In a Horror Movie, You’re Not as Smart as You Think

Nightmirrors #3

“Don’t do it! Are you stupid? Get the hell out of there!” As we sit on the sofa or in the theater we oft marvel at the stupidity of horror movie characters. It’s a joyous and self-righteous feeling to be “oh so much smarter” than these soon-to-be dead fools.

In fact, if you or I were plopped down into these situations, we’d be out of danger so quick, the credits would roll in about five minutes. 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 apply to poor strategy and not 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,” then I would strongly urge you reevaluate your relationship . . . ’cause this guy isn’t smart enough to manage his own sock drawer let alone a career, marriage, or child-rearing.

But other than that—and the poor guy who dies in the foreshadowing scene—most of those foolish horror movie mistakes are the exact ones you’d make in that situation.

“Bull,” you say?

Well, the laws of horror movie psychology disagree, and there are five reasons why in a horror movie you aren’t going to be as smart as you think.

And since your expertise as a horror survivalist might not extend to the “physiology of fear,” let’s just review a quick primer on the subject.

When potential danger appears, the brain sends signals to its threat expert, the amygdala. Survival, being kind of an important thing, requires both urgency (“Move now! Spider!”) and accuracy (“Wait, it’s not a spider, it is just a piece of lint”). Urgency moves along a short path and accuracy along the long path.

The short path isn’t about thinking, it is about doing. Doing is about prepping for flight or fight. The long path is a much cooler cat and prefers validation. It sends the info to the visual cortex for proper analysis.

That analysis is an important feature in that without it, we’d run like a rabbit at the slightest sound or shadow. Have you ever jumped when someone touched your shoulder? Well, that’s the short path getting you ready and the long path arriving a second later to say, “Stand down, jumpy.”

After the “fright,” a third key process takes place. The incident is committed to memory and that memory will later be used to determine if a particular “thing” is dangerous in a future encounter . . . and this last process is the 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. If, like us, they saw the trailer a hundred times, then they’d make better decisions . . . like not going in the water, buying that house, going camping, etc., etc. They don’t have the foreknowledge that something really, really bad is going to happen. Right now, for example, you have no expectation that a knife wielding psycho 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.


  1. Optimism Bias: But even if you’ve 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 bias. Which is why teens engage in riskier behavior than forty-year-olds. The bias is somewhat necessary. Without it you’d never take a chance, never leave the house and would need psychological intervention to function.

If you’ve seen Jaws and still swim in the ocean, seen Halloween and still venture out on All Hallows’ Eve, or have seen The Exorcist and still haven’t learned how to perform an exorcism, then you suffer from optimism bias. “But those are just movies and that stuff can’t happen to you.” Well, that’s exactly type of thinking that gets a horror movie character dead. And I’d bet even if you heard a noise from your closet right now—say, a loud crash—you wouldn’t call the police or hide under the bed. Instead, all bright and brave with optimism, you’d go see what fell off the shelf.

Note: if it’s a possessed loved one, call me. I do know how to perform an exorcism. If it’s a severed head . . . Well, then it’s already too late for you.

  1. 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 the third process in action. We hear loud noises and strange sounds all the time. But our experience has taught us that “there is no danger.” Mom and Dad taught “there are no such things as monsters” and thus after the initial “fright” we “get ahold” 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.

  1. No theme music: Films are filled with creepy music. The music sets the viewer’s expectation. It kickstarts the amygdala’s fear preparation (because memory reminds us that creepy music means scary scenes). Of course, the characters don’t enjoy the benefits of such cues. If Halloween’s theme music began playing in your house right now, it wouldn’t matter if it was Mike, Jason, or Norman Bates: you’d run your ass off (but come back later and like this article, please).

Unfortunately, the music isn’t playing and that is why you’re still sitting there reading with your back to a killer. Too bad, so sad.

  1. Fear makes you clumsy, deaf and dumb: But let’s agree you are the smartest person in the world. You sense something bad is coming and you’re determined to survive. With a large enough body count between you and the killing thing, you may have the time to flee. (Don’t stop to save injured loved ones; it is not your fault that they didn’t take the time to read my helpful article.)

However, without adequate notice—and once the fear and terror take over—your body will betray you. Your unsuccessful attempt at escape, if put to lighter music, would look like a comedy sketch to onlookers. You’ll be tripping, falling, dropping keys and turning the wrong way at every opportunity. All while that terrible thing closes the gap.

The fear response speeds up heart rates, creates difficult breathing patterns, screws with fine motor skills and creates the kind of physical chaos only the well-practiced can overcome.

First your body will freeze. It’s a natural reaction in both bunnies and humans.  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, find the right car key, or load a gun).

Your blood pressure and heart rate will almost double; preparing to either take flight or fight for your survival. The good news is you won’t hear that creature’s awful, hungry scream because your ears are filled with the thump-thump whoosh-whoosh thump-thump sound of your escalating blood pressure.

And all that rushing blood requires a lot of oxygen. You’ll be all heavy breathing and trust me, that kind of noise really attracts the demons. And even though all those “Run! Live! I don’t want to die! Mommy help me!” neurons are firing, it’s too late because the “thinking” part of your brain has gone far, far away.

Mentally you are now about as strategic as a bunny rabbit, but unfortunately, not nearly as fast or nimble.

I’m not saying you are dumb. In fact, I bet you know everything there is to know about horror movies. The problem is that it won’t matter. Unless your default mode is set to “noise—run,” then you’ll do most, if not all of the things horror movie characters do.

Survivors are the ones who can suspend “disbelief” long enough to survive. If you find yourself screaming, “This can’t be real,” then you’re pretty much dead.

So . . . can you?

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 1600 words?

No. Hmmm. Not so smart after all.

I think you are about to be victim number one.



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