Science explains why people like scary movies but their brain does not

Dolls are seen at The Curse Of Frau Mueller Haunted House October 25, 2013 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Today is Halloween. Some people like to get into creepy spirit by watching scary movies, but have you noticed that scary things may stick with you longer than funny things?

“I’ve talked to people, adults, who will not go back and watch The Wizard of Oz because of the tornado scene or the winged monkeys that frightened them or upset them as a child,” said Glenn Sparks, a media effects expert at Purdue University. “They do not want to go back and watch that again because they know how they reacted the first time.”

Sparks studies the effects media can have on the brain. He says there’s a scientific reason behind scary things staying with you longer. It all has to do with how your brain processes and stores the fear and emotions you go through when you’re watching a scary movie.

“Fear is a negative emotion. When a person is afraid in a film, it’s because they are perceiving that in some way, their own well-being is under threat in some way, they’re threatened,” said Sparks “That kind of negative emotion gets stored in the Amygdala in the brain, and the Amygdala functions for us to take those negative experiences and hold on to them for a long time so that they can be called up again if we ever get into a situation where the brain’s telling us, ‘Hey, this is that situation again. You’re under threat.’”

Think about a movie where the main character is getting chased or hiding from a vicious killer. Even though these things aren’t happening to you, your brain thinks it is.

Sparks gives the example of the movie The Exorcist.

“That film was done to convince viewers that this demon possession thing could actually happen, and it could actually happen to anybody, and there’s no way to protect yourself against this, we have no control over this,” said Sparks. “People left the theater thinking, ‘Oh man, I’m vulnerable to this.’”

Sparks calls it the lingering fear response and says the effects can stay with you for days, months, or even years.

“The brain has to have a way of telling us, ‘Hey, you’re coming under a threatening stimulus again and here’s what happened the last time you confronted this,’” said Sparks. “So, the Amygdala is sort of like a warning signal; it’s like an alarm going off saying, ‘Hey, beware. You’ve been here before and this is how you felt.’”

But why can’t the brain tell the difference between something actually happening to you and something that you’re watching?

“The whole advent of new technology and being able to watch movies with things that look real,” said Sparks. “Some people talk about our old brains and our new brains, and some scholars talk about the new brain having difficulty with technology and being able to discriminate and say, ‘Hey, this really isn’t real. It’s a projection on a screen.’ Our old brains, the brains that evolve for us, sometimes have trouble sorting that out because the images look real and to the extent that the filmmakers are trying to convince us that it is real, that causes some difficulty cognitively in sorting that out and so we react to it as if it is real.”

From the sounds of it, it seems like watching scary movies can put a lot of stress on your body and your brain. But there are some people who enjoy watching scary films and voluntarily seek out things that scare them.

“One very simple explanation for that is people have a desire to master something that is threatening,” said Sparks. “I sometimes compare this to going on a rollercoaster ride. When people are at the top of the rollercoaster track and look down and think about the possibility of the car falling off—that’s not pleasant; people don’t end up saying I really enjoyed that feeling.”

Sparks says what people like is the feeling at the end of the ride; getting off and seeing that they conquered a fear or did something that everyone else was scared of. That same feeling can apply to watching a scary movie.

“[You can say] I went to that film that everyone’s talking about as being so grizzly and I watched it and I made it through,” said Sparks. “So, there’s a mastery motivation here, being able to say you conquered it.”

Another reason is the novelty. Sparks says we like to pay attention to things that change in our everyday environments. He compares this to slowing down for an accident on your usual commute.

“It’s not that people really want to see someone bleeding on the pavement, but we don’t see that every day,” said Sparks. “I think the frightening film has ingredients like that—the special effects that Hollywood put in it—we don’t see those things every day, you can’t see that, and so we go to the film to see it. And then we come out and say, ‘Oh man, wasn’t that cool? We got to see something we don’t see on an everyday basis.’”

Probably the most basic reason people like putting themselves through scary situations is that they like the feeling it gives them.

“Our heart rates go up, our muscles get tense, our blood pressure goes up—and so, there’s a host of physiological reactions that happen when people see these kinds of movies,” said Sparks. “Some people are adrenaline junkies; they’re really seeking that physiological spike in their bodies—they like that feeling.”

Along with people who like being scared, some people think that scary movies can be funny.

Marianne Kruppa laughs at a lot of scary films and doesn’t find them frightening at all. She actually used to run a blog about horror movies and what makes them funny.

“I think it was probably more of a coping mechanism,” said Kruppa. “In high school, I watched Candy Man with a friend of mine and there’s one scene in the kitchen that’s really, really violent and scary and I just started giggling uncontrollably. But that was my coping mechanism of—this is something I don’t really want to experience, so I’m just gonna focus on how ridiculous the situation is that they got into.”

Sparks says that’s normal. For some people, the way they take in a scary film can depend on how it looks on the screen.

“A lot of times you can laugh at scary films if it’s not presented in a way that’s realistic,” said Sparks. “Some people find scary films to be humorous because they’re just perceiving them as not related to reality at all and then they’re funny.”

While putting your brain and your body through all of this stress seems like fun and games, Sparks says, it can have some negative effects on you too since the lingering fear response is a negative feeling.

“We also know that exposure to this kind of entertainment can disrupt sleep. People go to bed, they have trouble getting to sleep at night if they’ve watched one of these things; they have nightmares sometimes that disturb their sleep and they’re a negative effect,” said Sparks. “Communication researchers today are really studying sleep—sleep patterns and how the use of media can disrupt sleep and harm our health because sleep is very important for us.”

Sparks says his big concern about all of this is for the children. He says he has a pet peeve about scary movie trailers that come up on TV in the middle of a sporting event that parents are watching with their kids.

“They were unprepared for it, the parents were unprepared for it,” said Sparks. “Those things in themselves can cause negative emotions and all kinds of disruptions in the child’s emotional state and that presents parents with kind of a dilemma—what do we do about this? How do we shield our children from this and prepare them for dealing with that kind of emotional response that some of these trailers might induce?”

Another negative effect of watching too many scary movies, Sparks says, is that you can get desensitized emotionally.

“We get used to this kind of stuff if our emotions are put through the ringer and we’re dealing with exposure over time with the same kind of stuff,” said Sparks. “Our emotional system learns that, well, we don’t have to react as intensely now as we did the first time we saw it. That can have a negative impact for the way we react to real-life situations. So, we may become somewhat immune to the things that we see in the real world that resemble things that we’ve seen in the media if we become desensitized to this.”

So, whether you like scary movies or hate scary movies, Sparks says just remember that your brain is storing all of that information—all the feelings and emotions you go through.

Even though you didn’t really experience someone crawl out of a TV at you, like in the movie The Ring, your brain knows how to protect you…if it ever does happen.

 

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