Why do we watch scary movies?
Horror films attract us, but moviegoers should recognize limits, consequences
Despite their predictably Victorian approach to killing off the characters with low moral values and the at-times-formulaic scripts, gaping plot holes, cheap scare tactics involving a musical climax and false alarms, horror movies still manage to effectively scare people. However, the effects can be long lasting.
After poring over thousands of responses from people regarding horror movies and their resultant fears, Cantor found that people internalize a scary moment and suffer effects for years afterward.
"Even though they know they're being irrational, they're just freaked out," Cantor said. "If you look at how the body handles fear, if you're really, really, really freaked out and frightened, your body stores that memory."
As a result, there are adults who are fearful while walking through the woods after watching "Blair Witch Project" or who cannot swim, even in swimming pools or lakes, after watching "Jaws."
Cantor said the ideal would be to find the right level of fear that is just enough to grab attention but leaves the viewer with a feeling of competence and mastery.
However, this is not often the case, she said, and these movies often leave people feeling less competent and assured than before. Fear originally functioned as means to keep people alive, according to Cantor. The "fight or flight" reaction embedded in the amygdala, located inside the temporal lobe in the brain, stores fearful encounters so the body is ready to fight back when approached with something threatening. Fear is also stored in the higher-functioning and logical prefrontal cortex. However, the brain often cannot tell the difference between fiction and reality and the amygdala triggers and often overrules the prefrontal cortex when presented with a similar situation.
"This lizard brain is not going to listen to you saying it's not real. If we didn't have a fear mechanism, we wouldn't be alive today," Cantor said. "Our brains were not designed with unreality in mind."
Movies like "Jaws" that are so intense can get to people more than, say, a news report on someone who was killed by a shark in Florida, mainly because the viewer sees the action firsthand.
"You witness it and you hear it and you empathize right there along," Cantor said.
Scary movie experiences can be stored similarly to dangerous real-life situations, Cantor said, even if one is in a situation that is logically safe.
"Our brains, even though at one level we know we're watching a movie, on the deeper lizard level we store it," she said. "Even though you know you're safe, your heart is going, thump, thump, thump."
Cantor suggests viewers know their limits before viewing a horror movie.
Scary movies and kids
Children are especially susceptible, Cantor said, because they do not yet know the difference between fiction and reality.
"There's nothing like a good night's sleep for a kid. It's like the holy grail," Cantor said. "It's really hard to undo the scared for a little kid."
Even a seemingly innocuous movie such as Tim Burton's recent release "Frankenweenie," a remake of his 1984 short film, could be frightening to children.
The film avoids showing purely scary moments. For example, the scene of Victor Frankenstein digging up his dead dog was shown from a distance, and only the sound of screeching tires and resultant thud indicated that Sparky the dog had been hit by a car.
The film was also laced with humorous bits to offset the dark tone of the movie.
But a young enough child may still be frightened. Whether it's a cartoon or the Count on Sesame Street, children internalize anything that appears to be scary, Cantor said. She suggests parents watch a movie before showing it to their children, regardless of how benign the advertising portrays the film.
"Entertainment should be for fun and should leave you in a better place than when you started," she said.
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