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The Bruno Brief: Spooky Psychology

Every year around Halloween, movie fans turn to horror for seasonal thrills. We spoke to Science and Research Editor Claire Liu ’23.5 about her reporting on the psychology behind horror movies, different film techniques and why being scared is sometimes a good thing.

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Katy Pickens

What makes scary movies scary? Why do we love them? And how can scary movies reflect back some of our society's deepest fears? This week, in honor of Halloween, we're bringing you an investigation into the psychology of scary movies. We talked with Science and Research Editor Claire Liu, who interviewed some University psychology professors for answers to these very spooky questions. I'm Katy Pickens. Welcome back to The Bruno Brief. 

Claire, welcome to The Brief. Can you introduce yourself to our listeners?

Claire Liu

Sure. Thank you so much for having me. I'm Claire. I'm a science and research section editor here at The Herald and happy to be here.

Katy Pickens

So it's spooky season, a time when people typically consume a lot of horror movies. You looked into some of the practical ways that horror is used in research. Let's start with some of the psychology. Why are horror films particularly engaging? And why do we want to scare ourselves?

Claire Liu

Yeah, so I spoke with an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior, who does research on fear and other negative emotions. She kind of explained this phenomenon as affecting our amygdala in our brains. 

This is Professor Mascha van 't Wout, one of the professors Claire spoke to.

Mascha van 't Wout

Your brain doesn’t always really know that what you're seeing is completely not true. I mean, of course it knows, but it doesn't know. Your body still responds to the buildup of the energy. What happens in these horror movies, you know something's going to happen, and it starts anticipatory responses.

Claire Liu

Even if we don't believe some of the elements in the movie, it still triggers our brain in that way, and causes us to be scared.

Mascha van 't Wout

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Of course, the contextual aspect that is part of that is the fact that you know explicitly that you are watching a horror movie. So that basically means you can continue to watch because if you really have no distinction between what is real and not real, you're not going to watch. You’re like, “I’m in danger.” And so you do know, but still your body responds to these images that you're seeing, to some degree, as if you are there. And that's why, for the same reason that romantic movies work, or that when sad things happen in a movie, we cry.

Katy Pickens

And what are some of the implications behind the psychological and neurological reactions to horror?

Claire Liu

So there are a lot of implications. This researcher in the psychiatry and human behavior department at Brown, she is looking at how combat VR simulations — so virtual reality — can actually be used as therapeutic treatments for veterans with PTSD.

Mascha van 't Wout

So you want fear, but you want to have it modulated correctly. The thing is, once you have experienced a traumatic event, that fear learning will never go away. Your brain retains it forever. So that means it's even if you go through habituation or call it extinction, or exposure therapy. With imagination or virtual reality, what your brain is doing is learning to inhibit it. It doesn't erase it. It's still there, but it learns to inhibit.

Claire Liu

Her research is trying to see if using non-invasive brain stimulation, through combat VR in this instance, can help calm down the amygdala. She conducted this study over the course of three weeks, and found a marked difference in the treatment for people with PTSD. She has done a pilot study so far with 12 people but is aiming for a larger study. And over time has just seen a sharper decrease in the arousal of the brain through this treatment. And so it looks promising. And it's just a very interesting way of using fear and the confrontation of fear in a positive way for people who need it.

Mascha van 't Wout

One veteran came back one month later, and he said, “Here's a card for my wife, because my wife wants to thank you, because now I'm willing to go on vacation for the very first time in 10 years, because I dare to do it.” And that's just nice, right? I know, it's just we helped one person. But sometimes it's just like, yes, this really shows me we need to test this more vigorously in a larger sample to see if this works.

Katy Pickens

That is super interesting. So you're saying that artificially creating fear can actually be healing for people who are diagnosed with PTSD? 

Claire Liu

Yeah.

Katy Pickens

Beyond potential therapeutic benefits of horror content through VR, horror remains a popular genre of media and has been for decades. So can you give us a brief history of horror, and what do horror films tell us about what we fear in general?

Claire Liu

Veronica Fitzpatrick, who's a postdoc fellow in the MCM department here, explains the history of horror as being as old as the medium of cinema, and can be even tied further back to early spectacles like the public beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587. Since then, the film scholarship has kind of positioned the 1960s as a turn from more classical horror of vampires and fantastical monsters to more modern movies.

Veronica Fitzpatrick

And then, in 1960, we get “Peeping Tom,” and “Psycho” as these kind of, like, flagship films that seem to create space, at least from a contemporary perspective, looking backward, for exploring more familiar, mundane, everyday kinds of forms of horror. But actually the mundane and the everyday has been sort of threaded throughout the genre forever.

Katy Pickens

That was Veronica Fitzpatrick.

Claire Liu

So going back to the history of horror, originally, it was these kind of fictional monsters like vampires, zombies, etcetera, that are kind of the source of fear. But with movies like “Psycho” and others, it kind of signified a turn to most film scholars that the source of fear actually can also be in the mundane and everyday forms of horror as Veronica Fitzpatrick, related to me. Veronica also discusses these different kinds of aesthetics that influence how the film portrays fear, for example, with quiet aesthetics or loud aesthetics. So with quiet, I imagine a movie like “The Quiet Place,” where really the scariness is in the silence, versus loud aesthetics which she uses the example of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” where it's just a lot of screaming, a lot of gore. So I think those different types of film techniques help us portray fear in different ways.

Katy Pickens

With this idea of finding horror in the mundane, I think a lot of the horror films that have played on the potential monstrosity of humans have been popular and relevant to social discourses recently. What makes some horror movies like “Get Out,” stick with us?

Claire Liu

So I think this plays on the idea that the Comparative Literature PhD student shared with me, which is the horror genre’s long history of tropes and narrative conventions. With movies like “Get Out,” and even “Squid Game,” they play on these very commonly used tropes and conventions in the genre, but in a new light, and also a new context. 

Obviously, you can't remove the movie from its social and political context. With “Squid Game,” it makes such a compelling commentary on the class inequality, and just general poverty that exists in South Korea. And so I think, for the South Korean viewers, and just globally, knowing that context makes the use of these tropes and conventions that much more interesting and new. 

Katy Pickens

And what are some of your favorite scary movies?

Claire Liu

So like most of the globe, I've just finished watching “Squid Game.” Loved it. I'm also finishing up the latest season of “You,” which is about a serial killer, but I've always enjoyed watching psychological thrillers. Specifically South Korean filmmakers, such as “Parasite” and others, and just wanted to really dig into this genre and learn more about it. 

Katy Pickens

Claire, thank you so much for being on The Brief.

Claire Liu

Thank you for having me.

Katy Pickens

This has been The Bruno Brief. Our show is produced by Livi Burdette, Corey Gelb-Bicknell, Max Karpawich, Ben Glickman and me, Katy Pickens. If you like what you hear, subscribe to The Bruno Brief wherever you get your podcasts and leave a review. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

____________________

This episode was produced by Olivia Burdette, Ben Glickman, Corey Gelb-Bicknell, Max Karpawich and Katy Pickens. 

Music:

Apollo Diedre by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Denzel Sprak by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Music was edited by Corey Gelb-Bicknell



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