Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Jump scare preparation

I'm currently working my way through a rewatch of the old television series Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

The show was only on for one season (1974-1975, so when I was fourteen or so years old), and the main character was played to awkward, bumbling perfection by Darren McGavin.  

I dearly loved this show when I was a kid, and was devastated when it was cancelled, but in retrospect I have to admit that the worst episodes of its run are pretty dreadful.  Like the one I watched just yesterday while I was working out, called "The Vampire."  You will probably be unsurprised to learn that it's about a vampire.  (The show also had episodes called "The Zombie" and "The Werewolf" named for analogous reasons.  Some of the episodes had intriguing and creative titles, but these were not amongst them.)  "The Vampire," though -- well, to swipe a line from the inimitable Dorothy Parker, "to call the plot 'wafer-thin' would be to give grievous insult to wafer-makers."  The titular vampire attacks a few people, the cops are skeptical that it's the work of a vampire, the usual hijinks ensue, and Kolchak eventually dispatches her with a cross and a stake through the heart.

Roll end credits.

On the other hand, some of the best episodes of the show are downright brilliant -- and scary as hell.  "The Energy Eater" is about a thing that haunts the basement of a new, cutting-edge hospital facility, sucking up electrical energy; the scene where Kolchak is running down a long hallway being pursued by it, and behind him one by one the light bulbs are bursting, gradually plunging the place into darkness, is absolutely terrifying.  "The Spanish Moss Murders" features a guy in a sleep study whose brain waves are being manipulated -- inadvertently bringing his nightmare to life, a hideous swamp creature called Père Malfait who is made entirely of dripping clumps of Spanish moss.  

But none of them had the impact on me as a teenager that "Horror in the Heights" did.  The monster in that one lures you in by impersonating the person you trust the most.  I'll never forget one scene, where an elderly couple unexpectedly runs into their rabbi while they're walking home late one night from a movie theater.  The scene starts out from their point-of view -- you see the smiling, paternal face of the rabbi as he walks down the sidewalk toward them.  But then the camera swivels around the trio, and when it gets to the side, you can see that only the front half of the rabbi is human -- the back half is a hulking, hairy beast.  It's wearing the rabbi's form like a full-body tie-on mask.

It's incredibly effective -- and is one of the creepiest scenes I have ever watched.

It's honestly kind of puzzling that I watch scary shows, though, because I am seriously suggestible.  When the movie The Sixth Sense first was released on DVD, my girlfriend (now wife) and I watched it at her house.  Then I had to make a forty-five minute drive, alone in my car at around midnight, then go (still alone) into my cold, dark, empty house.  I might actually have jumped into bed from four feet away so the evil little girl ghost wouldn't reach out from underneath and grab my ankle.  I also might have pulled the blankets up as high over me as I could without suffocating, following the time-tested rule that monsters' claws can't pierce a down comforter.

So yeah.  I might be a skeptic, but I am also a great big coward.

This was why I found some research that was published in the journal Neuroimage so fascinating.  It comes out of the University of Turku (Finland), where a team led by neuroscientist Lauri Nummenmaa had people watching movies like The Devil's Backbone and The Conjuring while hooked to an fMRI scanner.

They asked the participants (all of whom said they watched at least one horror movie every six months) to rate the movies they watched for suspense and scariness, count the number of "jump scares," and evaluate their overall quality.  The scientists then looked at the fMRI results to see what parts of the brain were active when, and found some interesting patterns.

As the tension is increasing -- points where you're thinking, "Something scary is going to happen soon" -- the parts of the brain involved in visual and auditory processing ramp up activity.  Makes sense; if you were in a situation with real threats, and were worried about some imminent danger, you would begin to pay more attention to your surroundings, looking for clues to whether your fears were justified.  Then at the moment of jump scares, the parts of the brain involved in decision-making and fight-or-flight response spike in activity, as you make the split-second decision whether to run, fight the monster, or (most likely in my case) just piss your pants and then have a stroke.

Nummenmaa and his team found, however, that all through the movie, the sensory processing and rapid-response parts of the brain were in continuous cross-talk.  Apparently the brain is saying, "Okay, we're in a horror movie, so something terrifying is bound to happen sooner or later.  May as well prepare for it now."

What I still find fascinating, though, is why people actually like this sensation.  Even me.  I mean, my favorite Doctor Who episode -- the one that got me hooked on the series in the first place -- is the iconic episode "Blink," featuring the terrifying Weeping Angels, surely one of the scariest fictional monsters ever invented.

Maybe for a lot of us, it's so when it's over, we can reassure ourselves that although we might have problems in our lives, at least we're not being disemboweled by a werewolf or abducted by aliens or whatnot.  I'm not sure if this is true for me, though.  Because long after the show has ended, I'm still convinced that whatever horrifying creature was rampaging through the story, it's still out there.

And it's looking for me.

So maybe I shouldn't watch scary shows.  It definitely takes a toll on me.  I remember when I saw the episode of The X Files called "Patience," about this extremely creepy humanoid bat-creature that was one by one hunting down the guys who had killed its mate years earlier.  At the end of the episode there's only one of them left alive, and he's gone to a cabin on a little island in a lake out in the middle of nowhere to hide.  There's a fire going in the fireplace, everything is deathly quiet.  He's freaking out, of course, jumping at the tiniest noise.  So when there's a thump and a smoldering piece of wood rolls out onto the floor, he is terrified at first, but then (very cautiously) goes to investigate.  No, nothing over by the fireplace, nothing up the chimney.  So he turns around...

... and the bat thing is standing right behind him.

Man, it was ages before I recovered from that scene.  That evening I was damn close to telling my dogs that they could just pee on the rug, because there was no way in hell I was opening the back door to let them out.  Who knew what could be out there?  Bat things, Weeping Angels, evil ghosts, invisible energy-suckers, swamp monsters covered with dripping Spanish moss.

Or... worst of all... maybe even the person I trust most, walking slowly toward me out of the darkness, wearing a big reassuring smile on their face.


1 comment:

  1. Ah yes, the Rakshasa episode of Night Stalker. That's the only one that still frolics in the back of mind, a Demon that could look into your mind and take the form of someone you trust...