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This is Your Brain On Horror

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Nothing annoys me more than hearing people describe watching movies as a “brainless” activity—as if it involves somehow turning off your brain’s circuitry and relying solely on your eyeballs to coast through the movie’s run time. Plot twist: your brain is very much involved, engaged, and making the experience for you. Nothing makes this engagement more apparent than watching horror movies, where the filmmakers are crafting scares with your brain’s and body’s most likely reactions in mind.

Let’s start with a scene that appears in almost every horror flick ever made. Our protagonist is home alone at night, and the house is dark. They hear sounds they can’t explain, so they investigate. They go into a dark hallway and see a door at the end, slightly ajar. The room beyond is hidden by darkness. Is there something on the other side of the door? As the protagonist slowly makes their way forward, it’s so quiet that you can hear every breath and floorboard creak. The movie score is starting to creep up in volume. Your eyes scan every shadow and black corner of the hallway in case something might be hiding there, but it’s still too dark to be sure. We see something like apprehension on the protagonist’s face as they reach for the doorknob and jump back suddenly! to a musical sting as a cat streaks out of the room. Of course! It was the cat making those strange sounds— because cats are nocturnal weirdos that get bored and race around the house at night, knocking things off of shelves and doing whatever it is that cats do. The protagonist is relieved, laughing off their paranoia as they bend down to scoop up their pet. But in the next shot, they stand up, cat in their arms, and we see that a monster has appeared right behind them.

There’s a lot to unpack in this scene. The elements of fear, horror, and shock are all there, and are definitely being experienced by the character on-screen. When it comes to you as a moviegoer, your mileage may vary in terms of how much you experience each while you watch the scene play out.

When we look at what gives any good horror movie its true horror vibe, we end up with two distinct elements: terror and horror. We often use these terms interchangeably, but they are very different. Terror is where tension lives. It’s that awful, creepy-crawly feeling, the anxiety and anticipation that builds toward a horrifying event or realization— basically, it’s the heebie-jeebies. Horror is how we react once that event actually occurs. We can thank Ann Radcliffe, mother of Gothic literature, for those definitions.

To tweak Radcliffe’s vocabulary a little bit, I’m going to roll terror and all of the other pre-horror emotions into one and call it fear. We know fear. We experience fear all of the time as a mechanism to protect us from a Bad Thing that might happen.

Horror is the result of the Bad Thing happening.

It’s not surprising to know that fear is a useful tool. It keeps us alive. If you’re feeling fear in a dangerous situation, you’re more likely to problem-solve, try to put space between yourself and that situation, or be more cautious and avoid getting into that dangerous situation in the first place.

Fear is such a useful tool that some fears stick around for generations. A great example of an evolved fear is a common one: fear of the dark. Tool use and technology have created a world where humans have no natural predators, but if we turn the clocks far enough back on our history, we quickly find that we weren’t always at the top of the food chain. A theory for why humans are afraid of the dark stems from this history: many predators, like large wild cats, prefer to attack at nighttime. This also happens to be when human eyesight is at its worst. Fundamentally, we lack a shiny layer of tissue at the back of our eyeballs called the tapetum lucidum, which reflects light and allows for better night vision. It’s also why many animals have glowing eyes in photos taken with a flash, whereas humans are prone instead to “red eye,” thanks to light bouncing off our blood vessel–rich retinas. Humans who were more fearful of the dark were more likely to stay somewhere safe during the night to avoid predation; whereas fearless humans might have been more likely to do something reckless, like venturing out at night with limited vision.

This fear may not be especially useful today, with our lack of predators and abundance of light, but it seems to have been conserved over generations. A small 2012 study performed by Colleen Carney at Ryerson University in Toronto subjected a group of good and poor sleepers to random bursts of white noise while they were either in a well-lit room or in the dark. In general, greater startle responses were recorded in the dark than in full light, and poor sleepers reported much more discomfort than their peers who have few problems snoozing. Discomfort is an important, if subjective, descriptor here: while it’s pretty common to hear people say that they’re afraid of the dark, it’s not typically a screaming sort of fear. What’s most commonly reported is a sense of uneasiness and foreboding when surrounded by darkness.

Filmmakers use this uneasy feeling to their advantage, often using dark color palettes and even darker corners to mask all sorts of ghouls, killers, demons, and other threats at the edges of the frame. If you’ve ever found yourself scanning the blackest parts of the screen for even a hint of something nefarious, it’s this evolved fear, coupled expertly with your basic understanding of horror movie tropes, at work.

The first thing to remember is that fear lives in your brain. We can experience more than one type of fear, and there is evidence for more than one kind of fear pathway in the brain. Many of them (but not all!) are grouped together in what’s known as the limbic system. There isn’t perfect consensus on which brain parts get to be included in the limbic system, but in general these areas are thought to be where the bulk of our emotions are processed.

Let’s go back to our horror protagonist, who’s just heard a strange noise. The limbic structures that we’re concerned with in this scenario include the amygdala, the hypothalamus, and the hippocampus.

The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure buried deep in each of the temporal lobes of your brain. The amygdalae are key to decoding many emotional responses, including the famed fight-or-flight response. It’s also linked to storing and processing fear-related information and fear memories. In 1994, researcher Ralph Adolphs and his team investigated disorders that caused lesions that affected the amygdala. What they found was that these people tended to have a tougher time recognizing and interpreting fearful expressions on other people’s faces. Interestingly, this same study found that the recognition of other emotions, like happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, and disgust, wasn’t affected. The amygdala is generally accepted as the primary brain center for fear processing, but even the amygdala might send signals along different circuits depending on whether the input is related to fear of pain, versus fear of a predator, versus fear of an attack by another human, and so on.

The hippocampus also plays a role in storing and retrieving memories, not to mention providing context to content. It is named for its shape, which looks like a seahorse’s curled-up tail (or, as I prefer to think of it, a jellyroll). The hippocampus and amygdala are the parts that will, consciously or unconsciously, compare the strange noise to memory and help our protagonist decide whether it might belong to a threat. The hypothalamus is the link between your brain and your body’s hormones. It controls functions like thirst, appetite, fatigue, and more by producing signaling hormones that trigger other parts of the brain and body to release whatever other hormones are needed to suit a task—kind of like a hormonal relay system. The amygdala may be responsible for the famed fight-or-flight response, but it’s the hypothalamus that sends the signal to the amygdala that activates that response.

These three limbic structures aren’t the only parts of the brain in play in our protagonist’s scenario. As they make their way down the hallway, our protagonist tries to keep their fear in check before it gets the better of them. The ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) is your brain’s go-to region for willpower or self-control. Trying to get a handle on curbing your feelings of fear or some other emotion? The VLPFC will help you out by inhibiting other regions like the amygdala. Meanwhile, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is actively taking stock of how much control you have over a situation and helps shape your stress response.

When the cat jumps out and startles our protagonist, this new input bypasses the limbic system completely and goes straight to reflex mode. The brainstem is responsible here; it skips a lot of the processing work that happens in the crinkly folds of the cerebral cortex. It’s responsible for a lot of automatic functions that you really shouldn’t have to think about, like breathing or keeping your heart beating or reflexively protecting yourself from something jumping out at you.

And then, of course, our protagonist has a monster to contend with.


Every horror film worth its salt has some sort of threat, whether real or imagined. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, dir. Wes Craven) has Freddy Krueger. Friday the 13th (1980, dir. Sean S. Cunningham) has Jason Voorhees (well, technically Jason Voorhees’s mom). The Blair Witch Project (1999, dirs. Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick) has, well, the Blair Witch. Luckily, human brains have built-in systems for dealing with threats. If we take the same scenario from the opening of this chapter, here’s the gist of what’s happening: from the very start of that scene, your brain is telling you that a threat might be present. Even if you logically know that you’re just watching a movie, your body is preparing for that threat, you know, just in case it’s real. As a viewer with your butt safely in a seat and outside of the action on-screen, you can recognize a scary situation and build up your own anticipation, which is half the fun of watching horror.

If you were in the protagonist’s shoes, though, you might actually feel afraid, and that’s not unusual. It would actually be useful for you to feel fear! After all, fear is a tool your brain uses to prepare you and your body to deal with a threat. If you aren’t feeling afraid yet, you are at the very least in an enhanced sensory state—vigilant, even. Your “thinking” brain takes a back seat to your senses. Everything you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch becomes crucial to identifying if potential threats are nearby.

The good news is, we’re really good at picking up on potential threats.

The good news is, we’re really good at picking up on potential threats. Oft-cited research such as that done by Sandra Soares at the University of Aveiro has found that threatening images—such as images of snakes—can trigger a threat response even when the images are flashed so quickly that the viewer might not be consciously aware that they saw the threat at all. This is in line with what’s known as the Snake Detection Theory, demonstrated in research where participants (even infants!) could more readily point out snakes in images than flowers. This particular theory goes on to suggest that humans have evolved to selectively fear threats like snakes, much in the same way that humans have evolved to fear the dark, as a way to avoid the risks associated with something that we might not see until it’s too late. Snakebites might not be a major threat these days, but the evolved adaptation—the ability to visually pick out potential threats—can still be useful.

It’s worth mentioning that threat detection isn’t limited to snakes. In general, threats like guns or spiders are also quickly spied and recognized by humans. People who can pick up on threats quickly are more likely to survive. In part, you can thank your amygdala for putting you on high alert. The amygdala is wickedly sensitive to anything novel. Humans are also extra receptive to things appearing in our peripheral vision. In fact, we may even be faster at reacting to threats that appear in our peripheral vision than to threats that appear right front of our faces. In one study, researchers measured brain area activation to images of fearful and neutral faces presented either in the peripheral or central visual fields, and they found that participants showed responses in their frontal lobes and deep right temporal lobes (including the amygdala) as early as 80 milliseconds after the fearful faces were shown in the peripheral vision. Compare that to fearful faces presented centrally: in this case, activity was sparked along a more classical visual pathway instead of in areas more directly tied to interpreting fear. Not only that, but this interpretation took nearly twice as long, about 140 to 190 milliseconds. We are not only processing stuff appearing in our peripheral vision before we’re really conscious of what we’re seeing, but we’re also more readily processing it as a threat.

Once the threat we’re fearing makes its appearance, we have a few ways in which we’re programmed to respond. You’ve probably heard of the fight-or-flight response before, a response famous for taking over your brain and body and getting you out of sticky situations, but fighting and fleeing aren’t the only Fs that help us deal with stress—and they aren’t even necessarily the first go-tos.

A few other Fs are often cited as common responses to threat: freeze, à la deer-in-headlights; fright, a.k.a. “playing possum”; and friend (also sometimes flirt or fawn), as in trying your darndest to engage and de-escalate the threat. Taken together, the Fs are sometimes referred to as the defense cascade model (although friend is often dropped).

The Fs explain a lot of the reactions we see in horror film characters. Sometimes it seems like a character on-screen is doing something incredibly stupid that you’d never do if you were in their situation, but even real people behave in sometimes unexpected ways when their brains are hijacked by fear.


In the home invasion slasher You’re Next (2011, dir. Adam Wingard), Erin (Sharni Vinson) finds herself in a position where she can’t easily run away or fight. She is trapped at her boyfriend’s family’s isolated house with no cell service, no living neighbors, and an injured leg, and she’s facing more than one armed would-be assassin. She is a clearheaded and decisive woman, well prepared by her childhood on a survivalist compound, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t afraid. By finding places to hide, she is able to not only uncover information about her attackers’ identities and motives, but to take stock of her surroundings, keep track of the threat, and plan ways to defend herself.

Tackling threats head-on or running away aren’t always the best courses of action when you’re in danger. Sometimes your best bet is to freeze, as if you’re trying to escape the T. rex from Jurassic Park (but not as if you’re trying to escape a regular T. rex, since all evidence points to these extinct predators actually having had good binocular vision whether you’re standing still or running for dear life, on top of having a super-keen sense of smell).

Freezing on the spot is also known as attentive immobility, and it’s often an instinctual first phase in a fear response. It’s triggered by the periaqueductal gray area of the brain when the noticed threat is interpreted, usually subconsciously, as not immediately pressing. The periaqueductal gray is gray matter that surrounds the cerebral aqueduct, a passage containing cerebrospinal fluid that protects the brain. This area is strongly linked to processing pain, and works closely with the amygdala in situations involving triggering fear responses, especially freezing, and in encoding fear memories.

Standing stock-still out in plain sight of your threat can have unexpected advantages. The whole goal of attentive immobility is in the name: your focus is on paying attention and gathering information about the threat while it’s still far enough away that you’re not in immediate danger (and to keep it as far away as possible). You may not be moving, but you’re far from passive. You’re in a state where you can track the threat’s movements and switch to fight mode or run away if it comes too close. As evidenced by a slew of horror movie death scenes, immediately running away instead of gathering more information can be a terrible choice when the risk of being noticed, overtaken, and attacked from behind are high and likely.

Of course, it’s ideal if you can freeze in a hiding spot, given that this way you can observe a potential attacker without them observing you right back. Horror movies often show a character hiding, usually around a corner or in a closet, a hand clasped over their mouth, trying to be as quiet as possible and bracing for the moment when they might be found out. In You’re Next, Erin hides in a basement stairwell, where she can listen unseen to the masked attackers as they argue and reveal details about their motives and potential weaknesses. As horror tropes go, when hiding characters are found out, it’s usually because an unplanned sound signals their location. In Erin’s case, her cell phone briefly gets service at the worst possible moment and she gets an alert that an emergency text message she sent out earlier was received.

In nature, deer get a lot of flak for instinctively freezing in the threat of oncoming traffic, but when fawns freeze in the underbrush when they sense a predator, the benefit is clear. Darting out suddenly to flee might give them a small advantage while the predator responds to the suddenness of the flight, just as Erin emerging suddenly from her hiding spot gives her the advantage of a surprise attack.

If the fear that freezes you is overwhelming, though, this whole process can fall apart by tipping your brain over into hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is when the attention response is amplified to the point where you’re scanning your environment randomly and rapidly, and you can’t think clearly enough about your options for survival.

A lot of formal features in films—of any genre, not just horror—trigger our orienting reflex and grab our attention.

There is another reflex related to attentive immobility, known as the orienting reflex, which kicks in before you’ve even decided there is something to be afraid of. The response was first described in Reflexes of the Brain, by Russian psychologist Ivan Sechenov, way back in 1863, but the term for it was coined later by Ivan Pavlov (the very same Pavlov who conditioned dogs to salivate when a bell was rung). The orienting reflex is what makes you go What was that? when something changes in the world around you and immediately yanks your attention to whatever it was you heard or saw or otherwise sensed. Once your attention is focused, you can decide how to respond (and if the stimulus is intense enough, your defense responses will be activated). It sounds similar to the freeze response, but the main difference is that the orienting reflex is prone to habituation, where the freeze response is much more resistant. This is the reason you can get used to the creaks and groans that your house makes, but you wouldn’t easily stop getting freaked out by gunshots outside your window.

A lot of formal features in films—of any genre, not just horror—trigger our orienting reflex and grab our attention. Features as simple as cuts, zooms, edits, and sudden noises are enough to set off our What was that? detectors, even if we’re not aware that it’s happening. Of course, in other movies, these features are innocuous. In horror films, these techniques are often cleverly deployed not only to grab our attention, but to warn us of the possibility of threat.

Now your body is primed to either run really fast or get scrappy.


Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) tried running away from Michael Myers—now she’s forced to fight him to protect not only herself, but the kids she’s babysitting in Halloween (1978, dir. John Carpenter). Toward the end of the film, Laurie shuts herself in a close-to-empty closet in a desperate attempt to hide, but the killer soon finds her. You can pinpoint the moment when fear takes over and she reaches for anything that will help her fight back. Her hands find a coat hanger, which she unwinds and stabs into Michael’s eye the moment he breaks through the closet door. When he drops his knife, she snatches it up without hesitation and stabs him in the chest. Only once he hits the ground does the fight seem to drain away from her, as she stumbles over to the bedroom exit to catch her breath against the doorframe.

At this point, we’re beyond the feeling that there might be a threat; the threat is present and you have to deal with it. Your brain must make a quick choice between telling you to run away or to face the threat and fight. Unless your plan is to stay in a hiding spot (if that’s where you’re frozen), the shift between freeze and either fight or flight will take seconds, if not milliseconds. You’ve taken in as much information as you can, which the thalamus in your brain processes to send signals off to the necessary areas, including the amygdala. The amygdala triggers the hypothalamus, which directs a cascade of chemicals and hormones to flood through the brain and body. This wash of hormones signals another part of the brain, the pituitary gland, to produce a hormone called ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone), which in turn signals the adrenal glands on your kidneys to produce the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline and noradrenaline).

Epinephrine and norepinephrine get your heart racing, and direct blood flow away from less crucial parts of your body, like your skin, to prepare your muscles for action. It may seem redundant to have both epinephrine and norepinephrine do the same thing, but it’s better to have a backup plan (or hormone) than to not, right? Once that initial surge of epinephrine subsides, the hypothalamus initiates phase two of the stress response, which regroups the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands—also referred to as the HPA axis—with the end goal of releasing cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol works to increase blood sugar levels and give you an extra boost of energy; it also curbs other functions that aren’t big contributors to your immediate survival, like digesting food.

This is your sympathetic nervous system in action. Your sympathetic nervous system is one part of your autonomic nervous system, which manages involuntary processes that keep you alive. The sympathetic nervous system’s main role is fight-or-flight arousal. The other part of the autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, takes care of activity when the body is safe and at rest (“feed and breed” and “rest and digest” sound like ideal living compared with “fight or flight”). Cortisol is what keeps the gas pedal pressed down on the sympathetic nervous system during a threat response, keeping the body on high alert. The parasympathetic nervous system takes over once cortisol levels drop after the threat passes.

People in fight mode are capable of all sorts of blind violence once their conscious, “thinking” brain has given over control to the periaqueductal gray. They will use any weapon and inflict any injury they can. This is true across species: insects will bite, sting, and release toxic secretions; birds will peck and scratch; mammals will fight tooth and claw (and hoof and horn)—and humans will punch and kick and stab at eyeballs with coat hangers. This impulsive, purely reactive fighting can save your life, but it can also be mindless and difficult to control. It’s not unusual for the fight to go on long after the threat has ended.


Even in a state of pure terror, Sally Hardesty  (Marilyn Burns) knows better than to try to square off against a chain saw in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper), especially when said chain saw is wielded by someone much larger and physically stronger. After she sees her boyfriend get sawed through, her mind flips into escape mode. She may not be able to fight back effectively against Leatherface, or any of her other attackers in the film, and she’s too scared to plan a clever escape, but she can easily outrun her threats. In the end, running is what saves her.

In many cases, the best option is to run away. By putting as much distance as possible between you and a threat, you’re getting yourself out of range of a physical attack and, ideally, removing yourself to a safer spot where you won’t get killed by a man with a chain saw.

Your brain and body prepare you for flight in the same way that they prepare you to fight: the difference is mostly context. If you have a potential escape route, and if your threat is closing in, your brain yields control to the periagueductal gray, and the adrenaline that’s flooding your body and prepping your muscles will send you running.

Researchers have been able to simulate flight brain activity in lab settings with a Pac-Man-like game (which is much easier and more ethical than, say, wielding a knife and chasing participants around a building). When the participants were caught by a predator in-game, they received mild electric shocks. The participants’ functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans saw activity in the prefrontal cortex when the predator was a safe distance away, which means that the participants were taking stock of the situation. When the predator got nearer, metabolism shifted over to the periaqueductal gray, triggering flight.

It’s important to remember that adrenaline gives you a boost; it doesn’t give you superpowers. Despite the stories you hear of mothers getting adrenaline rushes that let them lift cars off their trapped children and demonstrate Incredible Hulk–like superstrength, this isn’t something we have empirical evidence for. What’s more likely is that something in the cocktail of hormones surging through your body is causing an analgesic effect, blunting the strain and screaming pain that you would usually feel when pushing your body to its limits. Another benefit of adrenaline is better eyesight, thanks to your pupils dilating to let in more light. In these moments, nothing is more important than trying to survive.

But how long can the fight-or-flight rush really carry you? We understand the pathways of the adrenaline rush, but research has done little in the way of quantifying it. In horror movies, victims seem like they might run forever until they’re done in by tripping over a stray branch. In real life, every person has a different capacity for intense physical activity—like running for your life—and there will also be slight variations in how fast each person’s body breaks down or metabolizes adrenaline. What we do know is that adrenaline recruits more muscle fibers and the nerves that control them than are normally used at once, and it is the rare extreme fight-or-flight situation where all of these motor units would be called into action. So, whatever your personal capacity, you can be confident that your body will try its darndest to get you out of a life-or-death situation until you reach the point of physical exhaustion.

Post-threat, this boost of hormones usually tapers off quickly enough, and that’s the ideal scenario. In cases where people experience chronic stress, these hormones (cortisol in particular) can take their toll on the body. In the crush of fight or flight, most of your body processes are disrupted in some way to divert your energy into survival mode. As you can imagine, a long-term disruption can be super damaging to all areas of your health. Long-term stress manifests symptoms ranging from sleep problems like insomnia and mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, to digestive issues, heart conditions, and cognitive impairment.


In Martyrs (2008, dir. Pascal Laugier), we follow Anna (Morjana Alaoui) as she tries to help her childhood friend Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), who escaped an abusive cult as a child and has made it her mission to find and murder her former abusers. Anna is captured by this very same cult, whose leader, known only as Mademoiselle, believes that trauma can make susceptible people see beyond the curtain of death. Anna endures extreme torture in the name of transcendence, which culminates in her skin being flayed. Despite the massive trauma inflicted upon her, Anna is alive at the end of the film, but she appears to be catatonic.

On the surface, fright might sound a lot like freeze, but it is a distinct fear response, a state also known as tonic immobility or quiescence or “playing possum” (although the colloquial use of the phrase “playing possum” implies that the victim is willfully faking death—tonic immobility is most certainly an involuntary fear response). Where freezing is an initial response that can help you stay unnoticed and plan an escape when a threat is detected, tonic immobility is more likely to occur once an attack is already under way and your senses are overwhelmed with fear.

We commonly see this response in animals. When a rabbit is clamped in a fox’s jaws, it might appear already dead, but really its parasympathetic nervous system has just kicked into overdrive in a last-ditch attempt to stave off further attack or injury. The body goes limp and lies still. Heart rate slows, and the eyes may remain open or closed, but the animal is unresponsive to its surroundings.

In Martyrs, the film seems to interpret Anna’s final state as one of enlightenment as sought by the cult; she is senseless to everything else. It’s suggested that, after so much torment, she is simply beyond fear. Before her flaying, Anna even hallucinates a conversation with now-dead Lucie, who marvels that Anna isn’t scared anymore. Another interpretation is that Anna’s body is making a last-ditch effort to protect against the torture that she knows she can’t escape. For a human to experience tonic immobility, they would have to be subject to an overwhelmingly threatening and life-risking situation where escape is blocked. There is evidence for tonic immobility in humans, and it has been suggested as an underlying cause for “rape paralysis” reported by victims of sexual assault. The symptoms are undeniably similar: an inability to move, scream, or call out, numbness and insensitivity to pain, and feeling cold—all without loss of consciousness.

In order to study tonic immobility in humans, researchers in Brazil attempted to trigger the response and measure it as objectively as possible. To do this, they assembled a small group of participants who had experienced a traumatic event in the past, some who now lived with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and some who didn’t have these symptoms. All participants were then asked to describe their traumatic experience in meticulous detail. The research team recorded the script of their description and made a recording of the script using a professional speaker with a neutral tone. Finally, they were asked to listen to the recording. It’s worth mentioning that the participants knew that this was the plan and that there was a possibility that they would trigger symptoms of PTSD through this experiment; they also knew that they had the power to end their part in the experiment at any time.

What the researchers found was that listening to the recording was a pretty reliable tool for inducing a tonic immobility–like response, and that the response was higher in participants living with PTSD. One notable difference: reliving the events sped up the participants’ hearts, where tonic immobility in real circumstances tends to slow the heart rate down, but this study concluded that this was enough evidence for tonic immobility in humans.

There is an evolutionary basis for tonic immobility. Even though it might seem logical to prey on something that’s staying still (and therefore easier to catch), many predators will only strike to kill prey that is moving. In an extreme example, some hawks might actually starve to death if they aren’t fed moving prey, because they interpret unmoving prey as dead—and therefore inedible—meat. If prey isn’t moving, a predator might become distracted, relax its attention, or instead direct their attack to something else that is moving. In Martyrs, Anna’s immobility isn’t such an effective protective tool because what’s threatening her is a human who sees her as means to a philosophical, metaphysical end and not as a tasty treat.


Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) doesn’t remember how she got into the bunker in 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016, dir. Dan Trachtenberg). She remembers trying to leave town, another car sideswiping hers, and then . . . waking up in a hermetically sealed shelter underground. Howard (John Goodman) claims that he saved her, and that the world outside the bunker has become toxic and uninhabitable. Michelle senses that there’s more to Howard not letting her leave than just her safety, but he’s already shown himself to have a hair-trigger temper. Her only option for survival is to play her part in a simulacrum of friendship so that she can buy herself enough time to plan and execute an elaborate escape.

What’s sometimes referred to as the fawn response isn’t included in the defensive fear cascade model because it isn’t a typical automatic response to a threat. Rather, this is a learned behavior, and one that is super context-specific. Fawning works to stave off an attack by appealing to the attacker. Of course, that means the threat is something that can be appealed to or appeased. It wouldn’t make sense to try to appeal to a supernatural monster that, for all you know, doesn’t deal in human emotions, let alone compassion or bargaining. The threat in this case is almost always human, and the situation is almost always one where the victim is trapped—often for a long period of time, such as in an abusive relationship.

Michelle in 10 Cloverfield Lane and Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) in Split (2016, dir. M. Night Shyamalan) are both good examples of horror situations where their human, or human-ish, captors can be reasoned with. Michelle learns quickly that hostility gets her nowhere with her abductor, and that anything but playing house with Howard—eating meals together, playing board games, watching movies, and letting him infantilize her—will earn threats of death by shooting or by immersion in a barrel of perchloric acid. In Split, Casey is the only one of the three abducted girls who manages to engage in meaningful conversation with her captor(s) (James McAvoy). She quickly learns which of his personalities are willing to negotiate, which may demonstrate compassion, and at least one that can be tricked by feigning friendship.

Stockholm syndrome might be considered a cousin to this response, although there is enough mystery surrounding it that it might be more accurately described as a phenomenon than a syndrome. A syndrome describes a collection of symptoms, where Stockholm syndrome is typically characterized by one specific behavior: the victim forms a sympathetic alliance with their captor. There isn’t enough diagnostic information for Stockholm syndrome to qualify for a spot in the DSM-V, the officially recognized manual of psychological conditions and disorders. The phenomenon is named (by the media rather than medical experts, which might explain the inaccurate use of the word “syndrome”) for an incident in 1973 in which four hostages from a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, refused to testify against their captors in court.

Neither Michelle’s nor Casey’s experiences would seem to qualify as Stockholm syndrome scenarios. While both can at times be sympathetic toward their captors, they never ally with them. Contrast their situations with that of Cheryl Dempsey (Stacy Chbosky) in The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007, dir. John Erick Dowdle). Cheryl was the teenaged victim of serial killer Edward Carver (Ben Messmer) who was tortured and abused but ultimately kept alive by her captor as a slave. What probably started as a fawn response to keep herself alive transformed into a dependent relationship. Even after Cheryl was discovered and rescued, she would defend her kidnapper and insist that he loved her.

It’s amazing to think that humans have such varied built-in systems for dealing with threats and that this variety gets put to such good use in horror movies. Things get even more interesting when on-screen threats cross the liminal space between film and viewer to trigger these built-in threat responses in the audience.



From NIGHTMARE FUEL: THE SCIENCE OF HORROR FILMS by Nina Nesseth. Copyright ©2022 by Nina Nesseth. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Tor Nightfire. All rights reserved.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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WTF is Wrong With Stephen King?

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