Updated 04 February 2020

This is what happens in your brain when you watch horror movies

Looking at movies like 'The Conjuring' and 'The Devil’s Backbone', scientists investigate why some people enjoy being frightened.

A new study by Finnish scientists shows how horror films manipulate brain activity to boost feelings of excitement. The team, from the University of Turku wanted to know why some people are particularly drawn to horror as entertainment, and analysed 37 participants’ neural activity in response to watching horror films.

The study

The study, conducted at the Human Emotions Systems Laboratory in Turku, involved the research team mapping neural activity in their "brave volunteers" while they watched two horror films: The Conjuring 2 and Insidious. The selection was based on the 100 best and scariest horror movies of the last century, and how they made their audiences feel, according to an independent survey conducted on a sample of 216 people.

Of the total participants, 72% reported watching at least one horror movie every six months. Their reason for doing so? They enjoy the feeling of fear and anxiety, because along with it they experience a high level of excitement. Most participants also reported preferring to watch horror movies with others, which indicates that they like to experience these emotions in a group or social setting.  

Based on true events

Horror movies featuring aliens and serial killers are terrifying enough, but when the movie presents a realistic storyline with psychological twists, based on the unseen, participants said they felt far more scared.

This reveals two types of fear where the brain anticipates action in response to threats, said principal investigator, Professor Lauri Nummenmaa from Turku PET Centre. These are the creeping fear when we feel something “isn’t quite right”, and the instinctive response we have to for example the sudden appearance of a demon behind us, revealing the classic “jump scare”.

Enabling a rapid physical response

In an effort to discover how our brains cope with fear, the researchers measured participants’ brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow.

During the times when anxiety is slowly increasing, regions of the brain involved in visual and auditory perception became more active, they found. This is because the need for cues of threat in the environment becomes important. And when there is a sudden shock, brain activity in regions involving emotional processing, threat evaluation, and decision-making is more evident, ultimately enabling a rapid physical response.

“Viewing horror movies in the MRI [movie goggles] is quite an engaging experience, as you are all alone in the small tube and cannot see out, and the movie is shown via goggles just in front of your eyes,” researcher Matthew Hudson said. “This allowed modelling of brain responses to both acute and sustained fear.”

However, the researchers also noted that there was continuous “talk-back” with the sensory regions throughout the movie, while these regions were preparing a physical response as the need for action was becoming increasingly likely. 

This shows how our brains continuously anticipate and prepare us for action in response to threat, and how horror movies skilfully exploit this fact to amplify our excitement and physical arousal, explained Hudson.

Image: Getty




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