Matt Heath: We crave a post-fright dopamine buzz

Publish Date
Monday, 6 November 2023, 9:46AM

Children should be watching more horror movies. It’s good for them.

Last Tuesday, many Kiwis celebrated Halloween the lazy way. No costume, no party and no decorations. All we did on the big night was sit down on the couch and watch scary movies.

I chose Talk To Me, a 2022 Australian supernatural horror directed by twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou. It scared the living heck out of me. The mix of realistic performances, familiar setting and grim supernatural activity sent shivers all over my body.

Mid-viewing, my 13-year-old son arrived home from trick or treating with a bag of lollies. I immediately turned the evil horror off. I didn’t want to freak him.

The young man begged me to let him watch and I told him in no uncertain terms - ‘sure’. If he thinks he can handle it, then great - no one wants soft and pathetic offspring who can’t handle a bit of horror. Also, it was way less scary to have someone else around to hold my hand.

Most teenagers love horror. According to Ohio State University neuropsychiatrist Katherine Brownlowe, MD, we enjoy scary movies, books and experiences not because of the fright but the post-fright high. The amygdala is an area of the temporal lobe that fires up your body when scary things are about. It gets us ready to fight or run.

This amygdala of ours is an old instinctive part of the subconscious brain that formed to deal quickly with real threats in the dark, like snakes, tigers and human enemies. It’s a non-reasoning part of the brain that doesn’t know that what you are watching is just a movie.

So when the ghost is about to appear on screen, it signals your heart and breath to speed up; it pumps stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline through your system like there really was something trying to kill you.

Your mental focus sharpens; you stop thinking about everything else going on in your life and zone in completely on the threat. When someone gets stabbed, bitten or decapitated on screen, the amygdala might even make you scream. Then, when it feels safe again, your brain releases dopamine.

It puts you in a rest phase so you can access what’s been going on. In this state, we experience strong feelings of well-being. An enjoyable social spirit comes over us. We suddenly really enjoy the company of friends, lovers and loved ones. It’s the craving for a post-fright dopamine buzz that motivates us to seek out horror movies. Once you feel that buzz, you want more and more. It’s the same with rollercoasters and other safe but scary things.

Horror movies have other benefits for teenagers. They help them learn how to deal with stress, fear and anxiety in a safe and controlled way while building resilience and human connection.

For anyone of any age who wants to toughen up and feel the buzz with some horror, the Exorcist (1973) still stands as the scariest movie ever made. A chilling story of a young girl’s demonic possession and her mum’s attempt to rescue her through an exorcism by two Catholic priests.

Many of the scariest movies to this day pay tribute to this truly evil flick. The current run of hugely successful Conjuring and Nun films wouldn’t exist without The ExorcistThe Omen (1976) is another scary flick that deals with a similar subject matter: “It’s all for your Damian”.

The M. Night Shyamalan psychological thriller Sixth Sense (1999) will scare the bejesus out of any kid who hasn’t seen it - “I see dead people” - as will The Ring (2002) and the original Japanese version of it: “Spread It Like Sickness. Spread It Like Sickness”.

Dawn of the Dead (1978) and its 2004 remake still give me bad dreams: “When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth”. Then there are the first few Paranormal Activities - terrifying, 28 Days LaterHereditary, and Barbarian.

There are so many terrifying films for your enjoyment. If your kid hasn’t seen Jaws, skip that one. It’s brilliant, but you’ll never get them in the water again.

This Halloween, I spent a heartwarming evening with my son watching a movie that will likely give both of us nightmares for years to come. Parents who love their kids love to scare the living crap out of them.

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