If you look at the highest-grossing films of recent years, you’ll find lots of predictable, Marvel-y type fare – but you’ll also see a strong showing of blockbuster horror films. Get Out, A Quiet Placeand It rank as some of the most successful movies of 2017 and 2018. And then there's the terrifying best horror TV shows.
And as we approach the spooky pumpkin season, here’s the scientific reason why we find horror films so bone-chillingly scary – and why we just can’t get enough of ‘em.
Fundamentally, it boils down to a process within the brain and, more specifically, the amygdala – a small almond-shaped set of neurons located deep in the brain’s temporal lobe that plays an important role in processing emotions like fear.
As Inverse points out, scary films bypass the conscious parts of the brain and directly play on our fight or flight response.
The amygdala is triggered by anything that looks like a threat, sending an alarm racing through your body and causing your adrenal glands to pump you with a boost of adrenaline, which in turns sets your heart racing.
Psycho director Alfred Hitchcock was so aware of the body’s primal response to horror movies the he told scriptwriter Ernest Lehman: “The audience is like a giant organ that you and I are playing.
“At one moment we play this note, and get this reaction, and then we play that chord and they react. And someday we won’t even have to make a movie — there’ll be electrodes implanted in their brains, as we’ll just press different buttons and they’ll go ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ and we’ll frighten them, and make them laugh. Won’t that be wonderful?”
So if we’re being triggered on such a deeply biological level, why do we keep coming back to horror films and why are they so popular?
This can probably be traced to addiction pathways within the body – i.e. we enjoy the rush of adrenaline and want to feel that high again.
There’s also something called the Excitation-Transfer Theory, which suggests that the stimulation we experience via fear can intensify other positive feelings, like when the characters make it out alive.
Just be prepared to not get any sleep until 2019.
QUIZ: Can you recognize 70 horror films from a single screenshot?