Posts Tagged ‘Movies’

It was a bloody night. The masked serial killer, wielding his weed whacker like a saber, made short work of the teenagers who stumbled into the dilapidated and abandoned cabin. After the last survivor, whose fear for her life made her forget to wear anything but underwear and a torn shirt, ran screaming through the woods, the credits rolled to an eery, instrumental theme. And you left the theater as giddy as a kid who just found his favorite toy under the tree on Christmas morning.

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He may be a killer, but no one can judge his commitment to lawn care maintenance.

I think it’s safe to say that getting hacked to bits by a stranger we picked up on the side of the road is a fantasy few of us share. In fact, our sense of safety occupies the second tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, landing one step above our need for food and sleep. So why do so many people spend their spare cash on vicarious thrills? It may be because of a cross in the fear and pleasure controls in the brain.

When we watch a horror movie, the amygdala, the almond-shaped brain structure located in the temporal lobe, is activated as if the events on screen are really happening to us. The amygdala is in charge of processing emotion, including both fear and pleasure. One theory suggests that when scary scenes trigger the amygdala, it responds with the mixed signals of both fear and enjoyment because of its shared circuitry. As if that wiring weren’t complicated enough, fear is also processed through the nucleus accumbens, or the pleasure center of the brain, releasing hormones that make it possible for you to feel both terrified and exhilarated.

But that doesn’t mean that we feel pleasure when involved in a truly dangerous situation. Fortunately for the audience’s blood pressure, the stimuli on screen are also reaching our prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain that evaluates danger. While the amygdala and nucleus accumbens are working to process the emotional content of the film, the prefrontal cortex is working to make sure you know that the danger isn’t real, and that the axe-wielding maniac is just a character in a movie.

So when you’re sitting in the movie theater, whispering, “Don’t go in the basement!” to the character on screen, just sit back and let your amygdala enjoy the ride. Your prefrontal cortex will make sure you can still sleep that night.


Welcome to blockbuster season, where we finally get to see the films we’ve heard about all year! The Avengers exploded on the scene with a 207.4 million opening weekend, and has stayed at the top of the box office for the past three weeks. Apparently like many other movie-goers, I have been anxiously looking forward to its arrival since I first heard of its release last year. And since I first caught a hint of its coming at the end of Iron Man II. And since I first saw its trailer, waiting for another movie to play back in January. Come to think of it, I’ve been waiting for this movie to be released for a very long time.

Pictured here: Anxious anticipation.

The Mere Exposure Effect describes the process where introduction to something makes us like it more than if we had never seen it before. It can be true for products, food, and even other people. The more often we are exposed to something, the more we like it and anticipate seeing it again. It’s why songs we were initially ambivalent about grow on us after repeated radio play, and it may also be why movie trailers are such an effective method of advertising.

Movie trailers introduce us to the plot lines and characters before we even commit to seeing the film, giving the audience plenty of chances to decide they like what they see. Just as in the case for The Avengers, we’ve seen the posters, talked about the actors, and discussed the trailer months before the movie is released in theaters. It may even help that so many movies feature characters of a similar archetype (the good cop, the tough career woman, the drunken hero). We’ve been exposed to these characters over and over again, just in different formats. Perhaps studios realize that certain characters are going to sell a film, because we’ve already grown to like them in a different movie every couple of years.

This beautiful career woman is too busy for a relationship, but will the unconventional stranger she meets convince her to make time for love?

There is a catch that filmmakers need to be careful of, though—this effect only works with limited exposure. If we are exposed to a product too many times, then the effect is reversed; our interest turns to irritation. That song that we were singing along to one month starts to sound like saccharine noise after three. If the characters seem too much like the protagonists from last summer’s blockbuster, and the blockbuster before that, and the blockbuster from five years ago, we’ve seen enough for our appreciation for the roles to turn into derision about their lack of novelty.

I’m sure skilled writing and good acting don’t hurt a movie’s chance of success, either.