Behavioral Psychology

Aside from Psychoanalysis and Freudian theories, the rise of behaviorism also contributed to techniques employed in horror cinema. The older views of introspection were being highly challenged, and conditioning was emerging as an explanation for human action. This more mechanistic view of the body and mind would be highly disputed by proponents of the later developing cognitive psychology. This “conditioning” approach seen in behavioral psychology applies to ALL film, not just the horror genre in general. Music, content, and lighting are the main ways in which producers condition their audience. For this reason, I will explain how this works on my behaviorism page, but will not go into it on each of my subsequent tabs as this would be redundant.

*Example: Specifically in the context of Nosferatu, we can see how the producers play off the general fear of immigrants and other worldliness instigated by the red scare by creating a foreign and freakish-looking “Dracula” figure, and turning him into an evil bloodsucker. This would reinforce/condition the notion that foreigners were potentially evil and perpetuate the fear further.

To begin, let’s take a look at the grand daddy of conditioning, Ivan Pavlov, and see how his discovery on classical conditioning paved the way for the behavioral branch of Psychology, and gave way to the later theories about “conditioned fear” that Watson would discover.

Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov: He sought to discover digestion and the action of the salivary glands in dogs. During digestion he, would divert a dogs saliva into test-tubes to measure how much the dog salivated. He then became interested in how much the dog would salivate in the presence of food. Pavlov noted that after repeatedly giving food to the dogs, the dogs began to salivate by the mere presence or sight of the food alone. Gradually, the dogs salivated to just the food bowl, thus food did not even have to physically be present in order for them to salivate. Pavlov eventually got the dogs to salivate to the presence of stimuli that signaled the later coming of food. For instance, he would flash a light, or ring a bell, and noticed that the dogs would salivate because these stimuli signaled the response of food. Thus a neutral stimulus (the bell, light)was used to elicit the unconditioned response by presenting it before the original stimulus. The neutral stimulus doesn’t naturally evoke the unconditioned response. It only evoked the unconditioned response when placed before the original stimulus (the food), in that the dogs learned to associate the neutral stimulus with the original stimulus. So, if a dog salivates (unconditioned response) by the presence of the bell alone (neutral stimulus), we say that classical conditioning has occurred, because the neutral stimulus has become a conditioned stimulus.


John B. Watson

Branching off of classical conditioning, a behaviorist by the name of John B. Watson (featured on the left) conducted a very important study in the realm of fear, and how it could be conditioned in an individual. This study was known as the Little Albert Experiment. In it, Watson demonstrated that emotional responses could be classically conditioned in an individual. Watson exposed a nine month old boy to a white rat. Initially, the boy did not fear the rat. Watson then exposed the boy to a harsh loud noise that made him cry. He then would make this loud noise every time he presented the rat to Albert. After repeated exposure to the rat, with an accompanied loud noise, Albert grew to cry at the sight of the rat itself. Watson successfully conditioned fear into the child.



This experiment gained a lot of hype in the early 20’s. If classical conditioning really worked, movies could be used to condition a certain response in the public. Media images are powerful tools in evoking emotion. In later adaptations of Dracula films, rats were used to signal the coming of Dracula himself, making the audience become anxious upon seeing the rats alone.  Intimidating or theatrically foreboding music is additionally prevalent in early horror cinema, and is used to signal the coming of something evil, or to indicate something bad is about to happen. For this reason, the audience becomes anxious upon hearing certain sound stimuli (music). They are thus conditioned to fear the sound of the music alone.

“During subsequent cued recall of screen content, thriller music increased anger attributions and lowered sadness attributions, while melodramatic music increased love attributions and lowered fear attributions. The study provides evidence that film music can influence character likability and the certainty of knowing the character’s thoughts, which are antecedents of empathetic concern and emphatic accuracy” (Hoeckner, Wyatt, Decety & Nusbaum, 2011, p. 147).

The above quote also demonstrates the conditioning effect music can have upon an audiences. Thriller music has been conditioned to elicit anger in audiences, while melodramatic music has been conditioned to elicit love attributions in audiences. Thus, film producers use different kinds of music to signal a certain kind of event. Thus, the audience learns to predict the event solely by hearing the music.

In Nosferatu, there is a drastic interplay between light and dark. The heavier use of shadows again conditions individuals to fear the approach of Nosferatu. It is interesting to see the many aspects used in horror films to produce certain responses in the audience. These produced early “emotional responses” wouldn’t be possible if conditioning were not at work.



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