Don’t go in there!

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  • Don't go in there!
Date:28 February 2007 Tags:,

In horror movies, why does the heroine always feel compelled to enter an abandoned house, knowing full well that a chainsaw-wielding killer is lurking behind the door? Think left brain…

From chainsaw massacres to ghostly returns-from-the-dead to slithering, crawling vermin, 2006 was a banner year for gross-out cinema. Not just at Halloween, mind you, but all year round; even dramas such as and have had creepy supernatural overtones.

After a slump in the early 1990s and sporadic flickers of life since then, horror seems to be back with a vengeance. But after sitting through all these, and particularly after returning from the eight-movie orgy of Horrorfest, I feel I’ve acquired some perspective on the genre, which is fundamentally about half-naked women in danger. And one question rises above all others, demanding an answer: why, oh why, does the heroine always do the stupidest possible thing?

Britannica defines intelligence as the “ability to adapt effectively to the environment, either by making a change in oneself or by changing the environment or finding a new one”. By this definition, the people in horror movies are almost always appallingly stupid, because they first fail to grasp the nature of their peril, and then fail to switch environments or to adapt their behaviour appropriately.

In fact, while humans are better than animals at thinking their way out of a trap, most animals are adept at avoiding traps in the first place, simply by fleeing at the first sign of strangeness. When you get right down to it, even lowly fish and mice are hard to catch! People in horror movies, alas, are easier prey.

But what exactly is stupidity? Where does it come from, and how can we measure it? The IQ or intelligence quotient was originally calculated as the ratio of a person’s “mental age” to their physical age. Roughly one person out of every six has an IQ below 85, which equates to an adult with the problem-solving skills of an average 14-year-old.

This is usually identified as the boundary between “normal” and mildly retarded individuals, and from the look of things, in a typical horror movie none of the characters has an IQ higher than this. Of course, it takes all kinds of people to make a world, and there’s nothing wrong with the natural variation in human intelligence.

But under pressure, reasonable people sometimes make very poor, very costly decisions, and this seems especially true in the movies. So what makes a smart person act dumb?

Hitting the internal panic button
The most obvious answer is panic: a state in which the fear of dying creates a dreamlike dissociation from reality, where the body’s responses seem quite separate from the mind’s desire. Physically, panic is characterised by accelerated heart rate, shallow breathing, dizziness, sweating, and a widening of the eyes coupled with a paradoxical narrowing of the visual field.

The worst effects, though, are on behaviour, which becomes rigid, clumsy, repetitive and irrational. Flooding the carburettor by pressing too hard on the accelerator pedal is a classic mistake for a panicky person to make. This doesn’t work with modern fuel-injected engines, but we can still drop the keys and then, in a fit of panicked fumbling, kick them under the seat. Stupid, yes, but things like that happen all the time in the real world. Just ask your coroner.

There’s also a separate type of panic that affects groups rather than individuals. Under severe and immediate danger, groups are vulnerable to panic if there are escape routes with limited capacity that seem to be closing off, filling up, or otherwise expiring. People can also be surprisingly brave, calm, co-operative and noble in disaster situations. Rules and expectations carry a surprising weight (women and children first!), and a single calm voice can turn the tide.

Unfortunately, when the adrenaline is running high, a single push, a scream or a sudden sprint can trigger an avalanche of stupid behaviour. The classic example is a fire in a crowded theatre; very few people are willing to sit still and burn to death while others escape. Instead, everyone rushes out in a mass until the exits literally jam with bodies, and then everyone slowly burns and suffocates. Group panic turns a life-and-death situation into death-and-death, raising the body count far above what it ought to be. And again, this is something that really happens.

But what about the opposite of panic? In all the animal kingdom, human beings have a unique ability to ignore warning signs, override fear and walk straight into harm’s way for no good reason. This can, in part, be blamed on the Freudian “death wish”, a tendency toward self-destructive behaviour. It doesn’t make any sense, but every day people gamble away their life savings, inject themselves with toxic drugs, engage in profitless thrill-seeking and even commit suicide when they know, intellectually, that their lives are likely to improve.

Another contributing factor is curiosity. Like cats, we humans have a strong need to get in and see things for ourselves. We slow down to look at car crashes, we stay outside to watch the tornado, we hear a strange noise and go in to investigate, even knowing it might be dangerous. I think the greatest threat, though, lies in the very structure of our brains.

In reptiles, the dominant driver of behaviour is the amygdala, which controls primitive memories as well as emotions such as aggression, fear, jealousy and lust. In lower mammals, a more complex “limbic system” allows subtler emotions such as love and protectiveness to moderate these responses. In higher mammals and especially primates, the cortex is permitted to override the limbic system with rational planning, but in humans and humans alone, the neocortex rules.

This wrinkly cap accounts for three-quarters of the volume of a human brain, and the right half of it is creative, intuitive and generally suspicious of the world around it. But, for better or worse, the neocortex is dominated by its left hemisphere, which tends to be not only logical but gullible, rationalising and self-deceiving.

You know that voice inside your head that says everything is all right, there’s nothing to worry about here, just ignore your gut feeling and get on with the task at hand? That’s your brilliantly stupid left brain talking, and if you listen to it long enough, eventually it will kill you.

Cuteness counts – and sometimes kills
There are also subtler forms of stupidity that can only be described mathematically. “Game theory” is a mathematical tool for predicting outcomes, measuring advantages and applying the logic of games to real-world situations. Now, horror movies are more like poker than chess, because the pieces – and even the rules themselves – are not in clear view.

Also, generally speaking, no one ever finishes the movie better off than they started. Finally, there’s no structured “turn sequence” in a horror movie, and the actions of the participants are not usually limited to multiple-choice, as in picking Door A or Door B. In technical terms, this means the horror-movie scenario is a negative-sum, characteristic-function, infinite game of imperfect information.

Why does this matter? Well, it provides a mathematical framework for deciding whether a given action is smart or stupid. Even in a world of winners and losers, there are still sets of behaviour where unnecessary losses are kept to a minimum. These are known as saddle points or “Aumann-Maschler solutions”.

Ecologies, farms, ant colonies and human societies are examples of systems in perfect balance, but horror is of course the very opposite of balance. In this scenario, where everyone is acting far from the saddle point, the situation is unstable and may inflict huge losses on everyone involved.

One key to survival is communication and co-operation, particularly between players on the same side. In other words, the victims would do well to talk to each other, sharing inf
ormation and strategies rather than splitting up to search the house. They may even benefit from talking to the monster.

Mathematically speaking, feeding it virgins in exchange for safe passage makes a lot of sense! On the other hand, game theory also teaches that in horror scenarios there isn’t a single perfect response; overall survival is maximised when individual players sometimes fight, sometimes talk and sometimes run away.

This is known as “mixed strategy”, and we do see a bit of it in horror movies as people start to figure out what’s going on. This can look like stupidity at the individual level, but in fact a randomised response increases the odds that someone will eventually get away.

Similarly, in 1950, psychologist Konrad Lorenz showed that “cuteness” is an evolutionary adaptation in mammals that encourages adults to protect and nurture children – not necessarily their own, but anyone’s children – in order to boost the overall survival of the species. This may explain why wolves sometimes adopt human babies, and why movie heroines are always “stupidly” rushing off to save a child or pet at great personal risk.

This may not be the best individual course of action, but the desire to save the cute and innocent is woven deeply into our nervous systems, and it’s one of many factors the heroine has to contend with in her struggle to survive. Still, all we’ve done so far is catalogue the various flavours of stupidity, which begs the final question: can anything be done about it? Well, intelligence is a variable thing, and the best evidence these days is that approximately half of that variation is hereditary. This means the other half depends on outside influences, and in fact a good education has been shown to increase some aspects of a person’s intelligence.

In other words, though we can’t teach people to be geniuses, we can at least train them to avoid certain forms of gross stupidity. This may, in fact, be part of the appeal of horror movies: we see the victims pay for their mistakes in blood, or with their lives, or sometimes with their very souls.

We recoil, then snicker, gently reassuring ourselves that if we were in that situation, we’d know what to do. Then, watching the heroine figure things out, show some backbone, and finally battle her way to safety, we applaud. That’s what I would do, yes. Exactly that.

And you know? With the desensitising effects of violent cinema, the result for the audience may actually be a sort of virtual combat training. When zombies or ghosts or leather-masked, chainsaw-wielding maniacs attack, we may find that we really do know how to maximise our odds of survival. We may even discover that we’ve been trained from birth to handle not only these specific situations, but a broad range of bizarre, terrifying, inexplicable dangers.

If the Universe is not only stranger than we imagine but stranger than we can imagine, then the stupidity of horror movies may prove, in the end, to be our best defence.

* Sci Fi Weekly (

Wil McCarthy is a rocket guidance engineer, robot designer, nanotechnologist, science-fiction author and occasional aquanaut. He has contributed to three interplanetary spacecraft, five communication and weather satellites, a line of landmine-clearing robots and some other “really cool stuff” he can’t tell us about.


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