Fight, flight or sit: Crafting fear through film

Gripping the edge of your seat during a scary film? By understanding the physiology of fear, there’s a multitude of ways that filmmakers can give us a good scare.

Illustration by  Peter Fransquet

Illustration by Peter Fransquet

WARNING: some of the videos in this article contain dramatic violence or graphic scenes. Not for kiddies.

Films have the potential to evoke powerful emotions, and one such emotion we are very familiar with is fear. Fear is a common, unpleasant response to a perceived danger, pain or harm. While we all have different levels of tolerance for fearful stimuli, the experience of fear itself causes a distinct physiological response. We all know the feeling of cold, sweaty palms clasped shut while we watch a scary film: the hair on the back of our necks rises, our skin prickles, our heart beats faster, and we gasp loudly at a sudden scare.

Fear causes distinct physiological changes in both the brain and body. When viewing a scary film for instance, the brain signals for the hormones cortisol and adrenaline to be produced by the kidneys. Having these hormones awash in our bloodstream causes that sweaty, goose-bumpy feeling with a rapid heartbeat. These physiological changes lead to an alteration in behaviour, forming part of our fight or flight response. This fear response makes evolutionary sense: in a natural scenario, it can help us act quickly to escape danger. We have evolved to be innately fearful of real dangers, such as loud noises, pain and injury. However most other fears, both natural and unnatural, are learned. Fear triggers our survival instinct: there is no point in being blasé when it comes to fear.

Although the feeling of fear is often perceived as being negative, this natural high can actually make us feel good. This is because we enjoy all sorts of physical thrills — such as riding rollercoasters, jumping from a high diving board, or even listening to scary stories as children. In these situations, we feel scared but we know that we are safe. When we have a strong emotional response to a physical stimulus we also release oxytocin, which mediates our fear response and allows us to act. Oxytocin is a hormone that, among other things, is responsible for pair bonding. Accordingly, we are more likely to remember the people with whom we have shared an emotional experience. For the record, psychologists even say that if you want a memorable date, go see a scary movie or ride a rollercoaster — the heightened emotion, combined with oxytocin and breathlessness, means a couple will likely feel more closely bonded after the experience.

If you want a memorable date, go see a scary movie or ride a rollercoaster.   hounddiggity/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

If you want a memorable date, go see a scary movie or ride a rollercoaster. hounddiggity/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)


Provoking a fear response in film, however, requires knowledge of how people react to specific images and sounds. Recent studies in the field of neuroscience and psychology can tell us a great deal about how we process fear-inducing stimuli. For example, there are many studies that examine the startle response: a classic jump scare when something unexpected occurs. The innovative fast cuts edited into the infamous 'shower scene' in Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 thriller Psycho, for instance, could easily evoke the startle response. This would especially have been the case when the film was released in 1960 and audiences were unused to seeing violence on film. People with post-traumatic stress disorder can have an exaggerated startle response; so perhaps it’s best to avoid scary movies and the following scene from Psycho if this applies to you:


The infamous "shower scene" from Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 suspense-thriller Psycho.


The false alarm effect is another common way to produce and amplify a fear response. In the films Alien and The Ring, we often see a character flinch at something harmless, such as a telephone ringing or another loud noise. This is a false alarm, nothing to be worried about — however, once the audience has just begun to relax, a big jump scare occurs. In this way, filmmakers manipulate the audience to get them exactly where they want them, and manufacture the jump scare to be even more amplified. This is supported by research initiated in 1984 by Joanne Cantor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, exploring the effects of forewarning on emotional responses to a horror film. This research demonstrated that forewarning, or knowing that something bad will happen, can cause an even greater emotional response when watching a scary film.

Another way to produce a fear response in film is through fear conditioning. Fear conditioning is a learned fear response to an object that may, or may not, be harmful. Psychologists unfortunately discovered this phenomenon through morally and ethically questionable methods on a baby named Little Albert in 1920. Through pairing fluffy bunny rabbits with a loud noise, Albert learned to fear all furry objects. It is possible that a similar occurrence happens after we have watched a scary film; we can feel fear when encountering everyday situations and objects that were previously not scary to us. We all know the feeling of being more cautious of dark rooms or unlocked doors after watching a scary film, for example. For some, especially children, this effect can be long-lasting.


HowStuffWorks explores the controversial Little Albert experiment.


Music is also an important aspect of crafting fear in film. Music adds another dimension to scenes, building the tension and shock. This is done through implied threat. In Steven Spielberg's film Jaws, the impending ominous bars at the beginning build suspense, and are then followed by high-pitched, dissonant chords. Research has indicated that we are hardwired to respond to high-pitched sounds, as they are similar to the screams of a young animal. The research suggests that these sounds affect our emotional judgement and resulting behavioural responses. The physiological response to sound, however, is not enough to produce a fear response on its own and must be paired with visual stimuli for the full effect. In Jaws, to produce the fear response, these higher pitched chords are paired with the image of a young woman being yanked underwater.


The opening scene from Steven Spielberg's influential 1975 film Jaws, which has perfectly evoked fear in audiences for decades. 


Together, studies on fear in film announce the rise of neurocinematics — the study of the brain while responding to films. This relatively new methodology generally involves having participants watch parts of a film while in an MRI scanner. The outcomes of this kind of work are illuminating, as one recent study has provided neural evidence that suspense in film narrows our attentional focus. The researchers showed 10 suspenseful scenes to participants while measuring their brain activity in an fMRI scanner. The results of this study indicate that we become less aware of our surroundings when watching a particularly scary film, and could explain why we become so engrossed in this type of film. It is thought that neurocinematics could lead to more effective filmmaking, as our physiological responses can be very different to what we report verbally afterwards. Thus, neurocinematics can give us insight into how audiences really feel, not how they think they felt after the film was over. 

Taken even further, the scientific study of the fear response to film has been used in advertising. It is no coincidence that anti-smoking ads sometimes use similar techniques to generate responses similar to those of a scary film, ranging from classic startle responses to a lingering general feeling of suspense and fear of danger. Anti-smoking ads can make us feel like something is out to get us, and so can be thought of as a classic example of fear conditioning — the general idea being that you will learn to associate a cigarette with the feeling of fear.


Anti-smoking ads sometimes use similar techniques to a scary film, as this compilation demonstrates. 


Of course, there are there are many other techniques that can induce the fear response. Moreover, there will always be variation among audience reactions when viewing scary films, due to our own personal tastes, learned responses and other complexities of the brain. However, the general experience of fear is an emotion that has undeniably been taken advantage of over the history of filmmaking. Newer scientific techniques may allow filmmakers to further craft their work, heightening our emotional experiences even further. In the words of the fright-master himself, Alfred Hitchcock, perhaps film makers should “always make the audience suffer as much as possible”.

Edited by Sara Nyhuis, and sponsored by Adam Larosa