What are we really afraid of? When it comes to horror films, the truth may be found in the limbic system, rather than on the silver screen.

Penned by Canadian scientist and horror scholar Nina Nesseth, Nightmare Fuel deeply explores the science, psychology, and sociology behind fear and our responses to it, from debilitating terror to the low-key heebie-jeebies. If you’ve ever wondered why some people are more susceptible to jump scares, rest assured—there’s a gene for that! 

Nesseth expertly guides readers through the dim and tangled corridors of the human brain in an accessible and engaging journey that intersperses examples plucked from the annals of horror cinema with those of peer-reviewed studies on cognitive development, fear conditioning, trauma, desensitization, mirror neurons, horror as aphrodisiac, and even the psychological effect of film spoilers.

Monster movies, torture porn, body horror, supernatural films, slashers, psychological horror, and splatter films are highlighted in turn, with films such as Hell Night (1981, dir, Tom DeSimone), Martyrs (2008, dir. Pascal Laugier), You’re Next (2011, dir. Adam Wingard), and Rosemary’s Baby (1968, dir. Roman Polanski) used to explore questions such as whether you have any choices apart from fight and flight or why you just cannot seem to shake some fears…even decades later (spoiler: you can blame your amygdala for that!).

The tome’s ambitious and wide-ranging approach investigates not only the experience of fear itself, but related phenomena including the uncanny valley of near-human visages, the math underlying the unsettling sonic onslaught of dissonant chords, and even the eeriness of the Mandala Effect.

In-depth ‘Scare Spotlights’ scattered throughout the chapters dissect films such as Cat People (1942, dir. Jacques Tourneur), Jaws (1976, dir. Steven Spielberg), Hereditary (2018, dir. Ari Aster), Black Christmas (1974, dir. Bob Clark), A Quiet Place (2018, dir. John Krasinski), and The Thing (1982, dir. John Carpenter), and the book is infused with interviews with film editors, composers, directors, podcasters, critics, and authors who discuss the role that fear plays in their work.

A unique examination of genre film that is as compelling as it is instructive, Nightmare Fuel is a vital addition to any film studies collection. It is now available for purchase via Macmillan, Target, and Amazon.