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“Horror, Dreams and Subconscious Survival –Why Your Brain is a Horror Fan”

By Late Mitchell Warren Jun 23, 2008

“It’s what we call a matte painting, it’s a camera trick, it’s nothing. Nothing but a dream. Today you have the chance to let the dream triumph.” –The Fake Orson Welles (“RKO 281”) 

For as long as civilization has existed, man has sought to find meaning in dreams. From the magic practicers of Egypt to the primitive witch-scientists of Greece, human beings have always viewed their nighttime dreams as soul-defining, life-altering or even productive behavioral therapy. We assign meaning to our dreams, assuming they are messages from God, or secret, underlying motivations of our character. Modern psychology has also attempted to ascertain the meaning of dreams—first through Freud and his theory of dreams as “wish fulfillment”, to Jung who believed dreams are representations of a person’s unconscious, to modern researchers like Antti Revonsuo and Keith Stevens, who suggested that dreams are partly biological instinct, as if the human being exercises self-defense strategies in these dreams to prepare for real-life complications. 

Today, people still dream, and thanks to modern technology we can all share the same dream, the same vision, however paradisiacal or haunting, through the miracle of cinema. And just as nightmares torment us during times of great duress, so too do horror movies gnaw at our conscious and subconscious mind. In many cases, long after the final credits roll. These are our shared nightmares; in some cases, they are the subconscious riddles we try to figure out. Sometimes these cinema nightmares are beyond explanation and exist only as visceral, almost astral like visions of an alternate reality, particularly with horror/surrealist film directors like David Lynch or even Terry Gilliam. These dreams are unexplained, and therein lies their terror, their perversity, their doomsday portent.

Sometimes these movie dreams are literal, convergent, and very specific about the terrors we face in life. William Friedkin paints a vivid, disturbing portrait of elements and sometimes entities that demand conflict with humanity or perhaps human nature. Postmodernist Lars Von Trier makes his allusions, his worries, and his darkest fears obscenely literal, naked, and parable-inspired in their grating volume. Meanwhile, even cinema SFX virtuosos like Zach Snyder, Ryan Murphy, and Scott Stewart manage to create Frankenstein-esque compilations of older horror movie archetypes mixed together to create a new vision. 

Indeed, a well-crafted horror film can feel like a nightmarish dream to us. At worst, it can keep our attention for two hours and involve us in the continuing plot. At best, it can literally affect a person’s comfort level and health—perhaps introducing him or her to such shocking visuals that the viewer faints in his theatre seat (The Exorcist) or even rushes to police officials in a state of paranoia, assuming that the violence depicted on screen was authentic (Guinea Pig and Cannibal Holocaust). Some viewers may even feel so repulsed at an idea—a mere thought in this cinema dream—that they could reevaluate their entire viewpoint on morality, on entertainment, and on life.

And of course, horror film auteurs, authors and critics are curious as to what these wizards use to create such vivid dreams, such worldwide phenomenon. Is it truly the skill of a technician who knows how to master timing, creature effects, editing and camera work, or sound mixing techniques, or could it be something deeper driving our fear—something instinctual, subconscious, or even spiritual? For that matter, why do one movie’s nightmares stick with us for a lifetime while another’s is quickly forgotten?

Haunting Visuals

One of the most often cited and supposed motivators in creating horror is that of the gore level, the haunting visuals of violence that shock, offend, and upset the senses. Conservative groups will typically point to the level of violence as the determinant in classifying movies as truly evil, vile, or lurid. Movies like The Evil Dead even promote the idea that gore is horror since the film was once called “the ultimate experience in grueling horror” and its modern remake’s tagline was “the most terrifying film you will ever experience.”

Several years ago, a study on imagery was published in Japan, specifically discussing functional magnetic resonance imaging and the effects of shocking images on the human brain. The term fMRI refers to an MRI procedure that measures a person’s brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow. When part of the brain is being used, blood flow increases to that section. In “fMRI Measurement of Brain Activity in Viewing Movies” (published by Reports of the Toyota Physical and Chemical Research Institute and written by Makoto Suzuki), images from movies were shown to subjects three times, 50 seconds at a time. Due to the nature of this science, statistical comparisons were required. The changes in blood flow were always dramatic but rather recurring. Thus, large numbers of sampling data, based on multiple MRI runs, were used to develop patterns of how stimuli affected subjects.

In simple terms, the complex experiment (involving EPI or Echo Planer Imaging technology) determined that the results were accurate by creating a control system of a DVD movie in an on and off state (blue screen). In contrast to the “off” state, images did produce traceable, measurable differences in brain activity. Landscape images as well as movie scenes were used in the study. What was discovered was that although landscape images and movie scenes did produce similar results in brain activity, the area of concentrated activity was slightly moved to the front of the brain during the movie excerpts. The theory is that this front section of heavy activity symbolizes the associative visual cortex. 

Movie excerpts included different genres of films such as horror films, stock footage of landscapes, and action movies. Technically speaking, action movie scenes triggered the most brain activity, presumably since it required greater visual cognitive function. Horror movie scenes shown to subjects and measured produced not only greater brain activity for visual cognitive function but also showed greater activity in the right frontal lobe of the brain. The belief is that the more action occurring strains the brain and thus demands higher cognitive processes in the associative visual cortex. However, the greatest frontal lobe activity in subjects only occurred during horror movie scenes. What explains this phenomenon? 

Scientifically speaking, the frontal lobe is often found working in conjunction with important day-to-day brain activities such as thought, attention, and emotion. The front part is also thought to be the highest order in the brain’s neural network, and not so coincidentally is also connected to working memory as well as decision-making based on memory storage. At first glance, this only reveals the obvious: subjects were paying closer attention to the footage during horror movie scenes—even when compared to action movie scenes. In contrast, landscape footage only seemed to evoke activity in the visual cortex, not the front or right part of the brain, or in the important hippocampus area, which was only active in action and horror. Therefore on closer inspection, the ability to take in strong visuals is clearly not the determining factor in the study.

The fact that the hippocampus part of the brain was more active for horror film scenes than action films suggests that memory and emotion had to be involved—the missing piece of the riddle. What appears to be the case is that what the subjects were seeing in these horror film excepts (beyond mere visuals) was manipulating emotions of fear, disgust, and similar feelings which alerted the hippocampus area. Not surprisingly upon being interviewed, most subjects indicated that the horror film footage left a greater, lasting impression upon them.

What this indicates to us, as a whole, as a species (and the only species who can watch simulated death scenes with our friends and thoroughly enjoy it) is that scenes of horror, of death, of general misery, invokes greater brain activity because it’s far more than visual. Therefore, to say that gory images are what makes horror movies scary might be deceptively simplistic. What we are responding to is the emotion, the feelings of the scene. 

While the results of the test are dramatic they only seem to raise more questions as to the psychology of horror, as separates from the purely visual spectacle. For one thing, how can subjects in a study be expected to understand horror scenes in context? The context of a scene (the setup, establishment, characters, place, mood, etc.) plays a major part in determining our reactions to what occurs next. As an example, Cannibal Holocaust is a classic horror film that could very easily be misunderstood when viewed as a collection of random scenes rather than the entire context of the story—which was a satire, a fourth-wall-breaking pseudo-snuff film that actually inspired later fare like The Blair Witch Project. How can people be expected to care about or become emotionally involved with characters when randomly occurring violent or disturbing scenes are all we have to analyze? The entire movie is what creates the final stimuli; the combination of visual, aural, and psychological complications, which produce relatable pathos and fear. However, how do filmmakers actually invoke fear, beyond the visual recreation of violence?

The Power of Suggestion

Within the visual realm, undoubtedly a moderate part of the process is the power of suggestion. Much has already been written about the rule that suggests “we are more afraid of invisible or unseen threats than the physical monster.” We dread a creepy serial killer who stays in the darkness. We feel uneasy discussing a powerful demon or a ghostly sighting, and yet we tend to breathe a sigh of relief when the “killer” is revealed to be good old Kevin Spacey, or the monster is little more than a CGI Lucas Production animated character. What is known, what is proven, can oftentimes compromise the imagination of the audience, who is following the filmmaker’s prompt to prepare for the unexpected.

Indeed, we instinctively fear what we don’t understand. And this is observable in all nature, in all social circles, and all branches of human relationships, from homophobia, to political paranoia, to distrust of other people and countries not our own, to deviant or underground “niche” sexual behavior, or encountering societies with an entirely different set of values than what the society around us perceives as “normal.” (Err…sort of like in Cannibal Holocaust, which would probably not be as disturbing a movie to cannibals who are also cinema buffs)

When we understand some aspect of life or another person’s life that we previously did not know, then our instinctive fear is calmed. On the other hand, when we are deprived of information, our instincts, our intuitions, are ultra-sensitive. We feel fear more deeply. The power of suggestion is one of cinema’s greatest tools for unnerving audiences. Whenever the audience is enthralled with the atmosphere, the implication of evil, they tend to see what they want to see, and no doubt their brains are hard-at-work processing information for what lay ahead. This is the same reason why people often prefer the novel instead of the movie. Words inspire powerful visuals, haunting scenes, ghastly images. When filmmakers try to create something concrete, a distinct image for you to concentrate on, it is usually something less dreadful than your own panicky imagination.

A report from the BBC on Brain Story, went so far as to suggest that the human brain is “constantly distorting” the information we receive from the stimuli around us. Using our imagination, we tend to take mental shortcuts for faster-decision making and create pictures, thoughts and impressions—not necessarily based on what we see, but based on memory, on past experiences which taught us how to react, how to feel, and in some cases what to see in our mind’s eye. Rather than rebuild everything we see in the present from scratch, the brain finds it useful to fill in the blanks with memories of previous experiences. And this makes sense in horror, since we often react emotionally, viscerally, to what we imagine—not what the filmmaker explicitly creates as a visual effect.

Horror as Survival of the Fittest 

Of course, there are multiple aspects of psychology that could factor into the making of a “good” horror film, as opposed to the B-movie phenomenon, as many interpretations as there are teachers, as many theories as there are the Freuds and Jung’s among us who love to dissect dreams to their basest form. 

Culture and cinema have to be considered, particularly in discussing horror movies viewed within proper context—the subtle differences in national, ethnic, and religious cultures. After all, the Japanese study didn’t even report what movies were viewed, nor take into consideration Japanese cinema as a whole, which has some linguistically, visually, and anecdotally different elements from western culture in general. Here’s a curiosity of horror cinema; the “All Work and No Play” quote from The Shining was actually translated into a number of different unique sentences for its release in other countries. Kubrick likely knew that context is everything and culture shapes context. However, that is for tomorrow’s discussion. 

What the brain studies conclusively show horror fans today is that our brains are most active during horror movies because they have something to teach us. Much like dream interpretation has been linked to survival instincts, a biological function, by many great psychoanalysts, so too do we see that horror films provoke us to into a state of defensive, survivalist caution. We cease going on auto-pilot and instead concentrate on the conflict presented to us. We live vicariously through the protagonists and sharpen our own instincts for various situations. 

Isn’t it true that the emotional drive of a horror movie is to activate the primitive fear system in the viewer? Mainstream viewers really don’t love gore that much, or else Evil Dead’s remake (full of blood fountains, hacked carcasses, self-mutilation and zombie vomit) would be the top-grossing film of all time. We’re not usually asking for a multiplication of the gore we’ve already seen. (The sadism-torture pornography niche genre is another discussion altogether) Rather we emotionally connect to the fear we observe other characters having. The horror of the film is thus not the act that happens to the screaming young lady (which could be anything from rape to murder to simply chasing her around the house wearing a mask) but how the act affects her emotionally. Very few horror films simply show death as a fast, painless, and matter-of-fact event. Instead, they show torture, suffering and despair, and narrow escape–followed by gradual resolution. The buildup and release of tension, the sudden movements, and sounds, are what we respond to emotionally because we are mentally living the situation.

It’s also no coincidence that some of the best modern horror movies are stories in which the protagonists are intelligent, have smart instincts, and don’t exacerbate the horrible situation by doing something stupid. As an example, compare movies with increasing levels of stupidity and dumber protagonists:

  • Wolf Creek, a movie in which the only helpful person across miles and miles of nowhere was a maniacal killer. An innocent person would either die at his hands or die from dehydration in the wilderness. 
  • Strangers: A couple is assaulted by random thugs who anticipate their defenses, and toy with their emotions before unleashing violence. With no policeman immediately available, and killers who anticipate what you might do to stop their assault, there are not a lot of options.
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie in which teens were only averagely bright, choosing to pick up a random hitchhiker, split away from a group, invade a creepy looking house, and trust the first gas station attendant they find. Not the work of a survivalist, but fairly in character with what real teens might do on any given day. 
  • Scream, a postmodern horror-comedy with elements of both genres, in which several characters are dim-witted, and only a handful, have smart instincts. They all die according to the fate of the “story”, the contrived horror screenplay, first imaged by Wes Craven and company, and rewritten facetiously to break the fourth wall by Kevin Williamson.
  • Lastly, the film Scary Movie, which makes the protagonists and the villains so outrageously dumb and in and out of character that all horror is sacrificed to the point where it becomes comedy.

Good horror films emotionally involve you by activating your imagination, manipulating your feelings and sympathies, and drawing out your survival instincts, preparing you for the worst possible scenario in which you may manage to survive and escape danger. Biologically speaking, there is no advantage to activate your survival instincts at a lower level of brain activity because you would most likely die if you really were in danger and acted so complacently. Instead, your brain is very active during these emotionally intense scenes, since your problem-solving areas of the brain are working hard, formulating plans, and strategizing well beyond what you do when you’re asleep.

It’s not merely a sympathy we feel for the characters we watch. Rather, we evaluate their survival plans, adapt and improve the strategy, finally preparing ourselves for our own dilemmas. Even when you relax and eat popcorn, the scientific fact shows that your brain is trying to find a way out of trouble through prefrontal cortex activity, which works on solutions based on these presented scenarios.

The only real difference between our own personal dreams and the commercial or independent films we adore is that personal dreams are a necessity—something the body does for practice involuntarily. Movies are more like “shared dreams” resulting from the collaboration of a number of artists creating this vivid, vicarious scenario. And as we learned from the study, it’s not only the visual/aural element we analyze but also the knowledge base of our own memories, our own individual pasts, which helps to complete the experience for our mind.

How Brain Processes Affect the Creative Process

When developing horror, film directors and writers not only seek to establish emotional connections with the protagonist during Act I but also choreograph dangerous situations for the audience to live through the character and face their biggest fear. Many modern directors, perhaps marginally talented or new and inexperienced (depending on who your personal favorites are) will only really scratch the surface of psychological horror, by merely presenting an unknown monster, a shadowed villain. They have mastered the “tease”, the dance of the genre, but only succeed in dressing up a clichéd, commercial, modular, and fabricated monster like we’ve seen before.

However, impressionist directors, virtuosos, and the most powerful voices in cinema history have always probed deeper—they not only fire up our imaginations, nor do they merely activate our survival instincts. They go one step further and learn our fears, by assimilating our culture, observing the behavioral patterns of our species, and ultimately, seeking to understand what is irrational, what doesn’t deserve logical comprehension. The greats of yesterday—Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch—were men capable of more than camera tricks. They explored creative sadism, penetrating the human psyche deep enough to find what was truly misunderstood and thus fear—what was well beyond the comprehension of decent people.

Their dreams, their nightmares, were all the more memorable—traumatic even—because they didn’t offer much in the way of escape. In Stanley’s case, the mercy of the monster was sometimes the only chance a character had of surviving—a jarring idea to the brain, indeed! The brain is and has always been working so hard to come up with survivalist solutions, to predict the future (real or simulated), and to protect the body from harm. Often times in horror that defensive self-preserving process utterly fails.

Truly, these incidents are the nightmares we remember the most, the mad flirtations with certain death and unspeakable pain that we’re still trying to forget so many years later. 

By Late Mitchell Warren

Author, "The End of the Magical Kingdom”, a Parody, Satire & Psychological Horror book series.

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