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Bridging the science of fear and cinema in elements of horror

Although we may presume that we could better live off without it, fear is more of a friend than a foe.

Facing our deepest fears is not exactly enjoyable, but for fans of horror cinema, the jump scares and unexpected twists on the big screen are entertaining. While horror films have one goal—to frighten the audience—fear manifests itself in various forms, and numerous factors come into play.

On the reel

Humans are no strangers to fear. Although we may presume that we could better live off without it, fear is more of a friend than a foe. “Fear is an essential component for survival,” comments Dr. Marc Eric Reyes, a professor at the University of Santo Tomas. In our agitated state, fear prompts the brain to send signals to the rest of our body, protecting us from harm. As we face our fears, our body goes into survival mode. 

Jay Jomar Quintos, an independent filmmaker and professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman, attests that horror is quintessential cinema. Horror cinema examines what makes us vulnerable, and as viewers, we are wired to act upon the dangers in our surroundings, even if they are only images on a screen or audio from speakers. 

Here’s Johnny! 

Dr. Karina Fernandez, a psychologist at Ateneo de Manila University, explains that there are certain things that we are naturally afraid of, such as falling or loud noises, and things that we have learned to be afraid of over time. Either way, our reactions to these emotions all begin in a certain region of the brain—the amygdala.

Every time we are faced with a stressful or threatening situation, the amygdala sounds an alarm that triggers the release of adrenaline to make your heart race, and cortisol to regulate your bodily functions such as blood pressure. Both hormones set off a chain of events throughout the body that activates your fight-or-flight response, preparing you to either run for your life or stand your ground. 

A problem arises when we become overburdened with stress and dread until we lose control of the situation. Reyes describes this as the amygdala hijack, wherein regions of the brain used for logic and reasoning suddenly go dark and we become totally reliant on instinct and emotion. 

Because your brain is in overdrive, blood from the heart is diverted from less essential organs to higher priority ones, such as the legs that allow us to kick and run. As this happens, blood flow from our stomach and skin slows down, giving us chills or butterflies in our stomach.

Sometimes, however, what scares us is not exactly clear. With studies coming to light on our response to obvious danger, psychiatrists are exploring whether our reaction to uncertain danger is the same. 

Imaginary labyrinth 

Musical elements in movie scenes can greatly influence the way we watch horror films. Katrina Tan, a professor at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, mentions that filmmakers use this to build up the tension within the audience.

Quintos adds that sound design allows indirect manipulation of suspense while watching a horror film. Although the focus of viewers is on the visuals, the sounds heard are unconsciously being processed by the brain, amplifying the cinematic experience. 

“Before information reaches the amygdala, it first passes through the temporal lobe—the region of the brain responsible for auditory processing,” Reyes articulates. Filmmakers leverage this to push the audience toward the jumpscares, whether they want to see it or not. 

“Try to watch horror movies without audio. Then try to only listen to the audio without visuals. Which is scarier?” suggests Reyes, explaining that the auditory cues in horror films allow the audience to predict the next terrifying scene.

For this reason, eliciting fear through sound is one of the most crucial techniques when producing a film. Even as an evolutionary response, loud sounds like gunshots and screams increase our alertness even if we did not see where the noise came from. 

This is when anxiety comes into play as it promotes this heightened state of readiness that increases our ability to evaluate a threat and hopefully respond before it catches up to us. 

Since humans have a natural proclivity for certainty, uncertain situations make us perceive things as potential risks, regardless of how irrational they may be. This explains why we fear the dark or why we become cautious around strangers—we become afraid of the unknown.

When fear and anxiety start to take over, we snowball our thoughts into the worst-case scenarios, prompting us to act without thinking. “But what’s the worst that could really happen?” Reyes ponders.

In other cases, “we want to be afraid,” expresses Tan. Interestingly enough, people are willing to watch films that constantly put them in a fearful or unpredictable situation, which probably stem from curiosity and fascination with unfamiliar things. In other words, it is in human nature.

Putting our fears at bay  

In a race with the boogeyman, having a head start could increase our chances of survival. However, running away from our fears may not always be the best option. 

Rummaging for an escape may lead to a dead-end—forcing us into an uncomfortable situation. Before we find ourselves hanging at the edge of a cliff, we must regain control from anxiety. 

Fear surely brings out the worst in us, but taking fear out of the equation only makes us act without thinking. Confronting our fears may be easier said than done, but we can still manage our emotions amid terrifying conditions. Although we may find ourselves stuck in a labyrinth, there remains a clear exit ahead.

By Gabrielle Lema

By Francesca Salting

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