What is fear? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines fear as “…a painful emotion or passion excited by the expectation of evil, or the apprehension of impending danger; apprehension; anxiety; solicitude; alarm; dread.” But fear is so much more than this.


Neurological reactions during fear

The amygdala  is the primary part of the brain that becomes active during a fear response. the Amygdala is the part of the brain associated with processing memory and primitive emotional reactions. It is known for its role in storing memories associated with emotional events, like fear. The amygdala sends impulses to the hypothalamus for activation of the sympathetic nervous system, to the thalamic reticular nucleus for increased reflexes, to the facial nerve, and to the laterodorsal tegmental nucleus for activation of dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (neurotransmitters in the brain).

Physiological responses of fear

increased perspiration, increased heart rate, dilated pupils, constricted blood vessels, relaxed digestive tract, and dilated bronchials (in the lungs).

What is the GAS?

GAS stands for General Adaptation Syndrome. It is a physiological reaction of an organism to severe stress. It consists of three stages. The first stage is alarm reaction, in which the fight or flight reaction is initiated in the individual. Heart rate accelerates, the body perspires, etc. The next stage is the adaptation stage, in which the body adapts to the stressor, identifying it and determining whether or not it’s a threat, and how best to handle the situation if it is a threat. The final stage is the exhaustion stage, in which the body restores to a state of homeostasis, leaving the body feeling exhausted after depleting so much of it’s physical and psychological energy. This stage, in extreme circumstances, can sometimes be fatal.

Fight or flight?

During extremely stressful circumstances, the bodies sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the physiological responses of fear) mobilizes all available energy for survival. Adrenaline rushes through the body, preparing it to either flight (run away) or fight for its life. Once the intense stressful event that induced the fight or flight reaction in the individual has been alleviated, the body’s parasympathetic nervous system (controls vegetative functions responsible for regulation of the body’s internal organs and glands ) kicks in to restore the body to homeostasis.

How does this relate to early horror films?

This is simple. Physiological responses occur as a result to high stress situations. Fear would thus be a viable producer of stress. When someone sees something that frightens them in a horror film, they experience fear in the amygdala. The amygdala sends a signal to the hypothalamus for activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which produces physiological responses such as sweating and increased heart rate. The body is in the fight or flight mode, and is in the “alarm” phase of the GAS stage. After the fear begins to wears off (“adaptation” stage of GAS), the body begins to restore to a sense of homeostasis (regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system) and enters into the “exhaustion” phase of the GAS.

How does this relate to psychology?

It’s obvious that fear is a physiological response, but how, might one wonder, is it a psychological response? Fear is ultimately an emotion, and thus reactions to fears are governed by an individuals specific emotions. For this reason, not every fear reaction is emotionally identical. In terms of how fears relate to behaviorism, John Watson’s theories on the conditioning of fear are implemented in horror films to bring about these reactions.

Fears prevalent during the early 20th century

A fear of other-worldliness and immigrants was predominant, and is thus in direct correlation with the history of the times. More specifically, the red scare and threat of communism had a tremendous impact on the way individuals thought about life. A fear of expressing oneself was prevalent for the notion that one could be easily jailed or swept away if any unwanted ideologies were indicated. This mass paranoia and overall stifled society lent itself to a higher likelihood of mental disorder and hysteria, that Freud would specifically examine to form the basis of his psychoanalytic theories. Additionally, fears concerning claustrophobia were prevalent during the 1920’s, likely brought on by overcrowding in mental institutions. People were thus terrified with the notion of becoming mentally ill. This is why horror films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and The Phantom of the Opera all reflect mental illness in the most disturbing way possible. Financial panic took hold after the great depression, and thus fears concerning overall survival took root. We see the theme of “survival” inherent in Nosferatu, as blood (the life source), is leeched from the victim in order to provoke terror into the audience.  Fear of religious upheaval was also common, and can too be seen in the film Nosferatu. This fear of religious upheaval was caused as a result of the progression of science. Darwinian theories about evolution made many people question religion, and allowed scientific disciplines, like psychology, to prosper.



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