How Environment Affects Fear

What was the first story to truly frighten you? This doesn’t have to be restricted to literature. It could also be from a movie, a game, or TV series. For me, it was a story told to my younger brother and me. Picture the setting. You and your sibling are little kids.

You’re in bed together and ready to fall asleep within the hour. Then in comes your cousin who is several years older than you and has a bit of an a**hole streak. To be fair, who didn’t at that age? Due to this trait, he gets the idea that it would be hilarious to impart a frightening tale on two children minutes prior to them drifting off to dreamland. This particular one was about a monster that digs a hole under children’s beds, pulls them down through them, and then eat them.

After he finishes telling this age-appropriate story, he leaves and it’s just the both of you by yourselves in the dark, with the bed facing the window. I’m sure many of you with big families can relate. My point is my age, how our cousin told the story, and the time of night he did made a huge impact on how I reacted to it. Now, imagine instead if you were told this story during the daytime.

Would it still scare you? In my case, the answer would probably be yes, albeit not as much because the timing of when it was told would have been off. Making children fear is easy, though. After all, at that age, we are more prone to gullibility. As we get older, we learn how to separate what’s real and what isn’t. At least, most of us do.

As a result, it gets more difficult for horror fiction to affect us. No matter how terrifying a concept gets, at the end of the day, we know it’s not real. Therefore, it helps when certain things help to enhance that experience. The scariest movie I have ever seen was an Argentian film called Terrified. It’s worthy of the title and I highly recommend it.

This was I think over two years ago now. It was around Halloween late at night by myself, with headphones on and the movie playing on my TV. In those circumstances, the feeling of dread you get from a movie like that is significantly amplified. Compare that with a horror movie being seen in a theater. At first, being surrounded by people may seem like it diminishes the fear response.

Here’s the thing, humans are social creatures. Have you ever had a movie blow you away in theaters, but when you saw it at home it just wasn’t quite as impactful? This happened to me with my first viewing of Avengers Endgame. It was incredible to see it in theaters and get swept up in all the awesome moments. Although, I did feel the audience did overreact a bit.

However, the next time I watched it, which was alone at home, it didn’t have the same effect. That isn’t to say it wasn’t still good, but the environment of a full audience cheering made a huge difference. Some may point out that this could be due to the fact I’d already seen it once. While I can’t deny this most likely was a factor I do have another anecdote to counterpoint it involving another MCU movie.  This time it’s about the legendary Spider-Man No Way Home.

I never got the chance to see this in theaters when it first premiered. Instead, I only got the chance to see it much later at home, pun unintended. Was it still exciting? Absolutely. Would it have been better with an audience getting more energetic with every new twist? I say yes.

There are audience screenings of it on Youtube you can watch, but it’s just not quite the same as physically having been in theaters at the time. Before I go any further, I want to emphasize that a film needs to be good enough to stand on its own. The theater experience should serve to enhance it, not act as a crutch. Think about how this environmental factor affects horror movies only this time the emotion being amped up is fear.  Every scare becomes amplified due to the booming sound system and massive screens.

Not to mention, movie-going etiquette forces you to pay more attention as opposed to watching at home. It’s easier to see all the gory details as opposed to seeing it on TV. When it comes to horror, there are two movies I saw in theaters that stood out to me. The first was A Quiet Place. Since the majority of the movie was so silent whenever there was a loud moment it hit significantly harder, thus contributing to the tension.

The second movie was Smile. Good god, that ending I’m not going to spoil it, but that design is burned into my mind.  In both instances, the monster or monsters of their respective films were far scarier thanks to being blown up to a massive size on the theater screen. Compare that to a home TV.  Even if you have a home theater system it’s still hard to fully capture the same feeling. With that being said, though it’s only fair I talk about the downsides of seeing horror movies in theaters.

First off, if there’s something about a movie everyone else finds scary that you don’t, hearing them react to it will get annoying quickly. Furthermore, if a horror movie falls flat, a full audience will only serve to highlight its flaws. In my case, this was apparent with IT Chapter One. Look, I won’t deny that movie did some things right and it did frighten me in some instances.  However, a lot of parts were straight-up goofy and not on purpose.

When Pennywise bites off Georgie’s arm at the start of the movie, it looked stupid as hell to me. Of course, we can never forget that dance scene. I laughed my a** off when I saw it.  The same thing can be noticed in viewing horror movies at home which is how I first watched The Nightmare On Elm Street Remake. The first kill of it had me howling.

Imagine a full audience seeing that scene. In fact, I’d say there’s a decent chance that was the reaction when it was first released. Going from visual media to written or audio, we have horror stories. Back when I was first dipping my toes into the horror pool, I was reading goosebumps. Some things in those stories legit freaked me out and I would read them right before bed sometimes.

Needless to say, falling asleep was a bit of a challenge afterward. Fast forwarding to high school and when I was getting into more mature material, I picked up my first Stephen King book from my school library. It was none other than IT. Assuming memory serves me correctly, it was storming outside when I first cracked that book open and then got lost in its pages. As the sun set and the moon rose  I was alone reading in my room feeling my dread increase with each page turn.

I can’t help but think the atmosphere would have been lost without those factors. Yet, books are a bit of an exemption in my view. They have a way of sucking you in through their descriptions to the point that no matter where you are it’s as if you have become part of the story’s environment. Then again I suppose it also depends on how imaginative you are which brings me to internal factors. Some people are harder to scare than others.

Therefore, it takes particular circumstances for them to get in the mood of experiencing horror. Of course, there are other things to consider. Say someone camps often. A movie such as Friday The 13th which utilizes the woods to create tension may not seem as frightening to them. If someone works a lot in a hospital then that setting is probably not going to scare them as much.

Alternatively, horror can make people afraid of certain places like Jaws with water or The Decent with caves.  It can also depend on the time of year, the Halloween season being the most obvious. However, Christmas could also be a contender given that it’s generally thought of as being a safe happy time, although, not traditionally. I may touch on that in a future article. What I think it boils down to is the environment and the individual.

I’ll conclude this with a question. What is your ideal setting to truly have horror scare you?