We did a study some time ago… if you rate that you're more similar to another person, when you see something good happen to that person, you're more likely to activate your reward system,” says Mobbs. “So you feel more vicarious reward the more similar you are to someone. You can flip it onto its head the other way around to the more similar you think you are to someone, the more you can imagine that you are them, or that you're in that situation with them. So if a good director does that, then all of a sudden the horror movie becomes very real to you.”

 

A Scare Is a Scare

The idea that horror audiences are becoming more jaded is mostly incorrect, because successful scares tap into relatively primitive parts of our brains – sometimes even combining more than one system.

“The circuit that extends from what we call the midbrain, which is very deep in the brain, is where all of the basic functions occur - your respiration, heart rate,” says Mobbs. “Down there as well are these very simple kinds of defensive responses, a little lower than that are the spinal motor systems, which is the startle response - which we know they tap into quite a lot in the movies. Move up from the very primitive systems to the more complex human systems… we have a very good system of detecting threat in the world… an attention system to detect if there’s something in our periphery vision. We also have another system where we predict the environment – that’s what I think a lot of movies get into as well, particularly the ghost movies. So what you have is this system that's trying to predict the world, predict threats in the environment and if you can't do that, it starts to shift more towards the lower systems in the brain - the defensive systems just react.”

“I don't think audiences are more jaded,” says Derrickson. “Paranormal Actvity shows very little in the way of violence or gore or even jump scares, and when it came along, it terrified a modern horror audience that had seen so much. I don't think I have to keep up with the audience, I just have to tap into something that's genuinely scary and ideally original.”

 

So How Exactly Do Those Jump Scares Work?

One of the most difficult techniques to pull off in a horror movie is the jump scare. “A good jump scare is about elongating tension, then dissipating it, then startling the audience,” says Derrickson. “The best jump scares not only startle, but introduce a truly scary threat for the main character.”

Within our brains, it works by tapping into a few different systems – Mobbs uses the example of techniques director Alfred Hitchcock often employed. “He let you think that there’s a serial killer behind one door, and then there's not one there, and then you turn around and he's standing behind you,” Mobbs explains. “That would be an example of creating an expectation, breaking down the expectation, then causing a startle response – which is different systems. You're going from these systems of expectations that there's somebody behind that door, you get there, there's a relief, all of a sudden you turn around and they're standing behind you with a knife and you're shifting right into this very primitive system in the brain. Good horror movies shift you between these different brain circuits.”

 

Why Are We Fascinated by Torture?

Along with all the other systems discussed, disturbing imagery and gore often employed in “torture porn” films like Saw and Hostel activate a completely different region known as the insula, which houses the disgust system. “That system is also associated with arousal,” explains Mobbs. “Great directors seem to be able to tap into these different brain systems that do different things… taking you into one system and switching you into another system. Say, for example, Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg did a very good job in really getting that visceral component to it – like the guy shushing him [Adam Goldberg] while he's putting the knife in… that's disturbing, because what he’s doing. He’s creating two variables against each other, which is the one where the guy's dying violently and then the killer is not angry when he's killing him, he's having the opposite response - he's shushing him like you would a baby, to keep quiet, and he's sort of enjoying it. What you get is something called the conflict system in the brain… it’s disturbing because you have an expectation about how you want them to respond, and they respond in opposite fashion.”

This juxtaposition between imagery and emotion can also be attributed to why we’re interested in serial killers. “We’re fascinated by people who get joy out of doing things that to us are just utterly disgusting and terrible,” says Mobbs. “We know that in that population [serial killers], their emotion circuitry is shown to be broken – you show them a horrible movie and the amygdala, the parts of the brain we now associate with fear, don't activate. So over time, if they're born with this, can you imagine never feeling any emotion, never feeling any fear? You see something bad happen to somebody and it doesn't bother you, so how do you react? If you go to attack somebody, somebody will have a sad face or they'll be crying and it will stop you from performing that behavior, but can you imagine if somebody pisses you off and they start crying and you just don't care? And in fact, in some situations it's actually rewarding – they’re so rewired that instead of actually feeling the pain, they feel the reward. And we know that the pain and reward systems are highly interconnected - they tap into the same neurosystems.”

 

Laughter Really Is the Best Medicine

“It’s very telling that when an audience leaves a truly scary movie, they are usually laughing – because something dark has been released,” says Derrickson. And what exactly is that “something dark”? “When we are under attack, our opioid system comes online to protect us against the pain of attack,” says Mobbs. “The midbrain defensive systems - fight or flight - are dumb and react to attack, yet our prefrontal cortex tells us that we are safe. So we get the rewards of opioids as well as the knowledge that we are safe.”

This also taps into the base reason that people love horror. Both Derrickson and Mobbs describe it as being similar to why people love roller coasters. The onset of analgesia (the reduced feeling of pain) by those opioids remains the scientific answer. “A roller coaster simulates a car crash in some respects. If you watch something, and you know that it's not real, parts of your primitive brain are quite dumb and they don't know what's real and what's not real. So what's happening is that they're releasing these opioids, but then the prefrontal cortex is saying, ‘Ah don't worry, you're safe. It’s not real.’ It’s stamping them down, but you've still got the residual reward that goes with analgesic opioid responses.”

“There’s a catharsis that happens when you experience extreme fear in a safe environment,” says Derrickson. “It releases something inside – something incredibly powerful. I think ultimately, fear is the most potent human emotion, and probably the single most driving force in human culture, and that makes it something a lot of us want to explore, feel, and understand.”

 

 

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