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Making sense of the ‘uncanny’: Wash U neuroscientist explains science behind Halloween horror flicks

Jeff Zacks is a Wash U professor of psychological and brain sciences and the author of "Flicker: Your Brain on Movies."

Halloween is here, and many are turning to their favorite horror films for an additional fright this season.

Despite the popularity of horror movies – and extensive work by humanists, scientists and psychologists to explain this popularity – Wash U neuroscientist Jeff Zacks told host Don Marsh on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air that the human affinity for horror movies is “one of the big mysteries.”

Zacks studies cognition and perception, and his book “Flicker: Your Brain on Movies” surveys the latest research on the brain’s responses to film.

“One of the things that’s perplexing about all of this is that films can drive us so strongly when it’s manifest,” said Zacks. “Nothing can reach up out of the screen and touch us.”

He explained that the impulse to viscerally sympathize with characters in horror movies may have to do with emotional mirroring.

“There are multiple mechanisms that evolved over a couple hundred million years to keep us safe,” he noted. “Some of these fast automatic systems are built to get us to act congruently with our other humans in the environment.”

Zacks also pointed out the importance of uncanniness in the making of scary and suspenseful films.

He defined uncanniness as a “situation where you have something that’s almost like naturalism, but deviated in some way.”

That feeling “of things being close, but off, is related to this physical sensation of the skin crawling or prickling.”

Zacks’ research into film psychology frequently references the concept that to properly participate in art, we must engage in a “willing suspension of disbelief.”

However, humans do essentially the opposite, he asserted, when viewing horror movies.

“These systems just fire away when you’ve got the characteristics of a compelling situation,” he explained. “And it takes a little something extra to differentiate real situations from fictive ones.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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