In this study, Joanne Cantor examines the lasting effects of scary movies on college students by analyzing the results of 530 student papers from 1997-2000. Although her students had the option to write about any media that frightened them or someone they knew, more than ninety percent of respondents wrote about personal experiences with movies. Certain movies showed up in student papers quite frequently, and Cantor examines reactions to the top four on the list.
The movie Poltergeist, which Cantor’s students first saw between the ages of four and eight, predictably produced nightmares and difficulty sleeping, but oddly also produced fear of non-threatening objects and bedtime rituals that lasted long after the movie no longer seemed scary. Many respondents became fearful of clowns, television snow, and trees after seeing the movie; and one respondent mentioned that he couldn’t fall asleep if his closet door was open.
Jaws, in addition to the run-of-the-mill bedtime woes, produced a fear of swimming not just in the ocean, but in places sharks do not even live. Lakes, rivers, and even swimming pools scared respondents, as did a fear of murky water.
The Blair Witch Project, perhaps because this movie was released when Cantor’s respondents were older, did not produce the same number of sleep difficulties, but did produce a fear of camping and being home alone in respondents.
Scream affected women viewers much more strongly than men, probably because of the prolonged threatening and stalking of the female victims in the movie. Although sleeping was not strongly affected, the women who wrote about Scream subsequently became fearful of being home alone and babysitting.
Cantor draws on previous research to explain why scary movies produce stronger residual effects than other types of alarming media.
For children under eight years old, one of the possibilities is that young children have a hard time distinguishing from fantasy and reality. Young children also possess strong visual memories, so might retain scenes from movies for a longer time than older viewers. Children also have difficulty comprehending transformations, or visual changes in characters, so gory images might be retained separately from images of normally functioning movie characters.
Once past the age of eight, the reasons become murkier. Viewers might empathize more strongly with fictional characters whose personalities have developed onscreen than with people portrayed briefly on the news. Also, adults approach movies with the willingness to suspend disbelief, so they are in a sense allowing themselves to be frightened. Movie threats, however implausible, can additionally produce reminders of real-life threats. Supernatural movies in particular frighten adults because we have no disproof of existence of the supernatural and no defense against it.
Once we have been frightened by an object in a movie, such as a clown doll, fear conditioning works to produce the same chemical and physical response the next time we encounter the same object. This explains why otherwise rational adults might think twice about swimming in a lake for fear of a shark attack.
This article was originally published in Poetics Today 25.2 (2004)