Synthetic Fear: How to Make a Scary Movie

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Over the years, movie-makers have tried to go beyond what’s on the screen to scare theatergoers. In the 1950s, director William Castle startled those viewing his horror films, notably The Tingler, with gimmicks like vibrators installed under some theater seats. When the creature escapes into a theater in the movie, Vincent Price’s voice warns the viewers that the Tingler is loose and tells them to scream. At this moment, the theater projectionist would activate buzzers under the seats of a few people in the audience, often eliciting the desired screams.

Smell-O-Vision was another attempt to go beyond the screen by inducing odors at appropriate points, but technical flaws ruined its 1960 debut and it was abandoned. Infrasound, very low frequency audio which humans don’t consciously perceive, has been used in movies to amplify audience fear.

While we haven’t seen 1950s-style panic-inducing creativity lately, neuroscience may be close to giving today’s directors an even more powerful tool:

Lilianne Mujica-Parodi, a cognitive neuroscientist at Stony Brook University in New York and colleagues collected sweat from the armpits of first-time tandem skydivers as they hurtled towards the earth.

The smell of their sweat was wafted under the noses of volunteers as they lay in an fMRI scanner. Even though they had no idea what they were inhaling, two separate sets of volunteers showed activation of the amygdala – the area of the brain responsible for emotion-processing, plus areas involved in vision, motor control and goal-directed behaviour. Sweat produced under non-stressed conditions didn’t produce this reaction…

The researchers do, however, have suspicions about what the active chemical might be. The steroid androstadienone is the primary suspect, and Mujica-Parodi’s team say it plans to synthesise it. [From New Scientist – Scent of fear puts brain in emergency mode by Caroline Williams.]

At the moment, it looks like the main commercial interest in this research comes from the U.S. military, who could make good use of a compound that scares people without a shot being fired. Still, if Mujica-Parodi is successful in isolating and synthesizing the “fear pheromone” I can imagine horror film producers lining up to be the first to use it in theaters. If you already are scared by the heroine walking up the dark staircase where the crazed killer is waiting, imagine the same experience amplified with a shot of androstadienone!

Fear in a bottle: coming soon to a theater near you?

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