Book Review: Nightmare Fuel

Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, 2022. 294 pages
By Nina Nesseth

As in the very subtitle of this book states, the Science of Horror, has always been a fascinating subject for me to tackle because usually it consists of a lot of academics using very big words trying to explain to me why horror films scare me, or why I like them. Even better is when they give plenty of examples from movies, usually getting even the most basic plot point incorrect which then makes you wonder if they had even watched the film they’re referring to.

I’ve also found some of these types that try to explain why you are scared that seem to get lost in the woods somewhere to really have it connect with the reader. Not saying they don’t have good ideas or theories, but they just don’t connect with me personally.

What I found with Nesseth’s book, on the other hand, is just the opposite. There is a lot of science in here, discussing the different parts of the brain, what each one does and how it affects what we feel. There’s a lot of technical terms for these for these locations of the brain, most of which I’ve already forgotten, though I now know where to them up when needed. Honestly though, I was really captivated on learning how the brain works with these different types of responses as we’re experiencing different kinds of fear from watching horror films. Such as the explanation of what fear does to a person, such as the fight-or-flight idea or where you just become frozen on the spot because of the fear, and what your brain is doing to cause these reactions or effects, giving us sort of a “behind-the-scenes”.

Digging even deeper into the brain functions, Nesseth also discusses the different elements that can affect what the brain is taking in. For example, in an interview with film editor Jamie Kirkpatrick, they discuss the infamous “jump scare” that most Hollywood films are known for because it’s an easy one to produce. In a great way to explain the simplicity of the jump scare, he compares it to “the well liquor of a bar. It’s just there to get you drunk and it will work every time. If that’s all you care about and you just want vodka and soda, that’s fine. Whereas, what I think of as quiet scares or tension scares, that’s top-shelf whiskey. Where it takes a lot to get to that place. It’s not about the end result so much; it’s about how you come away from the film like, oh my god, that one scene just like got to me.” Really loved that explanation, simple and makes perfect sense. To show his point of the “top-shelf” stuff, he references the sequence in The Shining (1980), with Danny riding his tricycle through the hotel, turning down different hallways, with the camera behind him, switching to his smiling face, back to the hallway as he turns the corners, back and forth, back, and forth. And then he turns down the hall to see the twins standing there. Great example.

Nesseth also explains how sound can affect what our brain is perceiving. Now just a creepy musical score, but what could be done with different tones and what is called infrasound, where a certain vibration or tone can affect a person, even if they might not be actually hearing something. It could just make them feel strange, even off, or that there is a presence there. That feeling could actually be coming from an infrasound, which could be accidentally caused even by a type of machinery. According to Vic Tandy and Tony Lawrence in the 1998 Journal of the Society of Psychical Research, this infrasound might be the cause of what some people sense as ghosts, which in reality what they are feeling is just the result of a soundwave. Again, pretty fascinating stuff.

The last bit that I was really intrigued by is how the brain remembers things. There are those films where people swear that they remember seeing a specific part in the film, which in reality, the scene or shot never existed, no matter how much they swear to it. Sort of like the scene in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), where poor Pam is hung up on a meat hook. They swear you actually see the hook go in. But you never do because it was never filmed. Nesseth references the ear slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs (1992), which we never see happen. But we remember it. In her explanation, the way the brain works is that when it pulls the memory, some of it is what you remember, but also your brain will fill in the holes with more details. Such as your brain knows the ear was cut off in the film because we see the end results. When we recall that sequence, the brain fills in the part where the ear is actually cut off with basically a false memory because it knows it is cut off.

Any horror fan that wants to dig a little deeper into how your brain reacts to what we’re watching on screen, I would definitely recommend this book. It isn’t packed with all these technical terms that are hard to follow, but pretty easy to comprehend. Trust me, if I got it, anybody could! But it is a fascinating look at what the different parts of the brain do, how it reacts, the different controls it has. Fun stuff, and educational!

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