Since Halloween is right around the corner, there has been an obvious increase in horror films on TV. Even though I’m a fan of the genre, it’s undeniable that I, and most others, feel some type of way while watching horror movies. This made me wonder, what exactly is happening to us physically and psychologically when we watch scary movies?
The physical effects of fear are pretty noticeable. Most people will experience an increased heart rate, and an increase of adrenaline. The Huffington Post UK took a poll and found that The Shining is the number one scariest film, specifically the infamous “HEEEERE’S JOHNNY” scene. They then conducted a study by holding viewings and hooking the audience members up to heart rate monitors, and found that this particular scene caused viewers heart rates’ to increase by an average of 28.21%. This heart rate (between 97-165 BPM) is equivalent the heart rate of someone doing light exercise. So if you’ve ever heard that watching scary movies burns calories, it’s true! Of course it’s not substantial and also not effective if you’re eating a large buttered popcorn in the movie theater. Other noticeable effects could be sweating, or crying, or shaking, which would vary for each viewer. While these physical effects are only temporary, there can be more lasting effects, like sleeplessness if the viewer is very traumatized after the movie.
As for psychological effects, there are quite few more than you might think. The most obvious are anxiety and stress, which relate to the physical side effects because they can lead to increased heart rate and sweating. On a neurological level, during the scary or suspenseful scenes in horror movies, there is increased activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with emotions, in this case, fear. Under more serious circumstances, horror movies can cause PTSD or desensitization. Seeing traumatic scenes in movies can trigger traumatic memories from a viewer’s own life, which can sometimes be too much to handle. As for desensitization, this would be more common in people who watched a lot of intense horror films starting at a young age.
So if horror movies make us cry and lose sleep, why do some of us keep going back for more? The answer can in part be associated with The Excitation Transfer Process and The Gender Socialization Theory. Glenn Sparks, Ph.D., from Purdue University, attributes part of the reason to The Excitation Transfer Process. This process involves what happens to us physically during the movie (increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate), and how we were feeling on an emotional level. If you had an enjoyable time, besides the fact that you were scared, i.e. spending time with friends, eating your favorite candy, etc, you will be more likely to associate these good feeling with the experience of seeing a horror movie. This is because you are psychologically aroused, which heightens the feeling of whatever else you’re doing. As for his theory of Gender Socialization, the experience will depend on how your viewing partner reacts. In a study conducted by Dolf Zillmann, James B. Weaver, Norbert Mundorf, and Charles F. Aust, for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it was found that, “men enjoyed the movie most in the company of a distressed woman and least in the company of a mastering woman. Women, in contrast, enjoyed the movie most in the company of a mastering man and least in the company of a distressed man. Mastery did not enhance the female companions’ physical appeal. However, it significantly enhanced that of the low-appeal male companion. The display of distress in response to horror reduced the desirability of both male and female companions as working mates”. This also shows that this theory can have the opposite effect, and leave the viewer associating horror movies with a bad experience. As for the Excitation Transfer Process, if the viewer has a bad time at the movie, i.e. gets in a fight with their friends, spills their popcorn, can’t find a seat, they could also leave associating horror films with a bad experience, and a heightened one at that. In the end, no matter if you love horror movies or hate them, they affect you whether you know it or not.