What makes scary movies keep us awake at night? Maybe it is the fear of the unknown, maybe it is the subtle Shepard’s tone, which gives us unconscious goosebumps, or maybe it is the theme music of the dreaded monster. There is no one answer to satiate why people are drawn to horror, but if it were not for the sound, or lack of it, the mise-en-scène, the male gaze, or the infamous antagonist, we would not lie awake in the dark thinking something might be lurking outside our windows. This series examines the psychology behind what makes horror films so successful in terrifying people and the benefits of watching these anxiety-driven films. Plus, why do these films stick with us, especially when we are alone?
Horror Film 101: What Makes Horror Movies So Scary is divided into the following chapters of content:
2. Horror Film 101: Fear of the Unknown
3. Horror Film 101: Surviving the Male Gaze
4. Horror Film 101: Behind the Mise-en-scène
5. Horror Film 101: How Horror Affects Mental Health
6. Horror Film 101: The Psychology of Terror
Horror Films 101: Fear of the Unknown
What and/or who is the unknown?
Fear of the unknown differs from learned fears, such as snakes and spiders (Stanborough, 2020). It is something more ominous in its nature, as humans cannot comprehend what they do not know. The scientific term for the fear of the unknown is "xenophobia" (Stanborough, 2020). It is an umbrella term for the unfamiliar, ranging from unrevealed outcomes to mysterious creatures, death, and anything incomprehensible to the human mind and psyche (Stanborough, 2020). People suffering from xenophobia may undergo a severe stress state called "intolerance of uncertainty," as they cannot bear the stress of unknown circumstances (Stanborough, 2020). This causes the same effects as anxiety within the body, such as shortness of breath, weakness, and a racing heart (Stanborough, 2020). People suffering from anxiety disorders, O.C.D., depression, eating disorders, and hoarding disorders are more prone to xenophobia because of its lack of predictability and control (Gorka, 2017). A myriad of people are afraid of the unknown, and that is why filmmakers in the horror genre use this trope to make people afraid (Bordwell, 2017, p. 340). Some filmmakers will even use a monster to embody the unknown (Bordwell, 2017, p. 339). The horror film, The Thing, directed by John Carpenter (1982), is a great example of this. The movie follows a group of scientists in Antarctica who come across an unknown threat that shape-shifts into its victims (Carpenter, 1982). This movie is scary for a variety of reasons, including the unfamiliar terrain, strangers in an isolated environment, and a creature with an unknown origin (Nummenmaa, 2021, pp. 9-10). The Thing (1982) uses its antagonist as a vessel for the fear of the unknown. The tension in the movie builds as the monster is unidentifiable and if people cannot understand or identify their threat, they do not know how to eliminate it. During a scene in the film, the paranoid protagonist, R. J. MacReady, pushes a fellow scientist over because he is afraid of whose body an unknown creature is inhabiting (Carpenter, 1982). The fellow scientist dies because he hits his head, and the rest of the crew attempt to bring him back with an AED; however, as one of the men slides the shock pads onto the deceased scientist, the body morphs into a monster with sharp teeth and a foreign head pops out of the stomach (Carpenter, 1982). This scene establishes the unknown through its outlandish monster, which defies the audience's eyes. This scene is terrifying to the audience because it is unexpected and unpredictable. Professor at Turku PET Centre, Lauri Nummenmaa (2021) says:
[f]ear of the unknown might actually be the most fundamental fears in humans, and it explains a multitude of other fears: We are afraid of darkness because we never know what is hiding there, we are wary of strangers because we do not know how they will behave, and we find abandoned places creepy because we do not know why they have been deserted. [...] Brain imaging studies have accordingly found that learning to anticipate fearful situations that have not yet occurred engages the brain regions associated with pleasure and reward processing. However, this does not happen for unpredictable threats. (pp. 9-10).
When people are left without an explanation as to what or how something occurred, their brains cannot rest. They lie awake in the fear of the unknown. This is why The Thing (1982) weighs on viewers' minds— its antagonist cannot be explained and its actions cannot be anticipated.
Why are we so afraid?
As mentioned in the previous article, Horror Film 101: The Soundscape of Terror, horror can make us uneasy. Especially when it comes to sounds and when we do not know the initial source it is emitting from. These unspecified noises are referred to as "acousmatic sounds (sounds one hears but is unable to locate on-screen) [and they] are a hallmark of horror film[s]—the dislocation between what we hear and see creates a fundamental tension that blurs the known and unknown" (Lerner, 2010, p. 80). When people are unaware of what they hear, it causes a discrepancy in their memory, causing people to become immediately afraid (Kazanas, 2017, p. 84). A horror film that applies this technique is Skinamarink (Ball, 2022). It follows two children in a liminal space where all the doors and adults disappear from their house. They are then left in a labyrinth of their former house and try to navigate and escape a demonic-like presence (Ball, 2022). Skinamarink (2022) uses acousmatic sounds, an unknown antagonist, and grainy darkness to disorient the viewer and raise their fear (Lerner, 2010, p. 80). The viewer does not know what they are seeing or hearing, and it makes the film terrifying to navigate. Darkness is not only a part of mood lighting in movies, it is a tool used by horror directors to cloak what is hiding within it (Clasen, 2017, p. 33). In one scene from the movie, the audience sees one of the children, Kaylee, obey the distorted voice, which can be heard off-screen, to walk upstairs (Ball, 2022). Kaylee is then instructed by her mother, who is sitting on the bed facing away from the camera in the dark, to close her eyes (Ball, 2022). After Kaylee closes her eyes, her mother is gone when she opens them (Ball, 2022). There are several reasons as to why this movie gives the audience goosebumps, but the main impetus is the all-encompassing fear of the unknown. First, we have an unknown voice coming from an unknown location (an acousmatic sound); second, there is dark lighting, and then complete darkness when Kaylee closes her eyes; and third, her mother disappears into oblivion, making the audience anxious to know her exact position, and if she may potentially pop out later. Expert horror fiction author, Mathias Clasen (2017) claims:
Darkness makes threat-detection much more difficult. The startle reflex—a defensive, hardwired reaction—is enhanced by fear and aversive states, a phenomenon known as “fear-potentiated tartle.” In one study [...] subjects in a dark environment reacted more violently—with greater startle—to aversive acoustic stimuli (brief, loud bursts of white noise) than did subjects in a well-lit environment. Darkness sets the fear system on edge; when people talk about fear of the dark, they usually mean fear of what dangers may hide in the dark. (p. 33).
Whether it is an acousmatic sound, the dark, or something people cannot quite discern, the question remains: why are we wired to fear the unknown? Many psychologists conclude that fear itself was an adaptation, formed by our ancestors, hardwired in people for survival (Kazanas, 2017, p. 84). People have survived by being cautious of the unknown, and "evolution should have produced a selection bias for assessing unknowns as likely threatening" (Carlton, 2016, p. 12). Thus, people are precognitive of uncertain threats, perceiving them as a mnemonic tether to our survival. Fear of the unknown was an innate fear, which allowed humanity to flourish (Kazanas, 2017, p. 84).
There are three well-known fears: pain, the unknown, and death (Carlton, 2016, p. 9). However, death falls under the category of the unknown, as there is ample ambiguity around the subject. Death may be one of the only universal experiences every living person will undergo, and there is no precise answer as to what happens when people die. That being said, death becomes a reoccurring theme in the horror genre because it is such a prominent fear society holds in conjunction. According to Psychologist, Nicholas Carlton (2016), the fear surrounding death is the uncertainty in:
(1) the process of dying, which is reducible to other fears (e.g. [...] fear of pain); (2) that death will be unpleasant (e.g., the afterlife may be painful); (3) unknowns about death (e.g., death may or may not involve an afterlife), making the unknown the object of fear; or (4) the concept of oblivion, an unequivocal unknown. (p. 11).
People may also fear losing people to death, even if that is the protagonist the viewer identifies with on-screen (Furer, 2007, p. 5). The horror film, The Strangers (Bertino, 2008), follows a couple undergoing a quarrel in an isolated cabin, as three unknown antagonists try to kill them. What makes this movie so horrific is the fear of the unknown: the masked villains with no explanation for their attack, the pain they inflict on the couple, and the question of the couple's survival. In one scene from The Strangers (2008), one of the protagonist's friends, Mike, shows up at the cabin unannounced and in the midst of the attacks (Bertino, 2008). While Mike wanders the property, one of the strangers in a potato-sack mask sneaks up behind him (Bertino, 2008). The camera follows him close behind and cuts to the potato-sack stranger with an axe (Bertino, 2008). But, upon searching the house, Mike goes to enter a bedroom and is shot by one of his friends, who expected the murderer instead (Bertino, 2008). This is petrifying to the audience because they are identifying with the protagonists in the scene who accidentally shoot their friend and lose him (Furer, 2007, p. 5). This is also scary because of the strangers, who are masked, unidentifiable, and silent. Plus, the couple undergoes the uncertainty of dying at any moment and watching someone they love (Mike) be shot to death. This movie intentionally sets the audience up with the fear of the unknown to arouse foregone instincts people all share.
How do we cope?
Even after turning off a horror movie, it is hard to not ponder the unknown, when there is no answer to satisfy or explain it. Life is always filled with uncertainty—the unpredictable nature of the future, how events are going to go, or where people may end up one day. This anxiety can cause considerable stress to an individual (Buhr & Dugas, 2001). But when people worry about a situation, it is often because they predict the outcome may be negative (Buhr & Dugas, 2001). People may have a hard time dealing with the anxiety that follows after death or a mysterious monster occuring before their eyes in a horror, but people have the agency to reduce this stress by remaining in the present (Buhr & Dugas, 2001). Research shows "that intolerance of uncertainty may be very important in understanding worry and may play a key role in the etiology and maintenance of worry" (Buhr & Dugas, 2001). Worry is defined as distress about situations in the future through a pessimistic lens that causes a person trepidation, and "might best be viewed as a mental act, where the individual thinks about the situation and possible outcomes. Whereas intolerance of uncertainty can be seen as a filter through which individuals view their environment, which might be best described as a predisposition to find uncertainty unacceptable" (Buhr & Dugas, 2001). This results in crippling nervousness, disease, and isolation from others (Buhr & Dugas, 2001). This isolating and paralyzing fear may hold some people back from enjoying life, but there are ways to deal with uncertainty. The most people can do to mitigate the symptoms that come with this fear is to examine each situation with the unknown carefully, increase their knowledge to lessen the unknown, try to stay present, live a healthy lifestyle by practising mindfulness, and talk to a trusted person like a friend or therapist about it (Stanborough, 2020). Cognitive-behavioral therapy offers a promising solution to help alleviate the symptoms of xenophobia (Furer, 2007, p. 53). These are a few different techniques one can do to reduce the stress that comes with uncertainty; furthermore, avoid horror movies as they deal with uncertainty in a myriad of ways.
The fear of the unknown goes hand in hand with horror films. People are inherently afraid of what they do not know due to evolutionary mechanisms, acousmatic sounds, the startle reflex, intolerance of uncertainty, unknown creatures, dark settings, bizarre locations, and the biggest unknown: death. But while xenophobia may give you anxiety, there are ways to cope and still enjoy a horror movie without having an existential crisis. Fear of the unknown is rudimentary to horror and may be the very reason why horror is so scary.
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Bertino, B. (Director). (2008). The Strangers [Film]. Universal Pictures.
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Carleton, R. N. (2016). Fear of the Unknown: One Fear to Rule Them All? Journal of Anxiety Disorders, vol. 41, pp. 5-21, doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2016.03.011.
Carpenter, J. (Director). (1982). The Thing [Film]. Universal Pictures.
Clasen, M. (2017). Why Horror Seduces. New York: Oxford University Press, Oxford Scholarship Online.
Furer, P., Walker, J. R., & Stein, M. B. (2007). Treating Health Anxiety and Fear of Death: A Practitioner’s Guide. Springer New York.
Gorka, S. M., et al. (2017). Startle Potentiation to Uncertain Threat as a Psychophysiological Indicator of Fear-based Psychopathology: An Examination across Multiple Internalizing Disorders. Journal of abnormal psychology, vol. 126,1, pp. 8-18, doi:10.1037/abn0000233.
Lerner, N. (2010). Music in the Horror Film: Listening to fear [E-book]. Routledge Taylor and Francis Group. https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=7VyOAgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg= PP1&dq=musical+scores+in+horror+film&ots=jqESp0O_cY&sig=nQMHcrpYEOWOMuj6rkDjnyobbes#v=onepage&q=musical%20scores%20in%20horror%20film&f=false.
Nummenmaa, L. (2021, March 4). Psychology and Neurobiology of Horror Movies. PsyArXiv, Web. https://psyarxiv.com/b8tgs/https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1a56/14286ab561f021da51b50b7f2439abeac0fd.pdf.
Stanborough, R. J. (2020). Fear of the unknown: Causes, symptoms, risk factors, & treatment. Healthline. Retrieved February 22, 2023, from https://www.healthline.com/health/understanding-and-overcoming-fear-of-the-unknown.
Kazanas, S. A., & Altarriba, J. (2017). Did Our Ancestors Fear the Unknown? The Role of Predation in the Survival Advantage. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 11 (1), pp. 83–91. https://doi.org/10.1037/ebs0000074.
Cover Image: Taylor A. (n.d.). [Photo of a person walking into the abyss]. Possibility Change. https://possibilitychange.com/fear-of-the-unknown/.
Figure 1: Movie poster of John Carpenter's The Thing (1982). Retrieved from https://film-book.com/horror-director-john-carpenter-hints-that-there-are-updates-on-a-blumhouse-the-thing-reboot/.
Figure 2: Ball K. E. (2022). Skinamarink. [Still]. IFC Films/Shudder. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/12/movies/skinamarink-review.html.
Figure 3: Bertino B. (2008). The Strangers. [Still]. Retrieved from https://www.popsugar.com/entertainment/Strangers-True-Story-44058481.