Arts & Sciences

Making sense of the ‘uncanny’: Wash U neuroscientist explains science behind Halloween horror flicks

From St. Louis Public Radio

Halloween is here, and many are turning to their favorite horror films for an additional fright this season.

Despite the popularity of horror movies – and extensive work by humanists, scientists and psychologists to explain this popularity – Wash U neuroscientist Jeff Zacks told host Don Marsh on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air that the human affinity for horror movies is “one of the big mysteries.”

Zacks studies cognition and perception, and his book “Flicker: Your Brain on Movies” surveys the latest research on the brain’s responses to film.

“One of the things that’s perplexing about all of this is that films can drive us so strongly when it’s manifest,” said Zacks. “Nothing can reach up out of the screen and touch us.”

He explained that the impulse to viscerally sympathize with characters in horror movies may have to do with emotional mirroring.

“There are multiple mechanisms that evolved over a couple hundred million years to keep us safe,” he noted. “Some of these fast automatic systems are built to get us to act congruently with our other humans in the environment.”

Zacks also pointed out the importance of uncanniness in the making of scary and suspenseful films.

  Read more and listen at St. Louis Public Radio.