Can Science Determine The Scariest Movie Ever Made?

How does the plot, pace and genre of horror films affect how we feel? Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock.com

October 31 is fast approaching and as such, horror film aficionados are feeling the irresistible urge to sit down and subject themselves to ~100 minutes of stress by watching a frightening film. However, not all horror films are made equal, and depending on whether you’re looking for flat-out fear, building atmosphere, terrifying monsters, or complex psychological drama will have a strong influence on your poison of choice.

Enjoying horror films is a strange choice of pastime when you lay it out. We volunteer to be made to feel uncomfortable, stressed and anxious with fictional content that will likely keep us up at night and rarely teaches us anything about the wider world (except, maybe, not to split up when being tracked by someone in a scream mask). While some people avoid horror films like the plague, others (myself included) are dead keen to lean into the void and ruin a perfectly lovely evening by scaring the living daylights out of ourselves. So what's the lure?

One possible explanation relates to how horror movies make us feel during and after we've finished watching them. Research has shown that a combination of audio and visual stimuli is the most effective in raising our heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rate. While this experience is unpleasant, the physiological arousal can linger after the film has finished meaning any positive emotions that come after it, such as having a good time with your friends, are intensified. This means when you think back to the horror flick you watched, you wrongly associate with the heightened good feelings that followed the movie rather than the fear and anxiety you felt while it was on. This process is known as excitation transfer theory, and it can work both ways. If you watch a horror movie at the cinema and then get into a collision on your way home, your experience of the crash will also be heightened, which could lead to you feeling anxious about horror movies.

There is also a theory that the thrill we get from being scared is similar to the thrill we get from playing games with opponents who are trying to outwit us. Tactics such as misdirection and being fooled by the opposition in play can be enjoyable, and researchers from Denmark wanted to see if this appreciation for being hoodwinked stretched to fearful situations. To find out, they sent 110 participants into a haunted house experience and found there was a "Goldilocks Zone" within which fright-seekers are having maximum fun without getting bored or too scared.

It's near impossible to find the World's Scariest Horror Movie when you consider that what we find scariest differs from person to person. Movies such as The Shining and The Exorcist have long been held up as the pinnacle of scariest movies, with audiences even walking out of movie theaters. Show the same films to a modern audience however and it's unlikely the same degree of fear will be exhibited as increased exposure to violence and horror in television and cinema has desensitized audiences. Films can also play on our phobias meaning that while I might enjoy Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds for its ludicrous attack scenes, my ornithophobic friend would be out the door.

One person's cheesy clown villian is another's coulrophobic nightmare. Ramil Gibadullin/Shutterstock.com

So, is it possible to scientifically identify what makes a successful horror movie? A recent study carried out by UK comparison site Broadband Choices attempted to find out which took the title as Scariest of All Time by launching what they termed the Science of Scare Project. The research saw 50 participants exposed to over 100 hours of horror movies, all the while having their heart rates monitored to see which films and what scenes had the greatest effect on them physically and mentally.

From their findings, the researchers created a scoreboard of the films that were best at terrifying their sample audience culminating in a list of 35 of the scariest movies ever made, and which ranks at number one? Scott Derrickson’s 2012 film Sinister was found to have the greatest impact on viewers, causing the average heart rate to rise by 32 percent to 86 beats per minute (BPM), constituting the highest rise in BPM of any of the movies included in the study.

Our fear response is adaptive. Our need to clutch throw pillows is... not. Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock.com

So, how exactly do horror movies manipulate us so well in spooking our socks off even when we are aware of the fact that the fictional events playing out on the screen are exactly that: fiction? A study published in the journal NeuroImage investigated what happens to our brains when we watch horror movies. Conducted at the University of Turku, Finland, the team of researchers first established a list of top horror movies from the past century and categorized how they made people feel, as well as what inspired them to sit down and watch a scary film in the first place.

Of their sample, 72 percent of people said they watched a horror film roughly every six months and that they were drawn to the genre because they were exciting. Watching a horror film was also viewed as a social pastime by a lot of the participants who said they preferred to watch this specific genre with others rather than viewing scary movies alone. Next, they probed as to which stimuli triggered the most fear, finding that threats that remained unseen or were merely hinted at were more frightening than threats in plain sight. The efficacy of simply teasing at a ghost or monster in a movie is likely due to the different varieties of fear we can feel, with obscured threats bringing on a creeping dread while a monster bursting onto the scene triggers a reaction-based response brought on by sudden sounds or movements.

Next, they looked at the participants' neural activity as they watched horror movies using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. When they were experiencing the creeping dread fear variety, the areas of the brain that became most active were those linked to sight and sound, a logical response as our brains attempt to tune into our environment and identify possible threats. Sudden bursts of fear lit up the areas of the brain in charge of procession feelings, evaluating danger, and decision making, a hat trick of brain activity that facilitates a rapid response rate. Exactly what you need when a ghost crawls out of your TV.

Films about the paranormal were popular among our readers. Couperfield/Shutterstock.com

Where the genius of horror movies comes into play is when the types of fear we experience throughout a film are constantly changing, flipping between creeping dread and things jumping out at us. This combination creates a continuous feed-back cycle that prepares our senses for threats that seem increasingly likely as the movie progresses. You may have experienced this yourself if you’ve ever sat down at the start of a horror movie feeling confident in your abilities to weather the theatrical storm, only to find yourself a jibbering wreck 70 minutes in. This is the result of clever movie-making that purposefully triggers different fears within the viewer to ensure you’re as unsettled as possible by the time you reach the terrifying finale.

This loop of anticipation and preparation is a beneficial behavior when facing danger IRL, but when faced with fictional threats on our television it achieves little more than squashing our cushions as we hide behind them. The uncomfortable result however lends itself very well to thrill-seeking scary movie fans by enhancing the excitement we feel as the plot unfolds.

In our own poll conducted on Twitter, we asked our readers which type of horror movies got their heart racing and hiding behind the sofa, and from our sample of 862 voters, the responses were pretty mixed.

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Sixty-one percent of those who voted found paranormal films – think, Paranormal Activity or The Conjuring – to be the most terrifying, with found footage movies like Cloverfield or The Blair Witch Project coming in second.

Being a Twitter poll, we were limited in the number of genres we could suggest so asked our readers to comment their favorites and many were repping for horrors surrounding subjects that could realistically happen. Something likely exacerbated by 2020's wildly erratic "anything could happen" performance so far (there's still two months left).

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Some enjoyed scary movies so realistic, you almost feel as if you're living it...

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As follows of a platform called IFLScience, it's perhaps unsurprising that there were also several votes for Sci-Fi.

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Undeniably, we forgot one genre which reliably gets our hearts racing with a healthy side-serving of a Lovecraftian sense of doom.

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So it seems that using science to determine the scariest movie ever made is fraught with complications. Even if Hollywood took all of the science laid out here and used it to put together a Frankenstein's monster of a movie, there's no guarantee it would win the coveted title. Can we generalize the scare-factor of a film across time? Can we crown a single genre when it takes more than a ghost to float some people's horror boat? And what's the best marker of fear when a fast heart rate is associated with pleasurable experiences as well as scary ones?

It would appear, to the frustration of horror fans everywhere, that to name a single title in the battle for Cinema's Scariest Horror Movie would be a falsehood. So, for now, I guess there's only one way to decide for ourselves. Horror movie marathon, anyone?

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