Culture 3 min read

Neural Activity Mapping Reveals Why Horror Movies Excite Us

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Pressmaster /

In a new study, a team of Finnish researchers mapped neural activity to show how horror movies manipulate the brain.

We all love a little scare.

Whether its sky-diving or roller-coaster rides, we sometimes seek experiences that provide a heart-thumping feeling of danger from a safe distance. And horror movies do just that.

In regular movies, the heroes face threats to happiness or safety. However, horror movies raise the stake by introducing a supernatural or superhuman threat that cannot be easily conquered, and this attracts us.

So, a team at the University of Turku, Finland, researched to understand why we’re drawn to this form of entertainment.

For their study, the researchers first had to establish the 100 best and scariest horror movies in the past centuries. Then, they studied how the film made people feel.

Why We Are Drawn to Horror Movies

Some respondents say that they watch horror movies to socialize with others who enjoy similar films. However, the researchers noted that most people watch horror movies for the feelings it invokes.

About 72 percent of the respondents say that they watch at least one horror movie every six months. Aside from the feeling of anxiety and fear, people watch these scary movies primarily for excitement.

What’s more, the findings suggest that psychological horror movies that are based on real events are the scariest. And people are more afraid of things that are unseen or implied than what they could actually see.

In other words, unseen threats are the most frightening.

Imagine the foreboding dread you experience when you feel something isn’t quite right, says principal investigator, Professor Lauri Nummenmaa. An instinctive response to the sudden appearance of a monster, which makes you jump off your seat, often follows.

But, how does the brain cope with the fear that comes with this complicated and ever-changing environment?

Neural Activity Mapping to Study the Brain’s Response to Horror Movies

For this part of the study, the respondents watched horror movies while the researchers measured their neural activity in an MRI scanner.

As the respondents’ anxiety increases, so do the activities in the region of the brain involved in visual and auditory perception. That’s a natural response to cues of threat in the environment.

However, after a sudden shock, various other regions of the brain become active. These are the parts responsible for emotion processing, threat evaluation, and decision making, as well as enabling a rapid response.

According to the researchers, these regions of the brain communicate with the sensory area through the movie duration.

Therefore, our brains are continuously anticipating and preparing us for action in response to a threat,” explains researcher Matthew Hudson. “And horror movies exploit this expertly to enhance our excitement.” 

Read More: Manipulating the Alpha Brain Waves to Boost Attention

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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