What Happens To Our Brains When We Watch Horror Films?

We’re guessing that if you are browsing Popcorn Horror, you’re at least somewhat of a horror fan. But have you ever wondered why some people are drawn to scary movies while some refuse to watch them? The answer might be more scientific that you realise. 

While the science of horror movies doesn’t have much history, studies of fear in general have occurred for hundreds of years. One of the earliest discoveries in the science of fear was the amygdala – a complex series of structures within the human brain that trigger the production of adrenaline; the classic fight or flight response. Many people seek out this physical reaction in a safe environment, where they know they are not actually in physical danger – with outlets including those who play Blackjack online, ride roller coasters and watch frightening films. 

Of course, horror fans are aware that they are safe on their sofas while they watch the latest slasher offering. Their conscious brains realise that what is shown on the screen is not part of reality. However, biology hasn’t caught up with this part of the individual’s thought process; the body believes it is under genuine threat from Jason’s machete or Freddy’s glove. The production of amygdala triggers a physical response within the brain, instantly producing quick bursts of adrenaline. This then prompts the body to increase it’s heart rate. Breathing becomes faster as the lungs expand, and the person’s senses become hyper aware of the perceived threat. The tiny, ominous noises on screen become magnified, and dark shadows can distort. All of this happens so quickly, that the rational part of the brain hasn’t had time to understand the source of the fear before it deploys it’s emergency responses.

This might explain why some people enjoy horror films more than others, and why some of us can laugh throughout a gory film while others might have nightmares weeks later. The levels of these various components within the brain, at least in part, are determining our individual responses. 

Then of course, there is the obvious point that horror films contain things that are designed to be scary. This also could have a biological explanation beyond the cultural reasoning. Our brains have evolved to prioritise certain threats to aid our survival, and these threats have inspired some of the greatest horror filmmakers in cinema history. Many of us have been frightened of being alone in the dark, particularly as young children. This might seem illogical  but our ancestors who survived the longest would have been wise to avoid dark forests in the night – where skilled nocturnal predators would have the clear advantage. We have also evolved to be repulsed by things which pose a health risk, which is why many people describe themselves as ‘squeamish’. Our brains see rotting zombie flesh, or the slow rotting of the central character in ‘The Fly’ and our self preservation instincts again tell us to panic before our conscious brain reasons that the film effects are just makeup and prosthetics. Again, this was most likely of use to early humans to warn them of potentially lethal disease and infections.

Scientists are clear though, that watching horror films isn’t a negative. It’s a safe way to experience adrenaline without taking any real risks. It allows for the outlet of many emotions; fear, anxiety, excitement, tension, relief – which can provide a cathartic or triumphant feeling in horror fans. Whether you hide behind the cushion or giggle your way through an on screen bloodbath might be explained in our biology – so maybe we shouldn’t be mocking scaredy cats after all!