With a rise in the popularity of the horror movie genre, and scores of scary movies making a comeback and flooding the screens – it’s time to take a look into the science behind the scare, and why some people love it and others hate it. For some people, the adrenaline rush experienced from watching a tension filled thriller or nail-biting horror is a highly sought after sensation. Whereas for others, the very idea of watching a horror movie and waiting for that scare factor to kick in is a nightmare in itself. Neuroscientists have recently started studying audience reactions and experiences while they watch horror movies in order to determine how the fear factor is triggered in different people.
Even if we can rationalise that the characters featured in horror films such as IT, The Ring or Nightmare on Elm Street (to name a few), aren’t real and nor is the storyline that they are based on – it doesn’t stop us from jumping out of our seats when the director hits that scare-sensory sweet spot. Directors are able to access the ‘instinctual’ parts of our brains through a combination of sound and images to build the tension which crescendos in a creepy climax. According to Michael Grabowski, an associate professor of Communication at Manhattan College and the editor of the textbook Neuroscience and Media: New Understandings and Representations, we experience these sensations because “Usually when we’re watching something we’ve shut down the motor regions of the brain, and yet those stimuli [from a shocking scene] are so strong that they overcome the inhibition to the motor system”. In essence, the scenes that shock us in horror movies supersede the rationalisations and the conscious disconnect that we attempt to create in order to distance ourselves from the disturbing unreality of horror movies and ensure that a more instinctual primal reaction is elicited.
‘Neurocinematics’ is an emerging field of study that focuses on the “connection between the mind and the experience of cinema” (Grabowski). Uri Hasson; the Princeton researcher responsible for coining the term Neurocinematics along with fellow researchers, conducted a study utilising fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) where the audiences reactions were reviewed during free-film screenings. These reactions were then assessed using an inter-subject correlation analysis (ISC) and compared for similarities in the “spatiotemporal responses across viewers brains’ during movie watching” (Hasson et. Al). The results of the study indicated that certain movies evoked similar distinct reactions across the audience, whereas others were less overt and consistent. The movies that triggered the most noticeable similarities fell within the horror and thriller movie genres.
With insights from studies such as these, directors and filmmakers will have even more precise insights into what makes their audiences tick, and how to evoke and control the reactions and emotions that they are after. As Alfred Hitchcock once famously noted to scriptwriter Ernest Lehman, the audience is after all “like a giant organ that you and I are playing” with each note gaining a sought after reaction and emotion.