“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, if you were in a horror movie you wouldn’t be as smart as you think. Now there are a few exceptions to this rule, but mostly these exceptions are arguments over poor strategy and not over intelligence. 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 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 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 drive down horror movie psychology lane 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 humans in these extreme moments of fright – (and then I promise the post will get interesting again).
The amgydala is the brain’s threat center. When danger appears there are signals sent to this area of the brain along a short path and a long path. On the short path we don’t necessarily need to know “what” the danger is, as the brain immediately begins to process the “fear response preparation,”- translation – fight or flight. On the longer path, information is sent to the visual cortex area where we can then rationally validate “it” as a threat or tell the amgydala to “stand down.” This is a rather important feature because without it, you’d run like a rabbit every time you got scared. After the “event” a third key process takes place – memory. The incident is committed to memory and that memory will later be used to determine if a particular “thing” is dangerous or not on a future encounter…and this last process is the biggest reason why you will probably die in a horror movie. Let’s show that stuff in motion.
1. You’ve never seen this film before: The characters in a horror movie have never seen that movie. 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 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 man with a knife is watching you from the 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: Okay but even if you have seen every horror movie ever made you still suffer from Optimism Bias. OB is the belief that “nothing bad” will happen to you…that it all works out. And the younger you are, the higher your amounts of bias. Which is why teens engage in riskier behavior than forty year olds. Without this bias you’d never take a chance, most likely never leave the house and would probably be in need of psychological intervention. 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 the optimism bias…those things won’t happen to you. Even if you heard a noise in that 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), but the long path returns us to “rational thought” which has no room to allow a “horror story” to be real. So you assume that there is not a devil clown in your closet or a clawed beast beneath your bed…or a psycho with a knife watching you read this blog. People in horror movies are the same. This is process three in action. We hear loud noises and strange sounds all the time. But our experience has taught us that “there is no danger” and thus after the initial “fright” we “get a hold” of ourselves and dismiss it. So even if right at this moment you are the star of a horror movie, you don’t know it… and we will miss you dearly.
4. No theme music: Films are filled with creepy music. The music sets the viewer’s expectation and it begins the amgydala’s fear preparation (because memory reminds us that creepy music means scary scenes and something is about to happen). Of course the characters do not enjoy the same notice. To return to the guy in your closet with the knife…if the Halloween theme music started playing in your room, you’d run your ass off…but it’s not so you are still just sitting there with your back to a killer…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, 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 and pretty much on the road to have 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 and while you can decrease the freeze time you can’t prevent it. The brain demands a 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 makes you breath heavy in order to oxygenate that blood. And guess what…that heavy breathing really attracts demons. And while all of those “Run! Live! I don’t want to die! Mommie 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 how to get out of a horror situation. The problem is that it won’t matter. When you’re in that situation, you’re going to do all the stupid things all the other 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 1400 words? No. Hmmm. Not so smart after all. I think you are about to be victim number one.