I enjoy reading. I love bringing the story to life in my head. Imagine the scene, connect with the characters, feel as I am living in that area — I’m in the story as well. Thriller novels are my favorites, because I love the adrenaline rush when reading them. On the other hand, scary movies are not my cup of tea. They are way too intense for me, and are not so good for the well-being of the person sitting next to me.
The latest thriller novel I read was The Breakdown by B.A Paris. Coincidentally, when I had time to sit down and read it, I was home alone. As I emerged myself more into the book it started thundering and my fear grow even bigger. So I paused, put the book away, and opened the TV to distract my mind, let it calm down. But I wasn’t off the hook that easily, Murphy’s law came into play, as my local cable had The Girl on The Train streaming… It took me a few seconds to understand the TV will not ease my mind, and I switched it off. Now I had a book in the freezer while I lay in bed, eyes wide open, and my brain is running like crazy picturing the horror, knowing it’s not real but can’t stop it.
This is when I decided to look at my fear from the scientific perspective. Understand fear? What is it that manipulate my feelings and makes me feel unease? Can I control my feelings? Is it the same for books and for the movies?
I reached out to expert to find out.
FEAR & OUR BRAINS
Let start from the beginning…Us humans have been scaring ourselves since the beginning of time — using storytelling, jumping off cliffs, and popping out to startle each other from behind a tree or the recesses of some dark cave. We have done this for so many different reasons — to build group unity, to prepare kids for life in the scary world, and to control behavior. But it’s only recently, in the last few centuries that scaring ourselves for “fun” has become a highly sought-after experience.
Looking at the statistics for the medias of books and film you will find the top five genres of books that earn the most money, crime and mystery are second in popularity while horror is fifth; With movies — thrillers, horror, and suspense together come fifth in place. We like being scared for the sake of pure enjoyment, but WHY?
There are several theories trying to answer that question.
Rush from fight-or-flight — The fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival — i.e. when we are fear for our lives. The natural high from the fight or flight response can leave us feeling great. Who wouldn’t want to duplicate this feeling?!
The Excitation-Transfer Theory — Adding to the previous theory Excitation-Transfer Theory suggests that after having an experience causing an extreme emotions people are more likely to associate stronger or misconstrued feelings towards others. Joined scary experiences, like a horror movie or a haunted house work to build stronger relationships and memories. When we’re happy, or afraid, we’re releasing powerful hormones, like Oxycontin, that are working to make these moments stick in our brain. So we’re going to remember the people we’re with (as who will go to watch a horror movie by themselves). If it was a good experience, then we’ll remember them fondly and feel close to them, more so than if we were to meet them during some neutral unexciting event.
The last theory involves the reward pathway — This again adds to the one I mentioned before, and suggest that the pleasure and good we feel our the brain fundamentally “approves” of. Drink water when you’re thirsty, eat a high-calorie sweet foodstuff, etc. The Reward Pathway theory suggests that the brain probably considers “avoiding death” a positive behavior too. When you’re experiencing high levels of fear while watching a scary movie or reading a horror story, the brain thinks you’re in danger. As the movie ends and you’re not scared anymore your brain likes it, and it provides a reward. And thus, people experience enjoyment and pleasure from being scared, and happily pay for the privilege by buying films or books that scare us.
I may have convinced you (or not) with the above theories. But believe it or not, there are people whom doesn’t enjoy being afraid at all, and I don’t think I’ll be wrong saying — no one wants to experience a truly life-threatening situation.
If we said that the natural high from the fight or flight response can make us feel great, Prof. of psychology and psychiatry, David Zald found a strong evidence that this isn’t just about personal choice, but our brain chemistry plays a role in this too. There are several chemicals that are being released during the fear and anxiety built. One worth mentioning is dopamine. Prof. Zald’s latest research shows that some individuals may get more of a kick from this dopamine response than others do.
HOW DO THEY SCARE US
All these answers tell us why one prefers being afraid vs others that will avoid it all together. But then, what’s the reason one prefers one over the other (a scary book vs a horror movie)?
When reading a book or watching a movie, it’s all about triggering the amazing fight or flight response to experience the flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, but in a completely safe space.
Writer, editor, and crime aficionado Sarah Weinman explains, “Unless they [the movies] are done spectacularly well or also leave plenty of room for the imagination… movies visualize everything, and too often it becomes about shock value and grossing the audience out instead of creating a truly suspenseful, scary story…” This is why Hitchcock was the master in this field, he knew how to play with our fear best.
Hitchcock continuously built the suspense level with a simple story-line. He kept the story simple but at throughout his scenes he made sure to show the audience of the danger the character is unaware of, slowly revealing the danger.
Hitchcock is playing with our emotions using techniques like the Kuleshov effect, in a most brilliant way. Just to make sure we all know, the Kuleshov effect is when the director manipulates the audience’s emotions using editing. Imagine watching an old man, then a woman with a baby, then the old man — The emotion you will feel are of a nice old man. On the other hand, the same old man with a girl in a bikini will strike a different emotion. Hitchcock in his movies periodically switched from the danger to the victim which led to building the action. What resulted from this was a feeling and anticipation of utter helplessness as you watch the character observe a dangerous situation unfold and you see he or she prove incapable of preventing the spectacle.
I can go on and on, on techniques he used but I’ll s hare only one more. One step ahead is a technique he uses to pull you into the story and increase, once again, the suspense level. He did it by having the camera playfully roam around looking for something or someone suspicious. This way, you, the audience not only feel like you’re involved in solving the mystery, but you also feel like you are one step ahead of the character.
Now that we know the tools for horror movies and how they can trigger our imagination and build a fear to last, let us look at the written medium. Books need to relay on your imagination to get to the same level of anxiety Hitchcock builds with his films.
Author Megan Abbott once said “I think scary books are better at prodding and provoking the unconscious, getting under your skin and staying there. Reading is a more intimate experience, and more attenuated, so it’s a deeper, more tentacled scary.” I tend to agree.
Author Ian Irvine reveals some guidelines for an effective thriller saying that the “Readers read to lose themselves in the story and, hopefully, to become the hero through identification… The reader’s hope that the hero will succeed, and fear that he will fail, creates rising suspense until the climax, where the hero’s goal or problem is resolved.” Adding that “Suspense arises out of your readers’ anticipation of, and worry and fear about, what’s going to happen next. You create suspense by making your readers fear the worst for a character they care deeply about.”
Just like reading literature can make you more empathetic by focusing on the psychology, relationships, and motivations of the characters in the story, horror novels can make you feel more terrified by drawing you into those intense emotions felt by the characters in the book. You aren’t just watching someone else experience something scary, you are experiencing something scary. Writers know it, and use it to build suspense.
Maris Kreizman, editorial director at Book of the Month, says “Things that are imagined are way better and more scary than things that are seen. Books allow me to interpret what I read in my own head, which is maybe the scariest place on Earth.”
CAN WE CONTROL IT
You probably look away when something really scary happens in a horror movie. It is almost second nature to cover your eyes and avoid actually seeing the fearful scene on screen
When you’re reading a book, closing your eyes isn’t an option. No matter how terrifying the story gets, you need to power through, eyes wide open and imagination at work so you can finish the book. That’s when you can’t look away from the scenes the mind is creating from the words you read on the page. Your “brain” creates that scare.
Is there a way to manipulate our brain and “shut it off” after a horror effect of a book or a movie? Well… I could not find one. You can use your own “ready behavior response”, as you would do when you wake up because of a bad dream.
But at the end, you enjoy it. Isn’t it why you keep on doing it?! So take a couple of deep breath, emerge in the experience you signed up for or avoid it all together
CHOOSING THE RIGHT MEDIUM
One last thing I want to leave you with…consider the right medium for the best rush!
One last thing I want to leave you with…consider the right medium for the best rush!
I enjoy reading a physical book much more than the digital version. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. And honestly, I am not sure it’s crucial for let’s say streaming a film on NETFLIX. But setting is key… quite place at night, maybe with some thunder and you are in for a treat.
On the other hand, we have streaming opportunities everywhere we go at any given moment. From going to the cinema to watch it on our phone. But from everything we just learned, I bet the best rush will come from the big screen.
Leaving it here for your brain to continue thinking…
Originally published at medium.com