What makes films frightening?

What tricks do horror movies use to frighten us?
28 October 2016

Interview with 

Dr Simon Brown, Kingston University & Dr Hank Davis, University of Guelph


Horror films work best when they terrify us, but how do they tap into our fears? Georgia Mills got two different perspectives, first from Simon Brown, associate professor of film at Kingston University, who took her back through B-movie history...

Simon - You can almost chart the things that we're afraid of by looking at the ebb and flow of themes as they emerge and disappear in the horror genre in cinema particularly, I would argue, in mainstream horror cinema.

Georgia - Okay so let's take a trip through the history of horror.

Simon - In the 1950s, it was all about - and these are connected to science fiction - it was all about the atomic bomb, and science gone mad. At the end of the Second World War we created something that could destroy an awful lot of people very, very quickly and ruin the Earth, and throw radiation into the atmosphere. So what were people afraid of in the 1950s? They were afraid of the atomic bomb.

Georgia - Let's take a look at the 50s - we had Godzilla, attack of the fifty foot woman, the blob - lots of creature features and mutants roaming on the big screens. Perhaps representing our fear of the atomic bomb. So what's next?

Simon - The big horror films of the 70s are The Exorcist, The Omen and probably Carrie. There are more but let's go with those for now.

What you've got there is a fear of young people. So Reagan in The Exorcist becomes possessed by the devil, Carrie has telekinetic powers, and Damien in The Omen is the devil himself, or the anti-Christ.

That reflects cultural and generational conflict in America in the late 60s and early 70s. You've got the older generation at odds with the younger generation who have gone through the summer of love. You know the older generation are looking at the younger generation thinking "oh my God, what are you guys doing?"  And that gets depicted in these kind of classic movies from the 70s.

Once you get into the 1980s and the 1990s, again things start to shift a little bit. What are we afraid of in the 1980s and the 1990s? Paranoia - we're afraid of the government. So that begins to come out in films - the idea of people being taken against their will. Taken off to somewhere and tortured - that becomes a theme.

Then in the 2000s, in the post-9/11 era, you have the fear of terrorism, of the person next door, of leaving your house and being killed. So what happens is this gets reflected into sort of home invasion narratives - ghosts and spooks and spectres.

So I think that's how it works and I think if you go back and look at all the way through the 60s, the 70, I think you can really see these patterns emerging, and it's quite a fascinating thing to do.

Georgia -   The horror genre seems to provide a reflection on our society's fears of the time - but films from the 60s can still scare us today, and as Simon pointed out - not all films fit this trend, so is there something else going on?

Hank - Hi, My name is Hank Davis, I am a Professor of Psychology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

Georgia - Hank is the author of the book, Caveman Logic, and he approaches horror films from an evolutionary perspective...

Hank - Adaptations that our ancestors made way back in the Pleistocene era, that means maybe a hundred thousand years ago, are still with us, they don't go away. And some of those adaptations that we bring into the modern world are good, they're helpful and some of them are not so good. They were a lot more attuned to the Pleistocene era, yet we're dragging them around with us in the modern era.

Horror films certainly trade on those caveman adaptations that we carry around with us, and what makes a successful horror film, and you have to understand when we talk about success, we're talking about a billion dollar industry. So people are pretty strongly motivated to make good horror films, to get them right.

And from the point of view of caveman logic and from the point of view of evolutionary psychology, horror films are successful because they trigger one or more of three circuits. Three cognitive circuits that we carry around with us.

And the first I'd call predation. When you look back at the Pleistocene, we humans, or the early form of Homo sapiens, we were both a predator and a prey species. We try to hunt things down and eat them for our dinner and other things try to hunt us down. The phrase that I always loved is they were antagonistic food sources who were not quite ready to be eaten. But we ourselves were not quite ready to be eaten and were very sensitive to things that prey on us, to a sense of being stalked, to a sense of menace.  So movies like "Jaws" or "Alien", or "Aliens" the follow-up, those play on our sense of being a prey species.

The second circuit that we carry around with us that makes for good horror films is what I would call "contagion" or "disgust." We are very, very aware of rotting bodies, gore, things. And it's very good that we avoid these things because they do harbour nasty bacteria that can kill us. So rotting organic matter is not something you want to play with or eat and we are so sensitive to any signs of it whether visual or, of course, olfactory - you know it stinks, we avoid it. And movies that make a big deal of showing us these kind of things are very triggery for us - they make us go  - yuk! So movies like "Night of the Living Dead," where a zombie walks around with a loop of intestine in his mouth that he's munching on that he's just pulled out of somebody. Or "The Exorcist" where sweet little Linda Blair does this projectile vomiting of green stuff - yuk! - powerful image, good horror film.

The third circuit that we carry around with us that's very, very triggery which is what I would call "a violation of a sense of person." What a person is, what we can assume about something that we consider a person so, for example, a body with no soul. This is a powerful triggery thing for us. The biggest reason is that you can't reason with it. More than any other species on the planet, ours uses reason. We reason with each other, we are a very, very social species. So if we see somebody stalking us and we want to say "please don't kill me, don't eat me" we can have an interaction with it under normal conditions.

But if it's a zombie, and zombies are a great combination of all three of these triggers. If it's a zombie, the zombie just looks at you with dead eyes. It doesn't want to discuss it's hunger with you, it will simply eat you if it wants to. You can't negotiate with it. Zombies are also good because they're predators, they carry deep contagion. They themselves are dead bodies so you don't want to get too close to them. And finally, they won't reason with us.  

Georgia - As well as ticking all three of Hank's boxes - zombie movies have been on the up - in the '90s there were 69 of them, but in the 2000s, this shot up to 255, so are they representing a cultural fear as well? Back to Simon...

Simon - In the more contemporary situation is that partly the zombie is about fear of disease and infection. When you think about the number of scares that we've had over the last ten years - H1N1, Bird flu, swine flu. This fear of disease, this fear of catching disease and this becomes very much reflected in zombie, this idea of the zombie is contagion. When you get bitten by a zombie you become a zombie. So I think really that's the kind of cultural fear that zombies are reflecting at the current time.


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