So… are you brave enough to watch it?
The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who love horror films, and those scaredy-cats who point-blank refuse to watch them (you can no doubt guess which camp we fall into).
Somewhat surprisingly, there are plenty of benefits to being scared at the movies – and no, it has nothing to do with easy access to bucket-loads of popcorn.
As Jeffrey Goldstein, a psychology professor and expert in violence and entertainment at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, notes: “People who consume violent and scary entertainment rarely do it alone.
“Going as a group helps ground you in reality, and you can compare your reactions with others and show others that you are strong enough to take it.”
Indeed, after observing audiences at horror films for years, Goldstein has seen people scream and cry and even throw up, but often, those same people will appear happy after the movie is over. They’ve also proved to themselves they can handle it.
In short, a terrifying horror session with your pals is the ultimate bonding activity. But, to quote the indomitable Wham!, if you’re gonna do it, do it right. Or, in other words, if you’re going to watch a horror film, make sure you pick the scariest bloody horror film on offer.
So how do we do that?
Well, Keith Bound from the University of Nottingham has done some hefty research into the kinds of films that scare us the most.
Back in 2015, he attached receptors to volunteers’ sweat glands to measure the electrical activity in their skin as they watched 32 short film clips assembled from eight feature-length horror films. Bound was looking for the kinds of electrodermal responses that occur when we’re nervous, stressed or scared, which are created by the release of sweat from our eccrine glands (for example, when we get sweaty palms).
He then combined these electrodermal measurements and other kinds of physiological responses –such as volunteers closing their eyes or turning away from the screen – with viewer feedback, and the results indicated that differing levels of ‘psychophysiological’ fright are experienced from the following four suspense situations:
Direct: We see the film in the first person, as if we are the character in the film.
Shared: When we empathise with a fictional character’s situation.
Vicarious: The viewer knows a fictional character’s life is threatened, but they are not aware of the danger.
Composite: Direct, shared, and vicarious suspense synchronised together.
Of these four kinds of horror scenes, audiences experience the most dread and tension when the relationship with the protagonist is vicarious, with the viewer knowing what’s about to happen but the fictional character being completely unaware.
In other words, there’s a very good reason people feel like yelling, “He’s behind you!” even when they’re in a crowded cinema.
“These findings provide evidence to support Alfred Hitchcock’s assumption that vicarious suspense is the most consistent method to generate an intense form of anxiety and suspense,” Bound said.
“But cinematic techniques such as cinematography, editing, sound and set design also play a part in the viewer experience.”
All of the above is very interesting, of course, but what of this year’s numerous horror movie offerings?
Well, studio A24 have done some extra research into figuring out the creepiest movie of 2018 – and it just so happens that it’s the very same one which caused our most hardened film reviewer to break down into terrified sobbing at the cinema.
We’re talking, of course, about Hereditary.
That’s right: as reported by The Telegraph, studio A24 decided to kit out 20 random viewers with Apple Watches as they attended promotional screenings of Toni Collette’s movie, which tracked their heart rates as the film unfolded, in an attempt to get evidence of just how scary it is.
The resulting graph shows an average heart rate of 164BPM. Which, considering a healthy resting heart rate is between 60 and 80 beats per minute, is more than a little alarming.
It may not be a perfect science, but it’s also worth noting that the story is packed full of vicarious situations, which means that viewers do get to screech advice at Collette if they so wish. And, if “scariest movie in years” designations could be counted as a metric, Hereditary has been busily scoring them at an unprecedented rate. Googling the phrase right now basically just brings you to a list of articles about the film, with USA Today, The Independent, and Thrillist all using variations of the phrase to describe it.
Indeed, AV Club took it a step further, calling Hereditary “the most traumatically terrifying horror movie in ages” (repeat: not just years. Ages).
With a healthy score of 89% on Rotten Tomatoes, it seems as if the furore around Hereditary – which hit cinemas earlier this year – has yet to die down. And, with the DVD due to hit shelves this September, we imagine social media will once again be flooded with “OMG HEREDITARY IS THE SCARIEST EFFING FILM OF ALL TIME” tweets once again.
So watch it, if you dare: we are coming up to Halloween, after all. Just be sure to do so with friends, to ensure you get the maximum benefit out of it.