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Watching a scary movie this Hallowe’en? This is what happens to our brain and bodies when we view a frightening film

Date: 27/10/2017
News Category:

From slasher movies to zombie-fests and ghoulish horrors to tense thrillers, plenty of people will be entering into the spirit of Hallowe’en by watching a scary film this weekend.

But why do we flock to view these frightening flicks when we know they might give us nightmares and leave us wanting to sleep with the light on for the following week. 

What effect do these films have on our brain and body when we watch them and why are some scarier than others?

Ahead of Hallowe’en, Dr Valerie van Mulukom, an expert on the brain processes underlying imagination, creativity and fiction from Coventry University, has explained the answers to these questions.

It’s all to do with a group of regions in the brain which connect together in a network called the ‘default mode network,’ which supports our vision, hearing, language and emotions, and how it helps us to ‘suspend our disbelief’ so that we forget a film is not real.

When we watch a frightening film we are physiologically aroused as our body prepares for either ‘fight or flight’.

Dr van Mulukom, from the university’s Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science, said: 

“When we watch a film – any film – we activate a brain network called the default mode network. This network supports imagination and comprises of regions all over the brain: visual areas, auditory areas, areas required for language, areas implicated in emotions, and multi-sensory areas which combine all this information into a coherent story.

 

The interesting thing about the default mode network is that it doesn’t just activate for imagination, but also when we recall personal memories. Brain imagining studies have shown that there are very little differences between imagination and memory – so how do we know whether something has really happened or is really happening?

 

The current research on this is still inconclusive. It may have to do with how vividly you can visualise the scenes you are either remembering or imagining. This is why particularly plausible or vivid visualisations can be so engrossing.

 

When we watch films, we are imagining along with the narrative and visuals provided to us. Directors use all kinds of ways to pull us into the film, from suspenseful music to creative camera angles, making us forget that we are not actually in the film. Temporarily forgetting that a fictional event is not real is called the ‘suspension of disbelief’. We temporarily have become so absorbed in a fiction that we on some level forget it is not real.

 

On a physiological level, when we watch frightening films, our heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration increase. In other words, our arousal increases – our body is essentially preparing us for fight or flight. This response is triggered by the amygdala, an almond-shaped set of neurons in the brain that is crucially involved in fear responses. The suspension of disbelief has temporarily blurred the lines between reality and imagination, and your body is responding likewise.” 

 

She added that some research has suggested that we choose to watch scary films as we actually want to be aroused.

 

“Think of it as going into a rollercoaster – we are having a taste of danger without actually being in danger. Your mind and body are on alert, and you may experience an adrenaline rush."

 

But she said there is a limit to the pleasurable experience of scary films.

 

“If the film becomes too realistic, or if as an individual you become more easily absorbed in films, it can become hard to realise you are safe, leaving the body in a fear response, which may cause lingering emotional disturbances, such as nightmares. Thus, the enjoyment of scary films lies in the experience of controlled fear, like in rollercoasters.”

 

Dr van Mulukom also explained why we are often more scared by psychological thrillers than by gory horror films.  

 

“Recent research suggests that psychological thrillers are particularly scary because they leave us in the dark until we eventually get to the conclusion and get the full story. Because we know as little as the characters in psychological thrillers, we are drawn into emotions of the protagonist in the film, experiencing the suspense as if we were there with them – and increasing the suspension of disbelief. Gory films on the other hand generally follow a very predictable pattern where a maniac goes on a murderous spree while the heroes of the film fail to stop him, until the very end where the hero prevails and stops or even kills the maniac.”

 

In 2003, a separate team of Coventry University academics carried out research which found watching a horror film increased people’s level of white blood cells, which fight disease and infection. They said in the study, published in the journal Stress, that the fight-or-flight response had helped boost the body’s immunity for a short time.

 


For further press information or to request an interview with Dr van Mulukom, contact Alison Martin, press officer, Coventry University, on 02477659752 or email alison.martin@coventry.ac.uk.