The horror movie industry creates artificial situations where we feel vulnerable and overwhelmed by terror, pulling in billions of dollars of entertainment revenue. I personally have a unique craving for scary movies, even though watching one causes me to loose sleep for a day or two. How come the unpleasantness of fear sells? When a group of pals go out camping for the weekend and the chilliness of night sets in, someone almost always offers to throw out a scary story or two, and many of the others in the group respond eagerly. Why does the option of being scared silly seem so appealing at times?
Scientists and neurologists are still researching dopamine’s role in the brain and the deeper they dig, the more unique systems they find that have dopamine as a constituent neurotransmitter. My previous blog posts focused on dopamine in the mesolimbic pathway, otherwise known as the ‘reward pathway’. The media has formed a depiction of dopamine that is almost a single story in nature, since they usually refer to this chemical’s function in the mesolimbic pathway. A new study by the University of Michigan revealed that dopamine induces the sensations of not only pleasure and desire, but also dread and fear. Interestingly enough, only a few millimeters of physical space separates the two receptor clumps in the nucleus accumbens responsible for these contrasting feelings, quite literally a fine line. Taking this background research and overlaying it on our obsession with horror movies, you begin to see that the craving for them comes from more than just the opportunity for you to cuddle with someone while watching one.
Full disclosure, though I love speculating and connecting puzzle pieces, I have little technical knowledge in the field of neuroscience. That being said, when we frighten ourselves with a chilling story that unfolds on the big screen, we definitely stimulate the pathways in our brain responsible for fear. Now, after learning that the fear system in the brain utilizes dopamine, maybe the ‘low-risk’ fear involved with the horror genre actually causes a reaction in the adjacent reward system as well. Say the repeated jumpscares and graphic images causes the brain to ramp up dopamine production as a part of its fear response. A surge of that chemical now sits in the nucleus accumbens. Would it not be possible for this dopamine imbalance to also set off some degree of a pleasure response?
All of a sudden, the protective intent of the brain, the one that informs you of the grave danger you face, unintentionally triggers a byproduct high. After the movie finishes and the specifics of the spookiness fade from your memory, your brain may still remember the fact that it also had a pleasurable dopamine response. This pulls you back, time and time again, since the rush of being scared out of your mind feels great, addictive almost.
In previous generations, the only methods of obtaining this sort of horror entertainment may have required a trip to the theater or a good storyteller, both of which require considerable time and effort. Now with the internet as a medium, content creators can quickly and effectively mold terrifying anecdotes into something more easily digestible than a two hour long feature film. Huge active communities exist online, the NoSleep subreddit for example, that celebrate good storytelling and creativity in this genre. Technological advancements have undeniably unlocked more ways for us to access media that give us a ‘good’ scare.
Just how will this increased abundance of terror interact with that fact that some minds already crave it? How drastically will it alter our behaviors as we race towards the future?