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'I'll Never Have a Clown in My House!' Frightening Movies and Enduring Emotional Memory
Unformatted Document Text:  Frightening Movies 17 In addition to the ambiguity about their plausibility, another reason for the fright- producing potential of stories of the supernatural is that there is no real defense against these unknown powers. Although we can learn to protect ourselves against shark attacks and homicidal maniacs because these threats are beholden to the laws of physics, normal protective measures are typically useless against supernatural agents. What good does it do to lock our doors and windows if the ghost can permeate walls or the evil being can wreak havoc from a distance? And how could our weapons be assured to be effective against an alien whose body composition is unknown? The fact that eight of the top ten movies in Table 1 involve supernatural forces is testimony to the frightening nature of supernatural themes. The Enduring Influence of Emotional Memory The factors discussed above – young children's cognitive immaturity, the ability of fiction to sensitize us to real dangers, and the ambiguity about threats from supernatural forces – explain some of the long-lasting effects of scary movies. But they still do not account for a good portion of the lingering effects. Why do adults, who are completely sure that they will not encounter a shark in a lake or pool, continue to find themselves uncomfortable in these environments, even though they are aware of the irrationality of their responses? And why do adults continue to dread clown dolls, trees, and television sets that they know cannot harm them? Why are these people's bodily reactions behaving in a way that seems inconsistent with their conscious thoughts? The answer, I believe, can be found in recent research in neuroscience, on the neurophysiology of fear. In The Emotional Brain, Joseph LeDoux (1996), a pioneering neural scientist, brings together current knowledge of the brain mechanisms involved in emotion. To simplify his analysis greatly, there are two brain memory systems that work in parallel in the fear response. Explicit, conscious memories of a fear-inducing event are mediated by a system involving a

Authors: Cantor, Joanne.
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Frightening Movies
17
In addition to the ambiguity about their plausibility, another reason for the fright-
producing potential of stories of the supernatural is that there is no real defense against these
unknown powers. Although we can learn to protect ourselves against shark attacks and homicidal
maniacs because these threats are beholden to the laws of physics, normal protective measures
are typically useless against supernatural agents. What good does it do to lock our doors and
windows if the ghost can permeate walls or the evil being can wreak havoc from a distance? And
how could our weapons be assured to be effective against an alien whose body composition is
unknown? The fact that eight of the top ten movies in Table 1 involve supernatural forces is
testimony to the frightening nature of supernatural themes.
The Enduring Influence of Emotional Memory
The factors discussed above – young children's cognitive immaturity, the ability of fiction
to sensitize us to real dangers, and the ambiguity about threats from supernatural forces – explain
some of the long-lasting effects of scary movies. But they still do not account for a good portion
of the lingering effects. Why do adults, who are completely sure that they will not encounter a
shark in a lake or pool, continue to find themselves uncomfortable in these environments, even
though they are aware of the irrationality of their responses? And why do adults continue to
dread clown dolls, trees, and television sets that they know cannot harm them? Why are these
people's bodily reactions behaving in a way that seems inconsistent with their conscious
thoughts? The answer, I believe, can be found in recent research in neuroscience, on the
neurophysiology of fear.
In The Emotional Brain, Joseph LeDoux (1996), a pioneering neural scientist, brings
together current knowledge of the brain mechanisms involved in emotion. To simplify his
analysis greatly, there are two brain memory systems that work in parallel in the fear response.
Explicit, conscious memories of a fear-inducing event are mediated by a system involving a


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