"Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Tor Nightfire
Written by Nina Nesseth
2022, 304 pages, Non-Fiction
Released on 26th July 2022
The number of non-fiction studies discussing horror films never seems to let up, and in the latest, Nina Nesseth’s Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films, a fresh coat of paint is applied by mixing science with the horror. By and large, the broad sweeps the book takes at discussing influential films, key ideas from the genre and its history whilst interconnecting this to scientific theory and what makes horror and its watchers tick is a success. It is written in a very conversational way, with an easy-to-read style, which holds back from being truly ‘academic’ whilst providing plenty of food for thought for both hardcore and casual fans of the genre.
As a lifelong horror fan, Nina Nesseth’s book did not tell me much about the genre I did not already know, and to knowledgeable fans, much of the film material she covers will be very familiar, such as the Video Nasty phenomenon in the UK, the importance of the music in John Carpenter’s Halloween or the murder of the toddler Jamie Bulgar and its connection to Child’s Play. But her presentation via scientific ideas and theories takes the book into more original pastures. You may well look at some of these films through fresh eyes next time you catch them on television, and think about your personal reaction and how it might differ from the next person. Many sequences provide engaging food for thought with the chronology of how horror movies evolved based upon current fears of particular periods being one strong example.
Thankfully, the science itself does not go too deep and although it references numerous academic studies and research papers, I never felt overwhelmed, and it balances this by not straying too far from popular culture. Examples connect particular films to psychology, PTSD, mental effects, neuroscience or why we enjoy jump scares come thick and fast throughout the book. Other areas which are effectively covered include a dive into the psychology of fear, the effects of trigger threats, peripheral vision and the way in which the wiring of the brain influences how we react to horror. Nesseth also explores notions of fight, flight, or freeze with examples from the cannon of horror cinema, which goes back to the classic period and ends with fairly new films, such as Prevenge. All the big films you might expect are featured, although the classic UK Hammer Horror films are unrepresented. Likewise, the films from Asia over the last couple of decades are given little page time, with the exceptions of Audition, Ringu and the odd other.
I don’t know how old Nina Nesseth is or where she grew up, but she mentions arguing with Blockbuster video staff about their lack of horror titles! Where was this?!? I grew up in video-shops and they were always positively brimming with gaudy and sleazy horror films just waiting to be borrowed! However, I enjoyed these personal anecdotes and they help bring a level of informality to the book and the journey the author was taking in watching and studying so many films. Even though I have seen many of them, I did flag several spoilers when plots are discussed, which might annoy some readers who have not seen these particular films. For fans just getting into horror, the closing chapter has an extremely useful filmography of all the key titles referenced in the book. Also featured are numerous mini-interviews, with directors and players from the horror world. One of my favourites included the director of the cult film Ginger Snaps and how John Fawcett went out of his way not to make a traditional werewolf film.
The eight chapters, which are broken down into cryptically named sub-sections, cover significant ground which start with an examination of how the brain adapts to horror before diving into a brief history of the genre, which will reveal nothing new to most readers. Further chapters look at monsters, the importance of fear and why certain scares are harder to shake off. I enjoyed the various psychological interludes and facts, such as the idea that most men are more likely to enjoy a horror film if the woman they are with is scared or unsettled (not sure I agree with this fact, as my wife just gets easily agitated and puts me off whenever this situation arises!). Graphic films, torture porn, and rape and revenge films are explored and are connected to desensitisation of violence and studies where participants are repeatedly shown violent flicks. Gender is also threaded throughout some sections, pinpointing the lack of research into viewers in groups other than the traditional ‘white male.’
By touting such a book as ‘scientific’ there is always the possibility of putting off horror readers who lack knowledge in the psychological fields and the various dips the author makes into science, but she goes out of her way to present her ideas in mostly lay terms with examples. Relatively recent films such as The Babadook, Get Out, Midsommar and Hereditary all get coverage and appear as examples in different chapters.
Nightmare Fuel covers a lot of ground and the result is a well-rounded analysis of horror films, what we get out of them, how our bodies react to fear, and the lasting appeal of these flicks. Your opinion of this book may well rest upon how much you enjoy the scientific parts and the connections made to the films. The balance is rather good and considering most of the film references are relatively familiar, it is the science which gives the book a fresh angle. It is also a very easy read to dip into and does not necessarily need to be read from cover to cover. An index would have been helpful, but that could appear in the final version. If you are a fan of disappearing down horror rabbit holes, there are plenty to be had in Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films.
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