The Fog

Joe Bathelt reviews The Fog and talks about the science of horror films… Just in time for Halloween (mwahahahaha!).

Yes, I admit it. After hours of hard intellectual work of dwelling through impenetrable scientific journal articles and exhausting data analysis, I occasionally kick back in front of the TV and pop in a DVD. At this time of the year, one obvious temptation for the tired office worker, who craves a bit of excitement, are horror movies. In my case, I ended up watching the film The Fog starring actors you most likely haven’t heard of. I don’t even know what seemed appealing to me about this particular movie and to be honest, I think the writers of the movie script got a bit too much of the fog in their head. Nonetheless, it made me wonder what the common topic in cheap horror films is and why these motifs make us sit at the edge of the couch with our fingers clasping a pillow in fear. So, be prepared for some Halloween-themed neuroscience (*manic laughter here*).

First of all, some details about the film so that you get the picture of what kind of fear-provoking nonsense I’m talking about. The film is set on a little island somewhere on the coast of the US. The landscape is stunning, the sea blue and the people look like they escaped an underwear hoarding. The horror starts when the protagonist stirs some resting spirits on the bottom of the sea in some remote place with the anchor of the fishing boat that he inherited from his late father. This leads to a curse that manifests itself as a bank of fog that covers the island and subsequently kills most of the cast. In case you are wondering, yes, the fog kills people. In one particularly stupid scene, the fog even kills someone by throwing a knife at them.

I think there is some similarity between this film and other ‘teenage horror movies’. It seems it doesn’t really matter who does the killing. It could be low altitude meteorological phenomena, various household appliances (Final Destination), teachers possessed by aliens (Faculty), vicious plants (The Happening), or static on the TV (White Noise). However stupid the plot is, these movies seem to scare a sufficient number of people. It doesn’t look like these things are frightening by themselves. At least I’m not massively concerned when I enter the shower, but in The Fog, a sense of foreboding accelerates my heart beat as soon as a protagonist enters this steamy death trap.

The Amygdala

From a neuroscience perspective, I think there are at least two reasons why these stupid films still manage to scare us despite their apparent stupidity. The first reason lies in a little almond-shaped area called the amygdala. You might be able to find your the amygdala, if you drill from underneath the ear towards the midline of the brain. If you can’t find it on the first try, don’t worry – there is one on each side. The amygdala has a central role in emotion processing, particularly to fear-related stimuli. The amazing feature of processing in the amygdala is that it is faster than most other kinds of visual processing. A study by Patrik Vuilleumier and colleagues from the University of Geneva in 2003 demonstrated that the amygdala will show an increased BOLD signal in response to fearful faces when normal pictures were presented or when just the contours of the face are presented. This allows rapid extraction of fear-related information before the fine-grained processing can take place. This in turn allows for faster responses. The amygdala pathway seems to provide a fast bridge between visual information and motor responses. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense: When a sabre-toothed cat jumps at you from the bushes, you wouldn’t survive if you just stood there and enjoyed the marvellous view of the drool dripping from its massive canines. It is also the reason why Hollywood filmmakers can sell us horror movies with stupid plot lines. We will get afraid if there is something barely visible and vaguely fear-related. This is a central theme in all these movies: there is always a killer/monster/meteorological anomaly in the dark corner. If we saw Freddy Krueger in broad daylight, we wouldn’t be as afraid. If there is enough visual input and some longer processing time, higher cortical areas would jump in. We would have access to memories and could use cognitive strategies to guide our behaviour.

Another important aspect in my view is how you are able to empathise with someone and experience the fear, even though you are ‘just watching’ a movie. There has been a concept in philosophy for many centuries that we understand the actions of others by simulating what they are doing in our own head. We are mapping what it would feel like for us, if we were in the same situation as someone we are observing. This idea was revived when a group headed by Giacamo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma in Italy discovered that there are neurons that seem to do exactly that job. They recorded the activity of nerve cells in rhesus macaques and discovered that neurons in the somatosensory (body-sensing) cortex respond when a monkey is grasping something, but surprisingly also when the monkey is just observing the action. The somatosensory cortex is the part of the brain, where sensations from the peripheral nerves end up. It is the part that is usually represented with a funny little brain man that shows how much area is dedicated to each body part in the somatosensory cortex. It was proposed that these neurons are part of a more extensive “mirror neuron system” that allows us to simulate observed actions. A study by Shmuelof and Zohary from 2005 shows that the same is likely to be true for humans. In the study, they show that parts of the somatosensory cortex increase in fMRI activity when a participant observes a hand grasping an object, but not when just the object is observed. So, in the context of Halloween movies, part of the reason why your heart begins to race when you see the helpless victim being chased in the dark is that you stimulate the experience in your head.

I hope you enjoy your amygdalae and mirror neuron system excitation this Halloween season! And stay away from The Fog!

Joe Bathelt is a neuroscientist currently working on his PhD at the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Unit at the Institute of Child Health, University College London. He graduated in Biology from the University of Tübingen, South Germany, and also holds a Master’s degree in Neuroscience from UCL. His interests are in the neuroscience of human social interactions, emotions and philosophy of mind. He’s on Facebook here.