Horror - it's Just Child's Play Really

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King describes “terror as the finest emotion, and so I will try to terrorize the reader.”

Why do we love to be scared and experience terror? Why is it that some people love being scared and seek it out and yet others go to great lengths to avoid being scared? With all of the recent advances in brain research, we have gained some insight into what happens in our brains when we are scared and how fear impacts our physical bodies.

With Halloween just around the corner, I thought it would be timely and appropriate to delve into some of these questions. There are several ways in which we seek out being scared or creeped out: watching scary movies, navigating through corn mazes or haunted houses. The most basic form is to simply be startled or scared. This usually comes on quickly and causes our hearts to leap, but it generally is short lived once our nervous systems realize there is not a real threat. The other way we get scared is longer lasting - getting creeped out. This happens when we do something such as watch a film like The Blair Witch Project, not only does it scares us but it sticks with us long after the movie is over. We think about that movie over and over and we will think about it the next time we go camping.

When I was a kid I watched Land of the Lost and was seriously creeped out each time by the Sleestack.

There was something really creepy to me about no matter how fast you ran away from them, they would still catch up to you even though they never seemed to be in a hurry.

I was SIX years old, okay?


So, what exactly happens in our brains when we get scared by doing something such as reading a Stephen King novel, walking through a corn maze or watching The Conjuring? The simple answer would be that the parts of our brain (the amygdala) that experiences fear lights up and excites us. However, recent brain scan research by Thomas Straube at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, actually show that scary movies don’t activate fear responses in the amygdala at all. At least the creepy (lingering threat) doesn't activate our amygdalas. Our amygdalas do get activated with the more sudden scare such as being startled. But on the creepy, sense of pending threat and long lasting fear end, the parts of our brain that do get fired up are these:

Visual Cortex – a part of our cerebral cortex that is responsible for processing visual information

Insular Cortex- the part of our brain that is involved in consciousness and plays a role in functions such as perception, motor control, self-awareness, cognitive functioning, and interpersonal experience

Thalamus - the regulating part of our brain that controls consciousness, sleep, and alertness

Dorsal-Medial Prefrontal Cortex – the smart part of our brains that is associated with planning, attention, and problem solving


Okay, if we aren't actually being scared, then what is going on? There are multiple theories that try to answer this very question. Theories range from Sigmund Freud's idea that scary stories conjure up images and thoughts of our primitive id that have been suppressed by our more civilized ego. And who doesn't appreciate a good liberation of their ego!? To his former student and rival, Carl Jung who theorized that scary stories and horror movies tap into our own primordial archetypes (such as The Mother, which plays an important role in horror) buried deep in the collective subconscious.

These still don't provide us with sufficient or proven answers as to why we love being scared and what happens in our brains when we get creeped out.

Perhaps a look into the essential elements of a horror film could provide clues. There are three essential elements that make up an effective scare-the-shit-outta-you horror film:

Tension – this is created through mystery, suspense, gore, terror, or shock and is intensified through the soundtrack

Relevance - in order to get scared the setting, the characters, the situation, and the dilemma must be relevant to the viewer. The film must capture some universal fear of things like death or the unknown. Personal relevance is also vital. Viewers must identify with at least one character in a relevant way.

Unrealism - this may seem counter-intuitive to the other two elements already mentioned, however, we must know and believe that what we are watching isn't actually real. This element makes getting scared at a horror film a safe activity.

To bring all of this into perspective, when we watch a scary movie what goes on in our brains is that the problem-solving, relational, perception, alertness and planning parts get activated. In order for all of these parts of our brains to light up, the movie must contain tension, relevance and we must know and believe that what we are watching isn't actually real.

In essence, scary movies provide us with a safe place to face the unknown, to try to understand it and explore our own fears in order to develop new coping strategies for confronting them and solving problems. Our imaginations get a healthy workout. We get to play the "what if" game, which helps us get a better handle on who we are, how we relate to our world and the way in which we perceive ourselves and other.


Seems like a typical scene in the sandbox at the local neighborhood park to me...

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© 2014 Jennifer D. Samsom, MA, NCC