Nightmare Fuel – Nina Nesseth

“Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.”

Wes Craven

As a kid, my approach for all things scary looked very much like ‘if my hands are over my eyes, it doesn’t exist’. I was sure that Gremlins were going to invade the car when my parents decided that taking me to the drive-in to watch it for the first time would be fun. I knew with absolute certainty that Bruce the shark had the ability to magically pixelate himself so he’d be able to come through the shower head in teensy tiny pieces, only to reform and attack me where I stood. Don’t even get me started on the library ghost from Ghostbusters.

I’ve always wondered how some of the movies that terrified me as a kid have become some of my all time favourites, how a kid whose imagination was able to make every scary scene so much worse than it really was grew up to love horror.

This book, conveniently combining the many subgenres of horror that I love (I’m an Enthusiastic Horror User with some Supernatural Horror User thrown in there) with neuroscience, which I always want to learn more about.

I learned how we “collaborate with horror films to create tension and build our own fear”. There were examples of how characters attempt to defend themselves against the threat of monsters, human and non-human, through fight, flight, freeze and fawn.

Humans are also extra receptive to things appearing in our peripheral vision. In fact, we may even be faster at reacting to threats that appear in our peripheral vision than to threats that appear right front of our faces.

The author takes on jump scares, why we wind up laughing after a scene scares us, how what has scared us over time has changed what horror looks like on the screen, the role sound (and its absence) plays in freaking us out and why rewatches don’t pack the punch of the first time.

I’m still not overly clear how a self proclaimed scaredy cat transformed into someone who can’t get enough horror but I now know why my go to method for surviving scary scenes as a kid made everything scarier.

Studies have concluded that closing your eyes against a scary scene is ineffective, because you can still hear what’s going on – and whatever images your brain conjures up will probably be even scarier than the scene you’re avoiding.

I loved how all of the science and the discussion surrounding studies and experiments was brought back to examples of specific characters or scenes in specific horror movies. There’s a seriously bingeworthy list of movies mentioned throughout the book at the end. I need to rewatch some of these after reading about them and, happily, I learned of some movies I’ve never seen that I now absolutely have to.

There are some pretty major spoilers revealed throughout the course of the book but, let’s face it, if you haven’t already seen a fairly large percentage of the movies mentioned, you probably wouldn’t be picking up this book in the first place.

Whether you’re into a specific subgenre of horror, including slashers, creature features, body horror, transformation horror, torture horror, revenge films and psychological horror, of if you’re an all rounder like me, there’s something here for you.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Tor Nightfire for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Nightmare Fuel by Nina Nesseth is a pop-science look at fear, how and why horror films get under our skin, and why we keep coming back for more.

Do you like scary movies?
Have you ever wondered why?

Nina Nesseth knows what scares you. She also knows why.

In Nightmare Fuel, Nesseth explores the strange and often unexpected science of fear through the lenses of psychology and physiology. How do horror films get under our skin? What about them keeps us up at night, even days later? And why do we keep coming back for more?

Horror films promise an experience: fear. From monsters that hide in plain sight to tension-building scores, every aspect of a horror film is crafted to make your skin crawl. But how exactly do filmmakers pull this off? The truth is, there’s more to it than just loud noises and creepy images.

With the affection of a true horror fan and the critical analysis of a scientist, Nesseth explains how audiences engage horror with both their brains and bodies, and teases apart the elements that make horror films tick. Nightmare Fuel covers everything from jump scares to creature features, serial killers to the undead, and the fears that stick around to those that fade over time.

With in-depth discussions and spotlight features of some of horror’s most popular films – from classics like The Exorcist to modern hits like Hereditary – and interviews with directors, film editors, composers, and horror academics, Nightmare Fuel is a deep dive into the science of fear, a celebration of the genre, and a survival guide for going to bed after the credits roll.

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