Publication Date

April 2019


Scott Higgins


English (United States)


The paradox of horror is such that we enjoy horror films, while finding fear otherwise aversive. This work aims to answer the questions of why and how we enjoy horror films through the perspectives of psychology and neuroscience. First, we explore the brain’s fear response and reward system, and how they interact with each other. Though the amygdala is known to play a large role in fear response, it also responds to reward. Similarly, some parts of the reward system respond to stress. I propose that fear becomes a rewarding and exhilarating experience when we experience it in the safe context of our movie theater seats. Next, we look at horror scenes and the genre as a whole. The jump scare is at the heart of the contemporary horror film. Through the lens of neuroscience, I discuss the factors that make some scares terrifying and exhilarating, while other scares do not land. Though the jump scares are often the scenes that we remember for years after watching a film, they make up a small portion of a film’s runtime. I also provide neurological and psychological accounts of our enjoyment of narrative, suspense, and atmospheric horror, among other essential components of the horror film. Finally, I present two cases of fear interacting with other emotional experiences to generate positive affect. Sex and horror have been linked since the early days of horror with Nosferatu (1922). Comedy-horrors are a successful subgenre, despite the apparent incompatibility of laughter and fear. Interdisciplinary studies between the arts and science have the ability to better illuminate ideas than either discipline alone. A stronger understanding of neuroscience and psychology can make for more effective horror films. The case of our enjoyment of fear in the safe context of horror films shines clearer light on psychopathologies that involve dysfunctions of our fear or reward systems. In all, this thesis serves to remind us that fear does not have to be so deeply feared. Fear can be felt as a positive experience in the right circumstances.



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