BOOKS… Nightmare Fuel, The Science of Horror Films by Nina Nesseth : 2022



A journey into the real life science and films behind those fictional horror moments you adore…


An essential guide to the many ways our brain and body react to real life and fictional horror with inspiring examples from all sorts of horror movies.


Horror Films: A Montage, James Van Fleet


I’ve always been interested in the effect of media on the individual with a long-time interest in mental health matters. This came about after treating a client who became fearful and paranoid after their psychosis was triggered by hearing a certain rock band’s music. This added to my strong interest in neurological conditions such as anxiety-related conditions. These conditions include phobias and obsession and the sometimes unique causes of these conditions and the subsequent thoughts or behaviours that develop when responding to those fears…

So, I was immediately drawn to the title of author Nina Nesseth’s book, Nightmare Fuel, The Science of Horror Films. Nesseth illustrates throughout her 240 paged book that we as humans all react emotionally to horror on screen… and will go through one or more of a gamut of emotions from fear to disgust. This reaction she stresses is different to our reaction to off-screen and real-life horror.

She adds there are two kinds of horror movie fans, those who love everything horror and those who prefer a specific subgenre. She adds that horror is difficult to define as we all have our own unique interpretations. I concur with these beliefs and am a sometimes horror film fan.

I’m one for 1970s horror of all sorts, and my blog’s A – Z film and TV movie pages will support this fact wholeheartedly. These are crammed with reviews of a variety of 1970s horror films including killer animals, child of Satan movies and those films featuring characters with psychic powers. But I hate body horror, gory and bloody scenes…

My definition of horror movies includes everything from familiar horror titles seen in familiar retro favourites such as The Amityville Horror (1979) to one I’ve just newly discovered, Phenomena (1985). Yet even more personally, my list of horror films also includes an animated movie that freaked me out as a child, Watership Down (1978) and the ludicrous thriller, so bad it’s good, Jaws IV (1987).

Nesseth sets the ambience for this book in an apt way from the first sentence. She starts this book with a question you may remember from the horror film, Scream (1996). This question –  which I heard in the eerie and spooky voice from the movie character it came from – shifts you effectively from your comfort zone to one on the alert to all things of the horror kind, as she asks…

Do you like scary movies?

She then describes this film’s opening scene. In this scene, a character, Casey – played by the well-known actress Drew Barrymore – is asked this same question. It’s asked by a disembodied voice in a mysterious phone call as she’s home alone. Casey later meets her untimely death in a horrible way after she’s killed by this unknown masked killer caller.

Nesseth asks about your initial personal reactions to these on-screen events. And then she adds that your response of shock, surprise or fear is what the Scream filmmakers had hoped for…

The author defines the individual nature of horror stating it is,

“a genre as broad as the range of human fears, and it takes as many shapes”.

She also explores the difficulties in defining the horror film genre, as it is one with many subgenres. She believes everyone has a more personal definition and interpretation of this word. She argues that more successful horror films are then redefined into other film genres by the film industry.

She adds that the die-hard horror viewer is also “picky” when defining this genre and in listing its films and components within the plot, be these monsters, protagonists or fearful situations. This concurs with the individual take on this definition as what scares you might not terrify someone else.

In writing this book, Nesseth aims to;

“dissect every way that films affect us: how the people who craft scares leverage science against their audiences, how we engage horror with our brains and bodies, and why we constantly come back for more scares when, logically, we should avoid the scenarios we see on screen, not happily expose ourselves to them.”

You will find she certainly delivered on each and every point… The contents’ page lists eight inviting chapter titles showing ways horror is created on-screen and analyses our reactions. Chapters such as Putting Fear in your Ears,  How to Make a Monster and Why Some Scenes Stick with You indicate just a few ways in which filmmakers elicit an emotional response. Relevant films are examined more fully as she explores these themes in a wide spectrum of ways. And in these chapters how we are affected by film monsters (be they human or beasts), the film soundtrack (including noises and dialogue) and our behaviour learned from our childhood film experiences.

Nesseth argues that all horror films come with a guarantee that they will deliver emotional responses. Horror fans are unique to other film genre viewers, in that they are complicit in their scientific response – be it biological, behavioural or psychological – to a horror film. The horror aficionado also is unique as they enjoy the familiarity and repeated themes within the horror plot and tropes and will often seek these situations and themes out when watching a horror movie.

This author explores in-depth how real-life (off-screen) horror affects us as individuals scientifically. In scientific discussion, Nesseth outlines and explains biological, learned and innate behavioural responses. This discussion includes recognised biological reactions such as increased heartbeat and brain reactions. In addition, behaviours are seen which include the fight or flight reaction, freezing or avoiding the fear. Innate reactions are defined as those we are predisposed to as humans for survival and those explored include fear of the dark, snakes and spiders.

She advocates there are different reactions to these same fears as we experience them when watching horror films. These reactions include sympathy, empathy and a desire to help the protagonist. Nesseth supports these behaviours with appropriate references to pertinent research from filmmakers and scientists. Nesseth explores a wide range of responses to this film medium and its subgenres, and you may identify with many of these behaviours in line with those many horror scene descriptions and tropes.

You’ll find that you are not the only one with this reaction and this response is just one of many different reactions you’ll feel when reading the variety of subgenre examples – as described in vivid scene descriptions – in this book. Nesseth’s always spot-on analysis is supported by her findings gleaned from extensive research from scientific literature, her own self-disclosure and this author’s observation of a film character’s responses to this horror.

This book includes a deep examination into how filmmakers of all professions – such as film editors and soundtrack composers – create horror on screen by,

“influencing practical and digital special effects, camera techniques, sounds, editing and narrative storytelling”.

Her analysis of scenes is supported as this craft is further discussed within her interviews with filmmakers  – such as film editors and soundtrack composers – regarding their roles in this creation process.

Scream is just one of a tsunami of horror films explored in the book, and there’s something for everyone. Nesseth explores individual titles from a wide range of horror subgenres – including body horror and pregnancy horror – and illustrates her points vividly with film, characters and scene examples from every decade. To her credit, she often goes out of her comfort zone, to explore subgenres she herself is fearful of, and this often means you may do the same. However, this is more reassuring reading than harmful, with her often adding support and practical advice.

Within the chapters, Nesseth also includes individual sections named Scare Spotlight where she analyses a particular movie trope pertinent to the chapter content more fully. Film examples include Hereditary (2018), The Thing (1982) and Alien (1979). Relevant films and pertinent scenes are discussed with a great analysis of the plot and its tropes. An example of this is when she discusses the jump scare technique. After this trope is explored scientifically, Nesseth analyses its use in a movie example. This is further complemented with movie titles and relevant scenes in the chapter content.

She also adds sections named In Conversation with her exclusive interviews with filmmakers, horror podcasters, composers and podcast hosts. Nesseth asks these creators about their individual and professional roles in their work. Nesseth asks questions with insight and these answers to her compelling questions shed further light on how our emotions are manipulated by these films.

Throughout this book, human responses and scientific reactions are written about in a way, that you can relate to, understand and identify with. Nesseth gives examples of the responses to this horror by characters by describing relevant scenes from familiar horror movies. This co-relation between fact and fiction makes this subject more comprehensive and meaningful for all. Especially those whose eyes glazed over in biology lessons full of those imposing long biological names and terms which made this topic a more dry subject at school.

Also as a child, it seems that we find horror in other film genres. In her chapter, Why Some Scenes Stick with You, this particular chapter’s scientific and on-screen analysis is reassuring and supportive. Her writing indicates that my intense childhood fears of the animated film Watership Down seem quite normal as this childhood fear of the film is one which I still have now over forty years later.

This long-term fear is indirectly empathised with by the author. Nesseth tells of her and her partner’s reactions and Gremlins (1984) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) respectively. She adds that many children avoid watching the snake filled scene in a certain Indiana Jones movie and these adults now dislike snakes as much as this film character.

Throughout this book, reading Nesseth’s supporting evidence I discovered many surprising research findings. Our reactions to these film moments are discussed in research gleaned from journals of all sorts and from all sorts of professions. A detailed A to Z list of the films and articles referred to when writing each chapter are listed in appendices with full details of these titles.

The book is crammed with surprising findings – and some now on reflection, common sense – of all sorts, to remember when watching this genre. I learned that closing your eyes does not make you avoid what’s on-screen. This is as you still hear what’s happening on screen, as your imagination takes over and it seems a human’s imagination is often much worse than what’s shown on screen. And I made a mental note to remember this for the next time I (try) to watch The Thing.

And if you want to bond on your first date, a horror film is advised over a rom-com to watch for the “snuggle” effect. And this might just explain why my Darlin Husband introduced me to zombie films galore during our early dates (and beyond).

Nesseth takes you on an analytical trip through horror films, tropes and their scenes in a wide range of subgenres of all sorts as she examines human reaction. You’ll both emphasise and sympathise with others, be they characters or research participants you read these pages taking you to all kinds of horrors. This book is also a supportive and empathetic guide to horror films from every decade, and subgenres. It’s like a goldmine of films to watch, and reactions to emphasise be it off-screen or on.

Finally, in her introduction, Nesseth asks another question. This question is one familiar to all kinds of horror fans, who are often asked it after watching a horror film of any subgenre. But now I am answering and paraphrasing this question, after reading this all kinds of horror-themed book. And a book where admittedly I also went out of my horror comfort zone more than a dozen times reading examples or film titles, but with the support of this understanding writer. So was this book scary? And the answer is no, but it was very good.


A disclaimer and personal thank you to NetGalley and Macmillan-Tom Doherty Associates, for giving me an Advance Reader Copy of Nightmare Fuel, The Science of Horror Films by Nina Nesseth. Financial compensation was not received, however, I received a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions expressed here are my own. If you would like your book to be featured or promoted here, please drop a line to me via my Contact Me Page.





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