Review: Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films by Nina Nesseth

cover of Nightmare FuelNightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films by Nina Nesseth 
Tor Nightfire (July 2022) 
304 pages; $20.49 hardcover, $13.99 ebook
Reviewed by Haley Newlin

“Do you like scary movies?”

Ghostface asks this as he stands outside an unsuspecting Casey Becker’s (Drew Barrymore) house. Becker entertains the raspy voice on the other end of the line and plays horror movie trivia. But the game turns deadly when she wrongfully answers Jason Vorhees as the killer in the 1980 slasher film Friday the 13th instead of Mrs. Vorhees.

Cut to Barrymore strung up on a tree in her front yard, disemboweled. And to make it worse, the killer escaped.

Sounds intense, maybe even offensive to some. So that leaves the question: why do we like scary movies? Why subject ourselves to this kind of distress?

Horror is a broad genre as vast as human experiences and emotions. This variety makes some shy away from gory slashers like Damien Leone’s Terrifier but draws them to a good psychological crime film like Silence of the Lambs or Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. In Nina Nesseth’s Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films, the author examines the experience of fear, the history of the horror genre, and its creation with a social, physiological, and psychological lens.

Nesseth argues that social history influences audience members’ taste in horror or their scare scale. In the ’90s, horror turned the lens to more realistic and, sometimes, procedural stories. The surge in psychological horror and crime thrillers came following the 1989 execution of serial killer Ted Bundy, the 1991 capture of Jeffrey Dahmer, and the murder of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey. With surviving victim accounts of said assaults and home invasions, the ’80s slasher trend took to the bench, while studios created stories of the one girl who fought through the terror and came out alive — the final girl is born.

Nesseth also unravels the nuclear weapon scares and the poverty following WWII, not to mention the post-traumatic stress of returning soldiers, depicted in films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The turmoil in the newspapers and on the evening news informed the fears filmmakers conjured onscreen. And this still rings true today. We’ve started seeing COVID-themed pictures, such as Peacock’s original film SICK, which combines home invasion and the isolation of the pandemic.

Nesseth masterfully instructs readers through this social phenomenon, pulling back the black veil on the real horrors of day-to-day society. The scientific approach, combined with the sound design of past and modern-day filmmakers like James Wan and John Carpenter, highlights the abstract sensations of fear igniting in our brains and throughout our bodies.

Horror films do far more than scare. They overwhelm, disorient, and provoke sensory responses. Nightmare Fuel is transcendent in connecting the unfathomable to the documented despairs of history, our evolving neuro systems, and of course, the innovations of media and story. Whether you’re interested in true crime, the science of jump scares, or our attraction to having our wits scared out of us in theatres, Nesseth delivers it all. Nightmare Fuel is an essential read for genre fans.

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