All of us have had moments when we have been scared out of our skin. ‘Jumpscare‘ voyeurism, that is watching people react to horror, has become an internet fascination. With big YouTube gamers like Markiplier and Pewdiepie building their early success on playing games like Amnesia and Five Nights at Freddy’s, there is something oddly fascinating about horror.
But why do ‘Jumpscares’ cause us to ‘jump’. What is happening inside us and why?
There’s Something In There
Last night I was walking home along a familiar path. It was dark, and the only sounds were the rustling of the bushes and my footsteps on the leaves. It was calm, and the long shadows cast by the gentle moon were reassuring. I was lost in thought, the humdrum of a busy mind, when, all of a sudden, something appeared. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a shadow rise from the bushes, the gentle ambience was broken by a rush of leaves.
Something had come from the darkness. Something unfamiliar, maybe dangerous. Wait no, certainly dangerous. Something inside me saw teeth, claws, my imminent evisceration at the whim of something ancient and devilish.
Immediately I stopped, straightened up and my body was filled with energy. But not good energy, a lance of fear. My heart rate increased, I became super focussed on the shadow, time seemed to slow down and my mind speed up. Within seconds I realised it was nothing, but my body still held on to the fear. Why? What is this emotion? And why did it cause such physical changes.
I would imagine you have had the same. Something moving in the darkness, a loud sudden sound, something out of the ordinary that puts you on edge. We, as humans, and like animals, have a simple and consuming reaction for the sudden imposition of the dangerous unknown, Fear. And the feeling of ‘Fear‘ is just part of a syndrome (a collection of symptoms and physical signs,) that characterises our ‘Fight or Flight (or Freeze) response.
It’s almost as old as life itself, and because of it, we are here.
Fight, Flight or Freeze (FOFOF)
It all comes down to evolution, physiology and psychology. Simply put, those who reacted in an adaptive way to avoid death long enough to mate would pass on their genes. Evolutionary theory suggests that over time, those animals within a species with adaptive traits allowing them to survive and reproduce, would become dominant. Whether this trait is a large plumage, as with Peacocks, or lightening speed, as with Cheetahs, it doesn’t really matter, as long as it works.
So when the ‘monster’ in the bush appeared, I was left with three options. Fight, Flight (leg it,) or freeze (hide.)
Fighting is a solution in very specific circumstances. If you are larger, more powerful, or hold some advantage over the other, you can fight. Many animals faced with threat will make a very quick assessment (often based on simple things like size,) to judge their next move. Many will attack, convinced they will win.
Flight is more common, as most creatures are smaller than their hunters. They will rely on speed, camouflage and a near safe place to survive. This is the normal reaction of a mouse, cat, or anything smaller than you. Not all will run, a spider may attack instead, but this speaks of the system being more complicated than just size. Remember, nature is complicated.
Freezing is a third option, and can occur for a variety of reasons. If you have been spotted, and the eyesight and memory of your predator is good, it probably won’t help. But if you have heard a sudden sound, the predator may not have seen you. If you run, you give off sound, it can chase and find you. If you stay still, it may pass you by. Your natural camouflage is more effective when staying still. Especially in the night.
In my case, I froze. The situation was ambiguous, and humans have a tendency to analyse where they can. The FOFOF response surpasses this tendency, and for good reason, we could be eaten whilst we figure things out. Had it been a bear, my analysis would have given it time to kill me. But weirdly enough, humans tend to freeze quite a lot. It says something about our ancestry.
Where FOFOF Comes From
“Thousands of years ago, when our ancestors encountered a predatory animal like a lion, it was best to react immediately and not stand around thinking about the lion, admiring its beauty or wondering why it was bothering them instead of tracking down some tasty antelope. Thus, the fast track to the amygdala kept our ancestors alive.” – John B. Arden, Rewire your Brain..
The ‘FOFOF’ response is just one evolutionary adaption forged early on in the tree of life. Exposure to danger causes an instant chemical reaction, the secretion of adrenaline, with profound effects on the body. The substance causes the heart rate to rise, blood to be drawn into the limbs and brain, and diverted from our stomachs and pelvic areas**. The body is geared up to be focussed, strong and fighting fit.
And we feel terrified. This is a good thing in short bursts, it tells us that we are in danger. It gives significance to the bodily changes our brain has signalled. It compels us to act, to relieve that feeling by action. Adrenaline is a short lived substance, and ignoring it tends to make the feeling worse. Biologically, prolonged exposure to fear results in anxiety, which can become all consuming and repeated. Panic Attacks are just adrenaline surges caused inappropriately*.
Jumpscares And Entertainment
So with this all in mind, why do we love jumpscares, horror and adrenaline. The simple answer is addiction, the more complicated rooted in deep psychological explanations. Fear in a ‘contained environment’ (i.e. one which presents no real risk, is often associated with the release of dopamine, our pleasure hormone. This is the same hormone released with cocaine and other drugs, as well as many things that make us ‘happy’.
We become addicted to the situational aspects of horror. It seems crazy to think about it, but it makes sense. If we survive an attack, we feel pleasure. It makes sense for our bodies to reinforce the behaviour that leads to pleasure. This is why we queue for horror films and buy ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’. Its why we love ‘Jumpscares’ and watching others view them. We take pleasure from it.
So next time you are on the edge of your seat, remember that you are taking pleasure from an ancient system designed to save your life. Kind of macabre, right?
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- Learn more about ‘Evolution’ by reading ‘The Selfish Gene‘ by Richard Dawkins
The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Image courtesy of Eden, Janine and Jim.
*The subjects addressed in this article have been simplified to reflect their effects on a majority of the population. There is always room for individual variation in behaviour (and this is fundamental to evolutionary theory anyway,) which means that not everyone will react the same way. Anxiety for example has many different syndromes, be it Generalised Anxiety Disorder or Panic Disorder, with different effects on behaviour and emotion. The aetiology (cause,) of these diseases are multifaceted, and deserve their own article as opposed to a throwaway clause.
** This is why we often feel a need to ‘shit our pants’ during fearful situations. It is also possibly why ‘Performance Anxiety’ is such an issue, if you are nervous around sex your brain isn’t focussed on diverting blood to the desired regions (and things are slack,) and the last thing we can focus on is sex.