The Science Of Scares And The Fear Response
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The Science Of Scares And The Fear Response

August 28, 2020
BJ Colangelo

Fear may be universal, but the things that scare us are not. Part of the success and longevity of the horror genre is rooted in the fact that there is always going to be something for everyone. For some, the creeping dread of a “slow-burn” will always reign supreme, but for others, a jump scare will spark an uncontrolled, visceral reaction.

Scare staples like jump scares (Host, Audition), grotesque movement (Ring, Terrified), or sudden changes to the scenery (Z, The Exorcist III) all follow a similar science and psychology in order to manipulate the audience to experience fear. But, as any Twitter thread about a new horror movie will tell you, not all of us are susceptible to the same triggers, and not all of us respond to fear in the same way.

Movie scares are typically crafted with some combination of sound and visual stimuli which makes them effective because they trigger a very primal instinct deep in our amygdala, the part of our brain that manages our fear and emotional responses, hormonal secretions, arousal, and memory. Think about how you respond when you are scared or feel threatened. Typically, if we’re experiencing emotions like aggression, sadness, or fear, our amygdala automatically activates our fight/flight/freeze responses by sending out stress hormones (like adrenaline and cortisol) to help us prepare to deal with whatever situation is at hand.

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From an evolutionary standpoint, early humans were under the constant threat of being killed or maimed by predatory animals or other tribes, so the fight/flight/freeze response was developed as a means of survival. 

These automatic responses to danger allow us to react quickly without thinking, but the ways in which we respond vary from person to person. Someone whose instinct is to “fight” is going to respond immediately in the offensive, ready to take down whatever danger is coming their way. Those who respond with “flight” (like yours truly) have the instinct to get as far away from the problem as humanly possible. In both of these instances, our bodies go through an immediate and dramatic change. Our heart rate increases, adrenaline production increases, our pain perception drops, we breathe heavier to produce more oxygen, our peripheral vision increases, our blood thickens (no, seriously, we’re preparing for injury), and our hearing sharpens, all to help us deal with the possible threat.

It’s only been very recently that psychologists have begun to recognize the third response, freeze, in which we sort of go into “shut-down” mode before assessing what is the best course of action (ie: fight or flight). This shut-down mode is why we sometimes see characters stand like a deer in headlights when danger is approaching. We scream “RUN, YOU IDIOT!” at the screen to no avail. They’re in freeze mode. They couldn’t move even if they wanted to.

So why do we respond so differently? 

The answer is simple — social conditioning. 

Each of us has varying lived experiences and relationships with certain situations. For a lot of us, the things that we find scary are conditioned, meaning that we associate a situation or a thing with negative experiences. That association lives in our brains and our bodies.

Body memory is your body’s way of recalling what an experience felt like physiologically, rather than the actual memory recall of a specific situation. An example might be someone who watched Jaws as a child and is now afraid to go swimming. Seeing water might not immediately make their brain go “BIG SHARK! NEED BIG BOAT! SCARY!” but it may spark those similar physiological responses like a racing heartbeat and increased breathing because of your association with being afraid of Jaws and water.

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These things that scare us are perceived threats, meaning that our brains and bodies identify them as potentially dangerous, which differs for each person. Despite our frontal lobe’s capability to remind us “Hey, dummy, it’s just a movie,” sometimes our amygdala does what’s called an amygdala hijack where our visceral emotional responses overtake any logic or reasoning. Our frontal lobe can tell us over and over again “OMG STOP IT’S A MOVIE” but our amygdala is going into overdrive screaming “DON’T CARE! I’M SCARED!” And, just like trying to calm someone down who’s having a massive freak-out, it doesn’t matter what you do or say; they’re at the mercy of their emotions and need to ride it out before they can even process what you’re saying to them.

Those who have experienced traumatic incidents in their lives will respond to fear differently than those who haven’t. For some, perceived threat levels skyrocket and we become afraid of situations where no legitimate danger is present. For others, there is absolutely nothing in this world that can trigger a fear response as intense as something we’ve already experienced, and scares in movies do little to impact our emotional state. Additionally, for some horror fans, the constant exposure over time can legitimately desensitize us to fear and strengthen our frontal lobes to prevent amygdala hijacking.

The way these fear responses appear to the outside world also impacts how we handle this sudden change in our body. Things like audibly screaming (something I am oh, so guilty of doing) is your body’s involuntary way of telling those around you “DANGER! SCARY THING! YOU SHOULD ALSO BE SCARED!” However, because we’ve for some reason made it socially unacceptable for people to have natural reactions to fear, even in a theater setting for a horror movie, we’ve developed ways to combat signaling to the rest of the world that we’re scared. 

Laughter, for example, is one of the most popular ways that we may respond to a jump scare. Psychologists have three theories on why this is. Some believe we laugh because we’re signaling to those around us that we’re having a good time, and therefore, are not exposing ourselves as being vulnerable. I tend to believe more in the second theory, that we’ve developed a laugh response as a way to deny the fear that we are experiencing, because society has deemed emotions like sadness or fear to be “weak.” The third theory is that our bodies straight up don’t like the energy exhaustion and emotional drainage of feeling scared, so we laugh because it feels better. 

Jump scares, in all actuality, should really be called “jump startles,” as these moments do not elicit a true fear response but rather a jolt to the system that causes a sudden spike in these fight/flight/freeze responses. It’s reactionary, but it’s also quick. Whatever our usual response to fear looks like will greatly impact how our body processes the scare itself.

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Ironically, knowing the scare is coming doesn’t actually help us. In most situations, it’s actually worse because our bodies start the “high alert” process before the scare hits, so when it does hit, it’s a bigger high to come down from. It’s why a random cat scare makes us jolt but immediately recover and the goddamn anxiety-inducing lawnmower scene from Sinister will ruin your whole fucking life. The set up makes us anxious and the anticipation becomes unbearable, which is also why bait-and-switch scares are so frustrating. It’s like edging, but for fear.

I can only speak from my own experience, but as someone with a highly active amygdala who overproduces adrenaline, films littered with jump scares are physically exhausting for my body. The constant complete change in body chemistry is too much for me to handle, which is why I cannot play horror video games. The frequent spikes in adrenaline have been known to make me vomit. I’m also a person who has endured many traumatic events and cannot be trusted with my own physical reflexes to perceived physical danger. Meaning, I can’t go to haunted houses because I have absolutely instinctively and accidentally punched a worker whose only crime was being really good at their job. This doesn’t mean that I’m “too scared” of haunted houses; it means I recognize how my body responds to fear and a haunted house is not a safe place for me to experience that emotion.

How our bodies respond to fear is not indicative of how “tough” or “fearless” we are, but rather a result of our lifetime exposures to fear and the ways we’ve learned to process those emotions. Are you the friend who screams and tries to crawl behind the couch? Awesome! Are you the immovable object who barely budges when a scare happens? Great! Are you somewhere in between? Just as rad! There’s no right or wrong way to respond to a horror movie, and for the most part, we really don’t have any control over how we react. Luckily for us, the beauty of the horror genre is that those differing responses make for a more enjoyable communal movie-watching experience.

BJ Colangelo is a recovering child beauty queen that fancies herself the lovechild of Chistopher Sarandon in FRIGHT NIGHT and Susan Sarandon in THE HUNGER. She writes about horror, wrestlingsexkicking pancreatic cancer’s ass, and being a fat queer all over the Internet. She’s also the co-host of the teen girl movie podcast, This Ends at Prom, with her wife, Harmony Colangelo.