Neuroscience of horror movies

Fear protects organisms by increasing vigilance and preparedness, and by coordinating survival responses during life-threatening encounters. We recently investigated the brain basis of acute and sustained fear using “neurocinematics” approach combining detailed movie analysis and state-of-the-art neuroimaging at Turku PET Centre.

What did we do?

Our brave volunteers (n = 37) viewed two horror movies (The Conjuring 2 and Insidious) in the MRI scanner while their haemodynamic brain activity was measured. Viewing horror movies in the MRI is quite an engaging experience, as you are all alone in the small tube and cannot see out, and the movie is shown via goggles just in the front of your eyes. Participants also rated their fear throughout the movies, and the “jump scare” events in the movies were annotated. This allowed modelling of brain responses to both acute and sustained fear. The full report published in NeuroImage may can be read here.

What did we find?

Viewing both movies resulted in time-locked brain activity across the subjects in both sensory cortex and in the dorsal attention circuit, but also in limbic and paralimbic emotion circuits. This synchronisation was consistent across both movies, and its magnitude was greatest in the early sensory areas and weaker in the frontal cortex. Synchronization also became stronger in the cingulate and somatosensory cortices as well as the midbrain during scary episodes of the movies.

Acute fear (“jump scares) increased activity in brainstem, thalamus, amygdala and cingulate cortices, whereas sustained suspense amplified mainly sensory responses. Again, the results were similar for both movies. These data suggest that there is dynamic engagement of different survival circuits in the brain depending on the proximity of the fear.

How did we choose the horror movies?

There exists a large library of horror movies, and we did not choose The Conjuring 2 and Insidious randomly. Instead, we decided to investigate the horror cinema genre in more detail. To that end, we set up a comprehensive horror movie study, where we gathered ratings for a set of 100 popular mainstream horror movies. The movies were pre-selected based on their IMDd ratings, and a total of 216 filmoholics evaluated the movies based on their scariness, quality, and popularity. Number of jump scares per movie were obtained from wheresthejump database that contains timings of jump scares in horror movies. We also gathered data on how often people watch horror movies, and what types of horror is scariest.

If you want fo find out how well your favourite horror movies scored, see the table below. You can sort the based on different ratings by clicking on the column headers, or you can search for a specific movie using the search field. This way you can see that, for example, that Evil Dead 2 contains the largest umber fo jump scares (27), that the all-time scariest movie is The Devil’s Backbone (8.5 / 10) and that pretty much everyone who completed the questionnaire had seen The Shining (81% of respondents).

TitleYearHave seen thisHavent seen but have heard of itNot seen nor heard of itScaryQualityJump scares
The Devil's Backbone20014.26.389.68.5104
The Wailing20162.18.389.6894
The Conjuring201339.631.329.27.57.512
REC 2200910.429.
The Exorcist19735323.223.87.1710
Goodnight Mommy20154.210.485.4781
A Chinese Ghost Story19871.
The Conjuring 2201637.53131.577.322
Under The Shadow20162.114.683.3779
The Ring200261.931.56.576.59
The Shining198081.312.
The Night Of The Hunter19554.
We Are What We Are20136.38.385.46.56.8-
Paranormal Activity200751.835.
The Orphanage200733.333.333.36.46.86
The Silence Of The Lambs199154.231.514.36.48.60
A Nightmare On Elm Street198447.937.514.66.46.611
The Descent200514.91966.16.26.816
The Others200127.425.6476.27.84
28 Days Later…200227.425.6476.16.410
Train To Busan (Bu-San-Haeng)2016320.276.8674
The Innocents19612.122.975664
The Witch201610.
It Follows201429.220.8505.96.75
Rosemary's Baby196826.227.446.45.86.70
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre197435.
The Woman In Black201222.927.1505.76.416
Don't Breathe201615.521.463.15.77.117
The Babadook201433.32541.75.75.911
The Ring 2200535.456.38.35.6511
Lights Out201620.829.2505.65.819
The Vanishing (Spoorloos)1988320.
The House Of The Devil200910.416.772.95.66.24
10 Cloverfield Lane201617.323.
Dead Of Night19456.312.581.35.37.7-
The Haunting19638.329.
The Fly198633.322.943.85.26.42
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers19569.52268.55.16.3-
Night Of The Living Dead196817.341.741.15.16.3-
The Mist200737.52537.55.16.75
Eyes Without A Face19604.216.779.259-
Green Room20166.322.970.857.51
Don't Look Now19737.
Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer19868.322.968.84.77-
Shin Godzilla2016336.360.74.66.3-
I Walked With A Zombie19431.
The Cabin In The Woods201241.735.422.94.56.613
The Girl With All The Gifts201637.
The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari19204.211.384.54.46.5-
What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?19627.726.
Pan's Labyrinth200636.921.441.74.36.86
Drag Me To Hell200927.118.854.24.3523
An American Werewolf In London198113.72561.34.15.514
Evil Dead 2198713.729.
Bone Tomahawk20154.212.583.344.50
A Field In England20142.18.389.649-
28 Weeks Later…200714.631.354.246.617
Cat People19423.616.
Let Me In201010.72267.33.96.53
World War Z201328.641.729.83.86.27
Nosferatu The Vampire192212.552.135.43.86-
I Am Legend200733.337.529.23.65.59
Ginger Snaps20005.48.985.73.64.3-
Fright Night198516.727.
Let The Right One In2008252.
Donnie Darko200431.314.654.23.37.53
The Bride Of Frankenstein19358.354.237.534.7-
The Host20067.
Phantom Of The Opera192522.960.416.72.86.7-
Dead Alive19925.419.6752.76.23
King Kong193326.858.314.92.65.1-
Attack The Block201110.
Under The Skin20134.216.779.222.5-
What We Do In The Shadows20145.410.783.916-
Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary20032.127.170.816-
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night20142.116.781.3110
Vampyr - Der Traum Des Allan Grey19322.110.487.516-