What happens in the brain when we watch a horror movie?

Questioner: Tanja from Bremen

What happens in the brain when we watch a horror movie? And why do some people like it and others don’t?

The editor’s answer is:

Privatdozent Dr. Thorsten Fehr, University of Bremen: Let’s assume that a person is sitting alone in front of the screen and is watching a horror film – that is, a film with a splatter component, a lot of blood and cruelty. Man hears and sees. That is why the primary visual cortex and the superior temporal lobe, which is responsible for processing what is heard, are active. The Wernicke site is responsible for processing what is spoken in the film. If the film viewer also feels the impulse to react verbally to the horror film, for example by screeching or screaming, the area on the lower left in the front part of the brain is also active. These described brain activities occur in almost all people when they watch a horror film.

It is exciting: there are other highly individual reactions to horror films. The decisive factor for how a person reacts is the level of development of his brain and his life experience. Because these two factors result in a person’s emotional-cognitive thinking style.

This style of thinking decides whether people perceive a horror film as realistic or virtual – two fundamentally different perspectives that trigger different reactions in the brain. People who classify a horror film as realistic in the broadest sense perceive what they see as if it had effects on their own bodies and lives. This type of perception can often be observed in children and adolescents, but also in adults. The perceived areas of the brain become active through the perceived threat. People put themselves in a position to act in order to be able to flee. Orientation in the room is also important for this: where is the next door, how can I escape quickly? The intraparietal sulcus is responsible for this information. Periaqueductal gray, a structure in the brainstem, also plays an important role. It is responsible for attack and escape reflexes and only becomes active when a threat is perceived. However, since the threatening event only takes place on the screen, the viewer does not usually run away. Therefore, the flight impulses are averted again, which happens in the right inferior frontal region of the brain.

If the viewer feels the pain of the characters in the film, the pain system in the somatosensory cortex can also switch on. If there is emotional arousal, the subcortial and sometimes the insula also become active. They process feelings of pain and everything that is perceived as unpleasant or rejected. If what you see in the memory is saved, the amygdala is also involved. Just in children and adolescents horror films can cause deep scars in the memory, which can contribute to anxiety or mental disorders. It is therefore important to protect them from media violence.

People who often watch horror films, are real fans or consider the genre as their hobby react to these films completely differently than just described. These people, who can be socially competent and dear contemporaries in everyday life, classify what they see as virtual. Areas that are related to arousal are less active with them. The periaqueductal gray is not activated; instead, thalamic nuclei far behind play a role. These move when someone is happy, for example, about successful trick effects in splatter scenes. Regions such as the primary visual cortex and areas for object expertise also play a role. Because horror fans are often experts in their field.

Adults are very different in their perception of horror films. It also depends on the personality structure. More emotional people tend to consider cruelty seen as a potential reality – which is not unreasonable in the face of injustice and torture. Others reject this realistic component and keep making horror films conscious of themselves as virtual and not as realistic. What a person considers a realistic threat also has to do with his previous experience. An average European assigns a machine-gun killer less to potential reality than a former child soldier from Uganda.

Recorded by Natalie Steinmann


Cerebral cortex / cortex cerebri / cerebral cortex

The cortex cerebri, or cortex for short, denotes the outermost layer of the cerebrum. It is 2.5 mm to 5 mm thick and rich in nerve cells. The cerebral cortex is strongly folded, comparable to a handkerchief in a cup. So arise numerous turns (gyri), crevices (fissurae) and furrows (sulci). When unfolded, the surface of the cortex is approximately 1,800 cm 2 .


The term describes the complex process of information acquisition and processing of stimuli from the environment as well as the inner states of a living being. The brain combines the information, which is partly consciously and partly unconsciously, into a subjectively meaningful overall impression. If the data it receives from the sensory organs are not sufficient for this, it supplements them with empirical values. This can lead to misinterpretation and explains why we succumb to optical illusions or fall for magic tricks.


The "stem" of the brain, on which all other brain structures are "hung", so to speak. It comprises – from bottom to top – the medulla oblongata, the pons and the mesencephalon. It goes down into the spinal cord.

island flap

The island lobe is a recessed part of the cortex (cerebral cortex) that is covered by frontal, temporal and parietal lobes. This overlay is called the opercula (lid). The insula has an influence on the motor skills and sensory functions of the intestines and is considered a connection between cognitive and emotional elements in pain processing.


Memory is a generic term for all types of information storage in the organism. In addition to the mere retention, this also includes the recording of the information, its order and retrieval.


An important core area in the temporal lobe, which is associated with emotions: it evaluates the emotional content of a situation and reacts particularly to threats. In this context, it is also activated by pain stimuli and plays an important role in the emotional evaluation of sensory stimuli. The amygdala – in German almond kernel – is counted among the limbic system.


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Christina Cherry
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