@ Horror

In a Horror Movie…you’re not as smart as you think

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My first blog was Nightmirrors. But since starting WIDW, I find no time to get back to it’s All Things Horror theme. Still, there is some fun stuff there and I hate to just abandon it—so I decided that over the next few months I would revise some of the better articles and republish them here…and here is the first:

“Don’t do it! Are you stupid? Get the hell out of there!”  As we sit on the sofa or in the theater our IQ’s jump about 50 points. It is really a joyous and self-righteous feeling to be oh-so-much smarter than a horror movie character. In fact, if you or I were in these movies none of these bad things would ever happen. Right?

Well in truth, in a horror movie you aren’t as smart as you think. Now there are a few exceptions to this rule, I mean in every horror movie there is at least one character who makes you wonder how they even tie their shoes. These are the characters with really bad survival strategies. The ones who always think splitting up is the secret to success. My favorite example being any number of scenes from the film, The Strangers.

Girls if your boys suggest that “you stay here in the house that the crazies have had free reign of for the past hour…while I take this shotgun and run around outside in the dark,” I would strongly urge you ladies to reevaluate the relationship…cuz this guy doesn’t seem smart enough to manage his own sock drawer let alone a career, marriage, or god-forbid—child-rearing.

Okay, but that is pretty much the exception because most of the mistakes made in horror movies are the exact one’s you would make in that same situation.

“Bull,” you say?

Well let’s take a little stroll down horror movie psychology drive and see.

There are five reasons why in a horror movie you aren’t going to be as smart as you think. To appreciate these reasons we’ll take a quick tour of the “physiology of fear,” so that we can all appreciate what happens—universally—to all humans in extreme moments of fright.

The amygdala is the brain’s threat center. When danger appears, electrical signals are sent to this brain area. One set of impulses takes the “short” path, the other takes the “long” path. The short path impulses arrive at a processing center that is sort of like your BFF. If someone is attacking you, the BFF doesn’t ask questions, just jumps to your defense. Same in this brain center. When impulses arrive it begins  “fear response preparation” —that’s fight or flight and it’s the same response whether the danger is a knife wielding psycho…or a very icky spider.

The longer path is a little more discerning. The information arrives at the visual cortex area where the situation can be rationally validated. It’s the process where we “decide” to run, fight or tell the amygdala to “stand down.”

The dual process is rather important. Without it, we’d run like rabbits every time we were frightened—a door slams unexpectedly—boom—you’re halfway down the street. Conversely, without the quick reaction response you’d run the risk of getting hit by a car or clobbered by any number of objects that have been thrown at you when you were unprepared.

There is a third process in all this flight and fight stuff. Memory. After each “event” incidents are committed to memory and that memory file will be used in future events—along the long path—to determine if a particular “thing” is, in fact, dangerous.

And it is this third process that is the biggest reason why you will probably die in a horror movie.

So let’s take a look at this stuff in motion…or motion pictures. Here are the top five reasons in a horror movie…you’re not as smart as you think:


1. You’ve never seen this film before: The characters in a horror movie have never seen that movie…or any movie apparently. I am pretty certain if they saw the trailer a hundred times, as we had, then they would make better decisions…like not going in the water, buying that house, going camping etc, etc.

They, however,  don’t have the foreknowledge that something is going to happen…and something really bad. Right now, for example, you have no expectation that a crazy clown with a knife is watching you from your closet. If you did, you’d probably run…but you’re still reading this…even though he’s opening the door behind you…and stepping closer…and closer.

2. Optimism Bias: Even if you’ve seen every horror movie ever made, you still suffer from Optimism Bias. OB is the belief that “nothing bad” will happen to you…at least today. And the younger you are, the higher your optimism bias. This why teens engage in riskier behavior, this is why they over-estimate their driving skills, tolerance to alcohol, and generally do stuff a forty-year old would never do.

The bias is a critical component of life. We’d never leave the house, never take a risk, and generally be paralyzed by fear If we thought every day held unseen dangers.

Have you seen Jaws? Do you still go into the ocean? Have you seen Halloween? Do you still go out on All Hallow’s Eve? Have you seen the Exorcism? Did that make you join the priesthood or a covenant? No? Exactly, it’s optimism bias…those things won’t happen to you. Even if you heard a noise in your closet right now, say a loud crash, would you call the police? Hide under the bed? Or go and see what fell off the shelf?

3. Rational versus Instinctual: The loud crash may in fact create a fear response,that’s the short path—hardwired instinct that kept our early ancestors alive— but the long path always returns us to “rational thought.” A part of optimism bias operates on the powers of reason.

Reason dismisses any consideration that the elements of a “horror story” could be real. So the logical and rational belief is that there is no devil clown in your closet, no clawed beast beneath your bed…no psycho with a knife watching you read this blog. People in horror movies, also have no reason to believe these things are real. Their rational minds can not suspend disbelief.

This is process three, memory and experience, in action. After all, we hear loud noises and strange sounds all the time. But our experience and our moms, taught us that “there is no danger” and no such things as monsters. After the initial “fright” jolt we “get hold” of ourselves and dismiss the source. So even if right at this moment you are the unwitting star of a horror movie, you don’t believe it… and we will miss you dearly.

4. No theme music: Films are filled with creepy music. The music regulates the viewer’s emotions, it sets up expectations, and it begins the fear response—because memory reminds us that creepy music means scary scenes and something is about to happen.

Unfortunately, the movie characters have no such advantage. To return to the clown in your closet, the one with the big, sharp knife…if the Halloween theme music began playing in your room, I’m sure you’d run your ass off…but it’s not playing, so instead you’re still just sitting there… with your back to a killer…reading this blog…too bad so sad.

5. Fear makes you clumsy, deaf and dumb: But let’s say you are the smartest person in the world. You sense something bad is about to happen, you have suspended disbelief, and you are determined to get out alive. If there is a large enough body count between you and the “thing” doing the killing, that may in fact buy you enough time to flee. But once the fear and terror take over, chances are you will be tripping, falling, turning the wrong way, dropping your keys and pretty much moment from having your smart brain eaten by something terrible. The fear response is going to change your body in a way that you don’t possess enough practice to overcome.

First your body will freeze. It’s a natural reaction…one part primal thinking that motion attracts predators…and one part system (eyes, ears, smell, brain processing) analysis of the environment. Although you can decrease the freeze time, especially if you have, say, special forces training,  you can’t prevent it. The brain demands that full stop so the body is less noticeable to the predator…great if it’s a bear…not so great if it’s Jason.

Next the adrenaline will flow and flow heavy. This may make you a little stronger and faster, but it also kills your fine motor skills (the skills you need to say turn a lock or find the right car key or load a gun.) Your blood pressure and heart rate will almost double as this prepares you for fight or flight. It also makes it difficult to hear (thump, thump whoosh whoosh thump thump) and causes heavy breathing in order to oxygenate that blood that’s about to be spilled.

And guess what…that heavy breathing really attracts demons. And while all of those “Run! Live! I don’t want to die! Mommy help me!” neurons are firing in your body, the “thinking” part of your brain goes on vacation. Mentally you are now about as strategic as a bunny rabbit, but unfortunately not nearly as fast.

So I’m not saying you are dumb, in fact I bet you know everything there is to know about getting out of a horror movie alive.

The problem is that it won’t matter.

When you’re in that situation, you’re going to do most of the stupid things all the characters do. The real difference will be if you can  suspend “disbelief” long enough to survive?

(If you’re still screaming “this can’t be real” you’re pretty much dead).

So can you suspend your disbelief and deal with the situation at hand, overcome the physical barriers, and regain control of your strategic brain?

I don’t know…have you checked that closet yet… the one I’ve warned you about for the last 1600 words?

No. Hmmm. Not so smart after all. I think you are about to be victim number one.

3 replies »

  1. Good thing I’m in a hotel room without a closet. Yeah, I guess you’re right on this. It’s different when you’re an observer versus when you’re actually in the situation yourself. It’s like watching Family Feud versus actually being on the show–you can easily think of answers while watching the show, but once you’re under those lights the pressure slows down your brain–times a thousand.

Keep it sane

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