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Seeing is Believing

The Cognitive Science of Horror Movies

November 2018


Chills travel down your spine. Every muscle tenses in anticipation. Your heart beats so loudly you think it might burst. The feeling of being hunted mirrors that of our distant ancestors. Silence engulfs the theatre. Suddenly, a grotesque creature attacks the main character, causing many jolts and yelps in the audience. Some people watch the rest of the scenes through their fingers as they cover their eyes with their hands; others begin laughing. What is it about horror films that cause these human reactions and behaviors? Moreover, what makes a good scary movie in light of cognitive processes? The answer lies in the mixture of visual and mental perception that can induce fear in an audience through the manipulation of basic human processes of the mind. These undeniable connections to cognitive science demonstrate its ability to explain the impact of horror movies on people and their lives.

With improvements in technology and filmmaking over time, horror movies have become more real- more scary. Producers aim to create feelings of uneasiness and fear in their audiences, and the best horror movies extend their audiences’ uneasiness even after the film ends. Producers implement a wide range of methods in order to achieve this effect. One of these universally implemented methods is the simple yet effective portrayal of creatures, spirits, and monsters. Disfigurement and unnatural features increase the ugliness of a specific entity due to the universal human preference for order and likeness. Although people often differ in their perception of beauty, they share the recognition of extreme ugliness. For example, The Exorcist portrays the possessed child as a rotting and living corpse, with green cracked skin, blackened teeth, dishevelled hair, infected cuts, and, of course, a crooked unnerving smile. The reason why we fear images like these is fairly clear; however, how our fear arises from a simple 2D image is less clear. The modularity of the mind, in which the brain is composed of specialized dissociable parts, elucidates the process of visual perception in film.

Aspects of modularity include the lack of access to interlevels, information encapsulation, and mandatoriness. The intermediate processing states between the image itself and seeing the image in your brain remain unclear, demonstrating the lack of access to interlevels. Processing that cannot access external information is considered to be informationally encapsulated. In this way, we perceive film as generally 3D experiences rather than a 2D representation of figures and forms through small colored pixels. We cannot reason ourselves into seeing the film as a combination of pixels, and, therefore, the process of perceiving images on a screen are encapsulated from the knowledge of where it comes from. Many people have utilized one particular way to distort the perception of film as reality: they cover their eyes and view the film between their fingers. In doing so, they decrease the realism of the ugly image, in an attempt to reduce uncomfort and to convince their brains that it is not real. Some people even cover or close their eyes completely, but they do so to prevent seeing the image altogether because otherwise, sight is a fast automatic process that cannot be turned off. This mandatoriness, coupled with information encapsulation, establishes the foundation for general visual processing.

Horror movies, in specific, emphasize visual effects, such as the appearance of a monster or a phenomenon of flickering lights; however, the movies withhold explanation as to what causes these effects. In this way, producers leverage coincidence avoidance, and in doing so, prompt viewers to feel out of control. Choosing to present a film in which the audience’s knowledge is limited to the characters’ knowledge forces viewers to experience the plot alongside the characters. For example, the classic mirror scene depicts a character who closes the medicine cabinet only to see a figure standing next to them in the mirror reflection. The effective jump scare stems from the sudden appearance of a figure without explanation of how it got there, which represents the same perspective as the character. Sharing this experience causes viewers to feel as if they lived through the moments themselves; something so unexpected yet realistic forces the fiction to bleed into their own lives, influencing their future thoughts and decisions.

Similar to inviting the viewers to determine their own explanations for phenomena, the very best film producers know that some of the scariest elements in film transcend visual stimuli and should be left to imagination, which leaves the brain to formulate appearances and explanations on its own. The movie The Blair Witch Project employs this intentional ambiguity by never showing the entity known as the Blair Witch. The effect is two-fold: the film induces anxiety into viewers by shielding them from truth. At the same time, it enhances the fearful impact on viewers by allowing them to imagine the worst of the worst, whatever that may be for them. The personalization of the plot

What sets us on edge, other than the simple lack of knowing truth, also comes from what is known as the ‘inverse problem.’ The problem illustrates how a specific output could have several plausible inputs, making it impossible to determine the original input. For example, when characters see a creepy shadow form projected on a wall, they can guess what the form may be based on shape and size relative to a light source, but they cannot truly know what creates the shadow unless they actually see it. Even if the shadow perfectly resembles a tall figure, the brain cannot extrapolate from 2D to 3D with 100% certainty. Beyond the inability to discern the true form that creates the shadow, the character cannot identify facial features or intention from shadows. The foreboding images, which are often accompanied by dissonant sounds, builds suspense and captures the attention of the viewers, setting them up for a jump scare or some unexpected event. This same lack of information creates a fear of the dark, where anything could exist without notice. Without undefined scenery such as shadows, films lose aspects of tension and fear.

Perhaps one of the most common yet seemingly irrational fear manifests in the form of clowns and dolls. Clowns traditionally carry an air of gullibility and humor, while dolls represent inanimate childhood toys. Then, what makes them so creepy and arguably scarier than a serial killer? Certainly, the ghastly portrayal of characters such as Annabelle, the horrifying doll, or Pennywise, the clown from It, plays a major role in inducing fear; however, what sets these creatures apart from traditional antagonists actually derives from natural facial perception. Within seconds, the brain can make a judgement on a person based solely on their looks. Pair looks with observed actions, and you should get a good initial impression of a person. In fact, the cognitive study of “theory of mind” indicates that the human brain can undergo extremely complicated computations within seconds in order to make assumptions on other people’s mental states and intentions. The problem with human masks, whether it be dolls, clowns, jokers, or freaky white masks, stems from its lack of clear expression. Thus, our newfound inability to deduce the emotions and intentions of clowns and dolls sets us on ease. Our brains panic, activating a fight-or-flight response, characterized by rapid heart beats and adrenaline rushes.

Another overlooked, yet extremely unsettling aspect of many horror movies is setting. Strategic placements of the film’s events establish an ominous tone and create a lingering, unsettling feeling among viewers from the very start. For example, the number of isolated cabins or dark woods outnumber other horror movie settings. Similar to the clowns and dolls, what makes these settings so popular also stems from cognitive science. The inability to create defined context causes the situation to expand boundaries in time and space. In other words, the setting is nowhere in particular but rather anywhere and at any time. It could be the dark woods in your neighborhood. It could be your lodging at some future vacation spot. By broadening the scope of the setting, most viewers feel more connected to the film sequence and consequently have heightened fears. In addition to the universal relatability, settings can undergo minute changes that often go unnoticed. The phenomenon known as attentional blindness explains how false human expectations and diverted attention can allow for subtle changes to go unnoticed. For example, in the movie It Follows, the weather creates a sense of dread. The main character is seen swimming in a pool on a sunny day in one scene and then bundled up in a winter coat the next. Throughout the film, inconsistencies in weather inhibit viewers from determining the season, and many times, viewers do not explicitly recognize this executed method. As a result, viewers cannot make comfortable conclusions on the setting, leaving them anxious and unsettled.

Shifting from the visual aspects of film, horror movies also encompass mental manipulation, founded in the evolution of the mind. Knowing the primal instincts of mammals, producers tap into those instincts in order to make their audiences jump, scream, and squirm. These responses illustrate how the brain has evolved to scream when frightened in order to warn others and protect oneself. The input-output relationships between cinematic stimuli and human responses illustrate the first level of cognitive processing according to what is known as Marr’s Three Levels. When watching a horror movie, the screen image provides the input, and the reception and perception represents the output, which then triggers further physcial and mental responses. Despite having an innate reflex to run, humans brains have trained themselves to suppress the natural response. In order for this to happen, however, there must be some intermediate processing between the given input and output, and these algorithmic processes represents Level Two of Marr’s Three Levels. Though the conversion process itself remains unclear, its collaboration with levels one and three, which represents the brain itself, produces the visible functions witnessed in everyday life. These three simple levels create the foundation for all the vast and complex aspects of cognitive function.

Utilizing various strategies, horror movies evoke different types of fear. Superficial fears of threats constitute most horror films. Fears based on reality concern slim but possible situations. For example, overly suspenseful shark attack movies build on historical shark attacks. The rational fears of danger intensifies when the films portray the sharks as malicious, hungry, and relentless. Another example of an acute fear based in reality is the fear of stalking murderers. In Hush, an unknown man traps the main character in her own home in order to kill her. While movies invoking fear of reality aim to create a sense of social paranoia, movies that highlight fictional horror, such as ghosts, monsters, and the undead, play on imagination and horrific appearances to scare audience members. The previously explained mental processes that contribute to fear from visual stimulus exist whether or not the threats are founded in reality.

Under all of these superficial fears, however, lie the deeper, more ideological and chronic fears. Such movies tend to impact viewers in settings beyond the movie theatres. For example, even though many claim that the Purge movies are not scary, the underlying fear of unconstrained humanity lingers. The capability of human destruction threatens the safety of society and its inhabitants. Another movie, The Hole, presents similarly explicit threats. In the movie, two brothers must face their greatest fear alone. The younger brother faces his fear of a joker doll while the older brother faces his abusive father. Simply the fear of facing one’s greatest fear creates vulnerability, anxiety, and more mental disturbances than acute fears. Other examples of chronic fear include the fear of death and the fear of betrayal, both of which can impact social behaviors and decisions. Overall, the film producers extract and intensify the fears that humans already have, demonstrating the unique tailoring of horror movies to human cognition.

Effective methods of producing fear include challenging norms and assumptions. Its manipulation of realism builds off of universal human experiences. For example, society associates children with innocence, so movies that depict child possession, like Sinister, overturn previous assumptions. In doing so, they also revokes the notion of free will. The union of youthful innocence and free will make up the core aspects of childhood identity. The blatant contradiction to these assumptions create unexpected horrors. In the same way, humans often associate love within their families and safety in their home; however, movies such as The Shining challenge both these assumptions. In the film, a family of three witness paranormal activity within the empty hotel that they agree to watch over winter season. Self-slamming doors, flickering lights, and randomly appearing girls increase trepidation since humans dislike the unexplainable. Innate mental assumptions about the world and its physical laws come head-to-head to the supernatural events during the film. Our mind has been conditioned to Newton’s First Law that claims that objects at rest will stay at rest unless a force is acted upon it. When things begin challenging our basic knowledge of how the world works, chaos ensues. Overall, it helps create unpredictability throughout the movie because it breaks down the mental reasoning used to predict outcomes.

If modularity and evolution explain the experience of fear, then why do certain people scare more easily? The answer lies in the combination of structure and experience. While all people share the same basic cognitive architecture, the specific hormones and stress signals create different reflexes and expectations. In addition, the richness of mental imagery differ among individuals, creating a range of clarity that then impacts the degree of emotional responses and vice-versa. The emotional state of individuals, such as how nervous they feel, predisposes them to their level of fear. In addition, experience plays a major role in determining the fear tolerance of individuals. Previous fearful experiences can intensify fear due to the personal connections to the character’s experiences. At the same time, they can help prepare people or desensitize them to general horror elements. Unlike regular films, the horror movie industry targets a specific audience, distinguished by their particular cognitive architecture that produces positive responses to fearful stimuli.

One of the main obstacles to studying cognitive science is instinct blindness. What people intuitively conclude about cognitive processes often differ from scientific explanations and in doing so, these assumptions shield people from easily attaining the truth. In relation to horror movies, instinct blindness makes it difficult to determine the cognitive processes that influence the perception and response of an audience to a film. Since up to 50% of the brain is dedicated to visual perception, studying cognitive processing while watching film through a relatively new discipline coined “Neurocinematics” provides a lens to understanding brain function as a whole. Using neurocinematics, programmers today continue to increase realism and horror through technologies like virtual reality. With the screen implanted in goggles, the viewer wearing them can control perspective and motion, further encapsulating the mind from reality. The experiences simulate that of a haunted house. Further research proposes the ability to create a film or virtual simulation tailored to a specific viewer’s fears and responses through in-depth brain targeting. Bridging the gap between simulated fear and naturally induced fears indicates an effective way for producers to engineer fear- something truly frightening in itself.