At this point in the century-long history of cinema, it’s pretty hard to tell a story that hasn’t already been told. This is particularly true of the horror genre, where nearly every way to make our spines tingle and stomachs turn has already been offered in its most horrific and gruesome form to audiences, establishing a thick lexicon of tropes.
But believe it or not, in an industry where the “art of scare and suspense” has no choice but to evolve in order to keep audiences guessing, the genre is doing just that. Patricia Pisters, professor of media studies at the University of Amsterdam, argues that we have now entered a new age of fright. Today, the things that go bump in the night have far less to do with creepy music and cheap thrills, and far more to do with how the brain responds to stimulus.
In a new essay at Aeon, Pisters acknowledges that movie-makers are becoming increasingly aware of how our brains work and how we respond to emotional stimuli. Gone are the days where Alfred Hitchcock dreamed of being able to manipulate people’s emotions at will as they watched his films. This is now a reality, courtesy of new research in the field of neuroscience. Perhaps the most recent example of the industry’s growing understanding of how we as humans work (and how to use that to make us scared) isn’t a horror movie at all. Pisters references Pixar’s Inside Out as a shining illustration of how writers, editors and directors interpret people’s thoughts and actions for the screen based on these new scientific findings.
The essay not only explores the data behind the “new scary,” but also names it. Known as the “neurothriller,” this subset of horror uses our whole range of human emotion to drive our terror (lust, hope, guilt), instead of the plot like much of the genre. Scary has moved from the suspense of us knowing what’s coming and being unable to communicate that to characters (a.k.a. dramatic tension) to an emphasis on both character and confusion. Yes, the neurothriller is so successful because it knowingly rejects context or explanation, leaving the viewer disoriented. We often need answers to rationalize what’s happening, but if we don’t get them it more than unsettles us. It terrifies us.
Pisters points to Lars Von Trier’s work, including his films Antichrist and Melancholia, as prime examples of this new emotion-driven and mentally unsettling narrative approach. 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and Red Road are other examples of films cited to fall within the genre.