It’s not just your imagination. Horror films are much more scary than they were in the past. Here’s how they do it
Lynne Ramsay’s film We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) is an exquisite study in fear. Based on Lionel Shriver’s novel of the same name, about a teen on a killing spree, it opens with the nightmare of his mother (Tilda Swinton) drowning in the red juices of a tomato-throwing festival; she wakes up to find her house and car covered in red paint. From the start, fear permeates every image of the film. As spectators, we too experience that fear: in the filtered red light of the present and the chilling white light of the past, in the anxious expressions of the mother and the detached cold gaze of the son. Only gradually do we learn the extent of Kevin’s transgressions. But the narrative is the mother’s journey. We have been inside her head all along, and suspense emerges when basic emotions like fear collide with a wide spectrum of higher-level reactions – guilt, hope, despair, and other more nuanced feelings that have passed through the filter of the thinking brain. This new brand of film, the neurothriller, creates a spiral of fear or lust, a warm bath of sorrow, not through classic narrative, but with sound, image, and sophisticated computer technology, all of it tapping the circuitry of the ancient emotional brain.
Perhaps the first person to manipulate film to reach the emotional centres of the brain was the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, who called cinema his laboratory and said each film was an experiment in the interplay between a cinematographic technique and the effect it had on the audience. Suspense and surprise, desire and longing, laughter and fear, sympathy and disgust were the emotions and feelings that Hitchcock managed to induce in his spectators. Hitchcock’s way of distributing narrative information and cinematographic effects guided his audience masterfully from one emotion to the next.
During the shooting of North by Northwest (1959), Hitchcock even confessed to his scriptwriter Ernest Lehman that he would love to access the spectator’s emotions directly. ‘The audience is like a giant organ that you and I are playing. At one moment we play this note, and get this reaction, and then we play that chord and they react. And someday we won’t even have to make a movie – there’ll be electrodes implanted in their brains, as we’ll just press different buttons and they’ll go “oooh” and “aaah” and we’ll frighten them, and make them laugh. Won’t that be wonderful?’ Hitchcock reportedly said, according to Donald Spoto’s biography The Dark Side of Genius (1999).
Today, Hitchcock’s fantasy of direct access to the brain is a reality in neurological operations such as deep-brain stimulation (DBS) for the treatment of patients with Parkinson’s disease. Experiments using the same technology aim to cure depression by stimulating more joyful emotional circuits. In turn, Hitchcock’s films are used by neuroscientists to study emotions in the brain. And while cinema itself has not literally transformed into a brain machine with electrodes hooked to our neuronal tissue, new models of cinema have nonetheless managed to plug more directly into the brain than the master himself. Consciously or unconsciously, contemporary filmmakers not only tap into increased knowledge about the brain offered by neuroscientific experiments, but their films also stimulate the neural senses of emotions without the detour of narrative.
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