Cognitive Theories and Human Emotion
Cognitive Theories: Cognitivism in Film and the Appeal of Horror
Cognitive Theories: Cognitivism in Film and the Appeal of Horror
What is Cognition?
Throughout every waking hour and often while they are asleep, a person is thinking. It is an involuntary practice of mentally processing information. The cognitive rearrangement or manipulation of both information from the environment and symbols stored in long term memory is the basis for thinking. It can also be thought of as the information processing that goes on during the period between a stimulus event and the response. Thus, thinking is the cognitive process that mediates stimulus and response. (Clifford T. Morgan, 1956) Cognition is the set of all mental abilities and processes related to knowledge such as attention, memory, working memory, judgment and reasoning. Cognitive science deals with understanding the nature of the mind and mental activities. It is the study of many facets of the human mind such as how we perceive the world and acquires knowledge, the study of how this knowledge is structured and represented in memory as well as the reconstruction and retrieval of information regarding past experiences. Cognitive Theories and Film
Film theorists had for many years relied heavily on the concepts such as semiotics, Marxism and psychoanalysis. However in the 1980’s a new aspect emerged which quickly began to grow in popularity. At this time, scientists were largely concerned with matters relating to language and reasoning. They saw mental activity as a process of stimuli input and conceptual structures or schemas that decipher the data. When applying these concepts to Film it has to be kept in mind that images act as triggers for many informational cues that may be constructed from an individual’s perception of a scenario or object rather than its form. This affects each individual’s ability to infer from an image and observations are usually based on this rather than arbitrary conventions. Cognitive film studies highlights explanations over interpretations. Such explanations can be causal and focus on the reason for an event or image, or it could be functional where it shows the purpose a certain thing fulfils. In the field of examining human actions, most explanations tend to come down to an individual’s goals and motives. Cognitive research tends to be mentalistic, meaning that researchers look to features of the human mind in order to explain a viewer’s reaction. They do not however make these observations in controlled environments but by examining all sorts of human experience including social interactions. The naturalistic nature of cognitive research means that it tries to align with the world’s current understanding of human capacities. Although most researchers in this field eschew psychoanalytic methods, it can often be a reliable way to locate areas of behaviour that would benefit from naturalistic investigation When applying cognitive theory to film, it is important to ensure that the line of argument remains rational with the inquiry based on solid inductions and deductions. This contrasts with much previous and some of the current film theories which promote free association and heavy emphasis on past beliefs. There is a great emphasis laid on the need for irrefutable answers, those based solidly in empirical grounding and conceptual coherence. A Definition of Horror
The modern master of horror, Stephen King, believes in “terror as the finest emotion, and so I will try to terrorize the reader”, (King, 1981) this in itself gives an initial insight into the purpose and motivation behind horror creators and by extension, the watchers. The basic definition of Horror is threefold. Primarily, for a movie to fall under this genre it should be clearly be catergorised as fictional rather than non-fiction whether or not they are inspired by actual events. For example, notorious Wisconsin farmer Edward Gein served as the basic model in no less than three classic horror films, Psycho (1960), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Silence of the Lambs (1991). However the characters and events of these movies were evidently fictional in every other aspect. Secondly, the definition of horror emphasises the words of Stephan King’s statement in the sense that drawing out a sense of terror from the viewers should be the ultimate goal of both the writers as well as the filmmakers. Finally, the Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft observed that works of horror usually challenge or in some cases entirely disregard the laws of nature, even in cases where the primary forces are not supernatural in origin they frequently implicative of a gross abnormality. This phenomenon allows movies Like Psycho and Jaws to be included within the genre. As such a central definition of horror asserts that it is a fictionalised narrative specifically intended to incite terror by utilising the presence of supernatural or highly unnatural forces. This definition, while very comprehensive fails to take into account the visual and aural factors that are imperative when analysing modern horror movies. The experience of viewing horror is a very sensory task. The combination of the observable or visual component with the aural component is what constitutes a successful horror movie. It has been found that a substantial amount of fear people feel during a viewing comes from the soundtrack rather than the visual matter and most responses to the film are because of the atmosphere created by the music and score. This just goes to show how cognition plays a vital role in the horror experience. The Appeal of Horror Movies
From the early 1900’s when horror movies first appeared on the global arena people have flocked to cinemas to immerse themselves in the genre. Psychological definitions of horror customarily highlight the “fear of some uncertain threat to existential nature and . . . disgust over its potential aftermath” and commonly assert that “the source of threat is often supernatural in its composition” (Tamborini, 1996). One of the fathers of modern horror fiction, H. P. Lovecraft, wrote that horror stories project a “atmosphere of breathlessness and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces . . . of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the demons of unplumbed space”. (Lovecraft, 1923). While this statement perhaps overly romanticises the concept, the basic fact that horror movies play upon human fears holds true. Over the years there have been many theories propounded to explain why horror movies have such consistent and emotive effects on people. This theory dates back to Aristotle, who believed in the process of catharsis, in which the audience, while viewing dramatic or evocative scenes had a chance to purge themselves of any negative emotion. Another variation of this theory is the theory of Excitation Transfer. Doctor Dolf Zillman argued in 1978 that fear-provoking stimuli in movies arouse the viewer to such an extent that the gratification and euphoria at the end of the movie, when the hero finally triumphs is considerably more in comparison. This theory has some flaws of course as it seems to only apply to those movies which in fact have a happy ending and also fail to take into account the numerous serial film franchises such as Friday the 13th or Chucky in which the antagonist continues to return and the plot is never resolved. In addition to this, more recent studies were conducted and it was found that people actually had higher levels of enjoyment during the movie rather than at the conclusion. (McCauley, 1998) Another theory of sensation seeking was proposed by Zuckerman in which he claims that only people who are consciously or unconsciously seeking high levels of sensation become drawn to horror films which provide the perfect amount of increased sensation. (Zuckerman, 1979). Zuckerman created a Sensation Seeking Scale and many studies have confirmed positive results when comparing this scale to the self-reported enjoyment of scary movies. Although it has not always been so consistent this does go long way in understanding cognitive responses it elicits in its viewers although Zuckerman does warm against “interpreting a preference in terms of a single trait or any disposition at all” because “there are many social facilitating factors that bring young people into these films” (Zuckerman, 1996) The most relevant theory to this paper is the curiosity or fascination theory put forth by Noel Carroll in which he states that instead of eliminating or reducing negative effects, horror films simulate and excite positive emotions. (Carroll, 1990) These emotions of curiosity or fascination stem from the violation of societal norms which, as previously seen in the statement of H.P Lovecraft, is a recurring theme in horror films. Although the fascination with viewing acts that are out of the ordinary and the general popularity of such occurrences among viewers alternate research notes that there is a substantial section of viewers that does condemn norm violation and actually expresses favourable reaction to the punishment of such violators over the course of the movie. (Weaver, 1991) This theory displays distinct links to cognitive film theories as it stresses the conscious beliefs of an audience and their reactions to stimuli. By observing the nature of the audiences’ reaction and correlating them to specific mental processes it becomes the most reliable explanation as it has an observable cause and effect. Cognitivism and Horror
Horror is the perfect genre in which to apply cognitive theories because there is something about horror movies that speaks directly to the primal facets of the human mind. From the time of prehistoric man, fear has been ingrained in the human brain designed to trigger an innate survival instinct. Most basic fears stem from this ancient need to survive. Common triggers like a fear of the dark, large or ferocious animals or even snakes and spiders which are often poisonous are all throwbacks to the primary need to survive. Studies by Nobua Masataka1 determined that even children as young as three tend to spot snakes faster than flowers on a computer screen. This is why most images or portrayals of monsters are those that reside in the dark or are snake-like or ferocious. Even monsters with human form such as Hannibal Lecter or Dracula trigger the survival instinct with their cannibalistic habits. On the surface these instincts look to be the cause for human reactions to horror. However Thomas Straube2 determined that the when watching scary movies, the fear responses in the amygdala are not triggered at all, instead it was the visual cortex, that processes observed information, the insular cortex which is responsible for self awareness, the thalamus which conducts impulses between the two hemispheres of the brain and the dorsal-medial prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain that deals with planning, attention, and problem solving. Now that it is clear that fear is not the cause of the allure of horror, it then becomes a case of locating the true appeal. According to Glenn D. Walters, there are three factors that cause horror movies to be so attractive (Glenn D. Walters, Spring 2004) The first factor is the tension. In any horror movie tension is an essential factor, whether it’s anticipated through mystery or suspense or evident in the form of gore, fear or shock it is an immovable fixture in the creation of a horror film. The most commonly used method to create this tension is music. By creating the perfect soundtrack and altering the score filmmaker can change the atmosphere of the film within seconds. Most audiences have become attuned to these nuances in the sound and react accordingly. This cognitive reaction is the product of many years of learning and thus audiences have a preformed reaction to the creation of a tense atmosphere in the film The second factor is relevance which basically entails tailoring the film to suit the target audience. Sometimes a film can be designed to be universally relevant by elaborating on common fears like the fear of death or the unknown. There can be culturally specific horror which takes on societal issues or horror based on a certain sub-group, such as the horror movies about teenagers which are specifically designed to target people of the same age. It is also possible to elicit a personal relevance in a way that identifies with the protagonist, antagonist or victims. By tailoring the plot to the audience a filmmaker can plays on the pre-formed opinions or beliefs of a certain segment of the market thus utilising the thought processes of an entire group to his own advantage. The final factor is that of unrealism. Although the word itself appears to be at odds with the concept of cognition it is relevant because whenever people watch horror, on some level they are aware that it is in fact, fake. It was found in an experiment that although a group of students who were perfectly comfortable viewing acts of horror on film were unable to watch a series of gruesome documentary videos without feeling scared or disgusted, despite the fact that the acts they viewed on screen were much worse.3 This knowledge that what we are viewing is fabricated makes us complacent. Children are more likely to blur the line between reality and fiction, making horror movies far more intimidating for them. Consequently, movies that have a high level of unrealism are much more likely to be popular. This factor is of great importance as the majority of people are highly aware of the demarcations between fact and fiction. To successfully engage an audience they first have to be convinced to disregard all their knowledge about reality and blur the line into the world created in the film. Many early Horror movies such as Dracula (1931) or Nosferatu (1922) are very adept at covering the first factor; they fall sadly short in the other two categories. In today’s horror movies however, the use of extensive special effects, sophisticated lighting and sound techniques as well as the more advanced camera abilities make creating a sense of unrealism much easier. However the audience has evolved with the times and are now hyper aware of the line between reality and fiction making it very difficult to create an atmosphere of tension and suspense which often results in the failure of the film. This just goes to show how important a successful interplay of all three factors is necessary to captivate an audience. The Integrated-Interactive Model
This approach holds that horror cinema is a stimulus which a person interacts with and finally develops a method to cope with. Horror usually attracts our attention by building tension, showing relevance, and creating safety through unrealism. However the lasting appeal of horror cinema comes down to how n individual chooses to react to the stimulus. The integrated- interactive model is based upon a concept called lifestyle theory. This theory advocates that individuals repeat various patterns of behaviour as a means of dealing with everyday trial and tribulations. The building blocks of this theory state that humans have the ability to perceive process and handle threats to its own continued existence. These threats may be prepotent in nature, which trigger the basic survival instincts that exist without prior learning or they could be conditioned threats which have been learned through experience and have thus been associated with an unlearned fear stimulus and response. Whichever category the threat may fall under, it must first be perceived before it can be acted upon. The ability of humans to cognitively represent external events is akin to their capacity to derive meaning from abstract symbols. The work of the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget forms the basis of the lifestyle model. He asserted that people construct schemas in order to organize their beliefs and reactions about the word around them and help to cope with the naturally occurring senses of fear. A schema is like a node in a neural network that contains cognitive, affective, sensory, behavioral, and motivational elements and in this case can be regarding as the most basic centre for meaning in the human mind. Integrated - Interactive Model and Death
When applying this model in Horror, clearly the core element becomes fear as such movies feed on the fears of the audience for their success. The most direct approach to the integrated-interactive theory in horror film appeal would be to observe the construct of existential fear. Almost every horror movies plays off the concepts of darkness, death and danger which are some of the most fundamental fears in any human mind today and have been for centuries. As previously stated the fear of death and the fear of the unknown trigger primal survival instincts and filmmakers have never failed to take advantage of that fact. Death is often represented as a character as in the grotesque antagonist in Phantom of the Opera (1925) or the fear of death can be used as an instigator as in Dracula (1931) or Phantasm (1979). In most horror movies death plays a key role and it is almost impossible to find a horror movie that does not include some element of death. While analysing the various responses to death in horror movies it must be kept in mind all of us watch horror movies for different reasons. A study by Deirdre D. Johnston (Johnston, 1995 ) observed 220 high school students watching slasher films and found that motivations fell into four general categories:
Gore watching – characterized by low empathy, high sensation seeking, and in males a strong identification with the killer Thrill watching – high empathy and high sensation seeking – motivated by the suspense of the film and more identification with the victims. Independent Watching – high empathy for the victim with a high positive effect of overcoming fear Problem Watching – high empathy for the victim but characterized by negative effect – sense of helplessness.
Research has found that disgust as a reaction to real horrors is indicative of a fear of death. (Haidt, 1994). By combining this knowledge with the categories of horror watching above we can deduce that although people can use horror movies as an outlet to cope with their fear of death some viewers who identify with the characters that exhibit fear mastery (independent viewers) were more successful in employing horror to overcome their fears than those who identified with the victim (problem watching). When we examine this theory under the scope of Cognitivism in Film we see that there are many similarities in method. Both stress the importance of stimulus and a logical response. They both have a strong foundation in scientific accuracy and tend not to theorise but rather to observe and deduce. Thus, it can be said that the integrated-interactive model is extremely useful when examining cognitive theories and horror in film.
The unfortunate problem with many traditional film theories is not that they are wrong but that they are more often than not incomplete. By combining the finding of various existing models and examining them in a mentalistic manner, while ensuring that only observable data is considered and the fundamental components of cognitive science are being adhered to we can finally start to form concrete opinions on the subject. In defining horror as fictionilised accounts designed to evoke terror through abnormal or supernatural occurrences by the use of the three principal factors of tension, relevance and unrealism it becomes easier to find a foothold from which we can begin to scrutinize the reasons for its appeal. We have established without a doubt that horror films are popular because they evoke the primal instincts of the human mind, the existential fears and fear of death and provide people with the opportunity to indulge or overcome these fears. Horror gives the audience a chance to view these fears from a new perspective where they can safely play out their thoughts and articulate the scenarios that intimidate us the most. Once that happens and people can comprehend these concepts on a new level the fear of the unknown, one of the most fundamental fears has been extinguished By taking these abstract concepts like fear and death and solidifying them and concretizing it into visible, audible and comprehensive stimuli that are projected onto a movie screen viewers can interact with their fears and gain a new viewpoint that should eventually provide comfort. All these reasons show without a doubt and with the aid of cognitive film theories the reasons that horror cinema has been and always will be popular. Works Cited
Carroll, N. (1990). The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge. Clifford T. Morgan, R. A. (1956). Introduction to Psychology. New Delhi: Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Company Limited. Glenn D. Walters, P. (Spring 2004). Understanding the Popular Appeal of Horror Cinema: An Integrated-Interactive Model. Journal of Media Psychology, Volume 9 No. 2 . Haidt, J. M. (1994). Individual Differences in Sensitivity to Disgust: A Scale Sampling Seven Domains of Digust Elicitors. Personality and Individual Differences, 16 , 701 - 713. Johnston, D. D. (1995 ). Adolescents' Motivations for Viewing Graphic Horror. Human Communication Research, 21 , 522 - 552. King, S. (1981). Danse Macabre. New York: Berkeley.
Lovecraft, H. P. (1923). Supernatural Horror in Literature. New York: Dover. McCauley, C. (1998). When Screen Violence is Not Attractive. Why we Watch: The Attractions of Violent Entertainment , 144 - 162. Tamborini, R. &. (1996). Frightening Entertainment: A Historical Perspective of Ficional Horror. Horror Films: Current Research on Audience Preferences and Reactions , 1-13. Weaver, J. (1991). Are'Slasher' Horror Films Sexually Violent? Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 35 , 385 - 392. Zuckerman, M. (1996). Sensation Seeking and the Taste for Vicarious Horror. J.B Weaver & R. Tamborini (Eds.) Horror Films: Current Reasearch on Audience Preferences and Relations , 147 - 160. Zuckerman, M. (1979). Sensation Seeking: Beyond the Optimal Level of Arousal. New York: Wiley.