Horror, my brain and I

Last update: May 15, 2023
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Reading time: 4 minutes
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By Brain Matters

Horror, my brain and I  

It’s spooky season. Isn’t there a better time to cuddle up in front of your TV and watch a horror movie? Well, for that, you would need the desire to even watch a horror movie. While countless people enjoy being frightened, others cannot stand the thought of being scared on purpose.

But why is that? Why is the anticipation of perceived threat on screen exciting for some and the worst idea for others? And what happens in the brain while sitting in front of a TV, even though no actual threat to worry about exists? 

Why are scary movies exciting for one person and literally horror for the next? 

This question has concerned many researchers, and various ideas and suggestions have been proposed. One argument concerns male vs. female (only based on biological sex and does not include the entirety of gender identities), suggesting that men and boys are enjoying the horror genre more than women and girls. On top of that, not only do men experience more enjoyment from scary movies, but they are also less scared compared to women and prefer more graphic horror material. Interestingly, one study concluded that men are more distressed by fictional horror if they watch a movie with a woman expressing more fear than themselves. The fact that women appear more anxious than men facing a scary movie fits into the bigger picture that women are more prone to anxiety-related disorders in general (if you want to read more about the sex difference in fear, click here). Additionally, so-called disgust sensitivity has been measured as being higher in women; this might be a reasonable explanation for their greater disliking of horror movies. Because being more easily disgusted, makes it definitely less enjoyable to watch a violent horror scene. 

Furthermore, empathy has been explored in connection with horror movies as well. Suppose you are a person who is empathic and quickly feels with people surrounding you. In that case, you may enjoy suffering on screen less than thrilling scenes about impending danger for the main actors. In turn, low empathy levels are associated with more enjoyment of horror scenes.

Not surprisingly, your age matters whether you enjoy watching horror movies. The younger you are, the more frightened you are. This has been measured in terms of avoidance in children aged 11-12 years old compared to teenagers between 15-16 years. The younger group avoided scary movie material significantly more than the older group. Even though the liking of the horror genre increases early in life, later it declines, which means that older people enjoy horror cinematography less than younger adults. It has been proposed that this is in line with less sensation seeking as we age; older people do not look for the thrill through movies. 

Speaking of sensation seeking, this is another critical factor in whether we opt for a scary movie or not. But what is sensation seeking actually? It’s seeking novel extreme experiences which drive your adrenaline levels upwards. It peaks during our teenage years and declines with aging. While some people can be identified as low-sensation seekers, avoiding new and possibly frightening experiences, others may be high-sensation seekers. These high-sensation seekers are more likely to choose a thrilling horror movie than a rom-com. Once again, this is more common in young men and boys, and it has been suggested that this is associated with testosterone levels and a particular gene called D4DR linked to dopamine. 

What happens in your brain while you watch a horror movie? 

A study conducted in Finland tackled this question and let participants watch horror movies while lying in an fMRI scanner. They first had to find the best and most scariest movies in the past century through an online database and let the general public vote. This resulted in ‘Conjuring 2’ and ‘Insidious’ being chosen for their study. Then, the participants watched the full-length movies, meanwhile, their brain activity was captured with the help of an fMRI scanner. 

After a sudden shock, for example, due to a jump-scare scene, more brain activity was measured in brain areas involved in emotional experience, threat evaluation, and decision-making about rapid responses due to the sudden shock. For these processes, the frontal cortex is needed to put the experienced threat into context and evaluate whether we are actually in danger. And, of course, the amygdala in the limbic system is more active because it is implicated in fear processing (more general explanations about fear processing in the brain can be found here).  

During scenes where tension is slowly building up and the viewer anxiously awaits the next story turn, sensory processing, such as visual and auditory information is more active. Additionally, there heightened processing has been measured in the motor areas. The researchers concluded that this increased vigilance and processing of sensory information is needed to be able to attend quickly to threatening events while watching a horror movie. This might happen because the brain wants to prepare us to protect ourselves in case of actual danger. 

Author: Sophie Ruppert 

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