The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962)

“Let me die, let me die…” a desperate female voice pleads to the audience just before the opening credits role in this campy classic. Immediately we are asking ourselves “What in world could be bothering this young woman?” The answer is simple: her head (and brain), detached from her body after a horrible car accident, are kept alive in a tray with the tools of science! In The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (Carlton & Landberg, 1962) we watch as Dr. Bill Cortner passionately attempts to transplant human heads onto new bodies. As the confident doctor searches the city for a live (and, of course, supple) body to steal as a replacement, the young woman quickly becomes agitated by her new bodiless status, furious at the selfish doctor for reducing her experience to life in a tray. Her anger compels her to seek revenge for this great injustice, and she enlists the help of the forsaken creature locked in the laboratory closet, a half-human monstrosity from one of Dr. Cortner’s previous transplant failures.

The notion of a ‘brain in a vat’ often dominates philosophical debates about the nature of the self and the role of the brain in generating our emotions and feelings. Most psychological research focuses entirely on ‘mental processes’ and has largely ignored the role that the body plays in the way we think and act. However, Antonio Damasio and colleagues have argued that the body generates critical signals that shape emotional decisions (see Damasio, 1996). For example, damage to the ventro-medial prefrontal cortex (parts of the brain behind the forehead) causes otherwise normal people to develop profound impairments in social decision making and reasoning, and an inability to plan adequately for future social encounters. Though these patients retain their intelligence, their poor ability to reason in social situations devastates their personal lives. Damasio (1996) suggests that this brain region helps people 'link' the facts of a social situation (e.g. this is Tom, the person that told me to make all of those bad bets) with the emotional experiences associated with that situation (e.g. losing all that money made me feel bad), resulting in an inability to make a socially appropriate decision the next time that situation arises (e.g. “I don't think I will bet that way again, Tom”). Importantly, according to Damasio’s explanation, emotional experiences depend critically on our ability to experience bodily sensations -- Tom may have caused you to lose money, but a feeling of ‘badness’ is attributed to the loss only after your bodily experiences of changes in heart rate, feeling weak/nauseous, red in the face and so on have occurred. We may be quite unaware that these ‘linkages’ are occurring in any given situation. By linking these bodily outcomes with facts about the event itself, the brain (unconsciously) informs future social decisions based on past experiences. Without this ability, the quality of our decisions reduces dramatically. 

So what would the quality of life be for a brain in a vat? Though the philosophical implications of such a question are perplexing, the empirical study of decision making after brain damage makes one thing clear: the emotions produced by the 'guts' are a necessary component of the way we think and make adaptive decisions. This relationship is unwittingly reflected in The Brain that Wouldn't Die (Carlton & Landberg, 1962), as we are surprised by the young woman's anger, her decisions to talk to (literal) monsters, and her pleas for her own demise. 

Carlton, R., & Landberg, M. (Producers), Green, J. (Director). (1962). The Brain that Wouldn't Die [Motion picture]. United States: American International Pictures.
Damasio, AR. (1996). The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the prefrontal cortex. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 351, 1346.


House of Wax (2005)

What could be more fun than driving to the biggest college football game of the year in your spiffy Dodge Charger, your group of friends piled in the back, geared up for some sophomoric gallivanting? Stopping on the roadside for a camp-night of teenage debauchery, of course! However, when your sweet ride blows a fan belt you have to run to the nearest town to find a replacement. 

In House of Wax (Silver, Zemeckis, & Levin, 2005 -- yes, the one with Paris Hilton, we promise it's still worth watching!), two teens catch a lift with the local road kill collector to Ambrose, a small dusty, out-of-the-way place, searching for the fan belt that stands between them and the ‘big game’. Our protagonists peruse the seemingly deserted town looking for a local mechanic; they find instead a self-proclaimed famous “Wax Museum”. Curious figures stare back at the confused teens as they explore the unknown artful treasures. It is not long before they find out they have entered a staged town-of-wax, created and maintained by a deranged set of brothers as a shrine to their dead parents. The teens find themselves perpetually fooled by the very realistic yet mechanically-driven movements of cleverly placed decoys lining the streets and peering out of living room windows. 

Interestingly, the detection of living things (i.e. animacy detection) is a very hot topic in research laboratories world-wide. People are remarkably adept at perceiving human movement, even when there is no real human form present (huh?! see what we mean HERE). Human attention is highly sensitive to the motion of living things—or things that appear alive (e.g., very life-like wax figures moving in a humanistic way, and even simple geometric shapes moving in certain patterns; see Morito et al., 2009). Under day-to-day circumstances, this mechanism for detecting living things affords us an evolutionary advantage, making us sensitive to potential threats lurking in the shadows. This skill ensures we are better equipped to identify a deranged maniac, stalking us with the intention of coating our bodies in hot wax. However, this sensitivity can also misfire, and we can be easily duped by even moderately lifelike imitations, as the teens in House of Wax are horrified to discover.

Check out House of Wax (2005) here:

Silver, J., Zemecksi, R., & Levin, S. (Producers), Collet-Serra, J. (Director). (2005). House of Wax [Motion picture]. United States & Australia: WanerBros. Pictures & Village Roadshow Pictures.
Morito, Y., Tanabe, H.C., Kochiyama, Y., & Sadato, N. (2009). Neural representation of animacy in the early visual areas: A functional MRI study. Brain Research Bulletin, 79, 271-280.


Red Mist (aka Freakdog) (2008)

Apparently, Red Mist (Breathnach, 2008) had little screen time following its release and, though it is a noble horror film, the fact that it didn't have the opportunity to spread its scientific message is probably a good thing. Putting a twist on revenge killing, Red Mist traces the fleeting footsteps of a cast-out loner, rendered comatose by a group of moody medical students not wanting to get caught for stealing hospital party drugs. By possessing and using the bodies of hospital staff during 'out-of-body' experiences, he exacts an elaborate revenge on the gothic group of geniuses responsible for his tragic situation, all from the comfort and safety of his hospital bed. Some of his methods are clever (acid beer-funnel!), some are just brutal (ever get your head stuck in a car door?), but all of them are purposefully directed and hatefully motivated.

Delightfully, Red Mist tries very hard to ground its fantastical story in real brain science. Indeed, the killer's angular gyrus (a region in the parietal lobe) is almost the star of this film. And this region did receive a bit of celebrity attention a few years ago in the scientific community, when a patient undergoing neurosurgery had her angular gyrus electrically stimulated. Surprisingly, the patient reported a number of phenomena including sensations of “sinking into the bed”, and seeing herself “lying in the bed, from above” (Blake, Ortigue, Landis, & Seek, 2002). According to the authors of the study, the angular gyrus likely plays a role in integrating information about body parts and their relations in space; when this region is disturbed, or electrically stimulated, hallucinations of being ‘out of body’ may occur. The overdosed coma patient in Red Mist shows electrical activity in this region and, of course, the poor doctors do not realize that this really means he can possess other peoples’ bodies to seek retribution. Though patients reporting out-of-body experiences rarely claim to experience possessing others, Red Mist makes a charming imaginative leap -- but one that we would not like to see reach the popular consciousness. 

Check out Red Mist (2008) here:

Blake, O., Ortigue, S., Landis, T., & Seeck, M. (2002). Simulating illusory own-body perceptions. Nature, 419, 19, 269-270. 
Breathnach, P. (Producer), Bosanquet, S. (Director). (2008). Red Mist [Motion picture]. Northern Ireland: Starz Entertainment.


Splice (2009)

Splice (Hoban & del Toro 2009) is a simple film, a modern lesson in the complexities of creating new organisms with human DNA and fostering mutant children in hostile environments. In this classy piece of cinema, a biochemist power couple -- in danger of losing laboratory funding! -- create a new hybrid organism in hopes of a genetic breakthrough. Things take a turn for the worse when the “father” falls in lust with his mutant daughter and his wife catches him having sex with ‘it’. 

This of course causes marital problems, until the mutant daughter spontaneously changes sex, kills the father and rapes the mother. Finally, the distraught mother - only survivor of her freak-child’s murderous rampage - deals with her pain by donating the resultant fetus to corporate science. Confusing? Yes. Freudian? Yes! Though I was shaking my head violently during this film, and my eyebrows were furrowed for so long that my forehead hurt, Splice does do us a service. 

This confusing piece of misfired psychoanalysis hints towards a number of issues related to the role of biological sex in determining behavior, and capitalizes on the media’s fascination with the idea that testosterone, the hormone that assists in transforming a fetus into a male, is related to aggression. The spliced mutant human-fish-duck-bat child ‘Dren’ (affectionately named by her mother) demonstrates a number of radical changes when ‘she’ becomes male, some of which are actually supported by empirical evidence (see McIntyre & Edwards, 2009 for a review). For instance, after the infusion of testosterone, she demonstrates a strong desire for dominance (by killing every other male in sight) and she shows a clear reduction in empathy (violating her mother despite her pained cries).

However, as we take in all the Freudian phallic symbolism and lose track of the all the gene swapping, we must remind ourselves that the science of sex differences is not so clear-cut. We cannot forget the role of interactions between genes, behavior, and environment during human development. And most importantly, in Dren’s case, we cannot overlook the role of mixing human DNA with the DNA of slugs, kangaroos, armadillos, and overbearing mothers!

Check out Splice (2009) here:

Hoban, S., & del Toro, G. (Producers), Natali, V. (Director). (2009). Splice [Motion picture]. Canada,France: Dark Castle Entertainment.
McIntyre, MH., & Edwards, CP. (2009). The early development of gender differences. Annual Review of Anthropology, 38, 83-97.


Hatchet (2006)

The film Hatchet (Green, 2006) claims to be an “Old school American Horror”, and that’s exactly what you get. A group of strangers, lost after their boat tour turned sour in the Louisiana bayou, are relentlessly hunted by a giant, crazed (perhaps non-human), and deformed angry lunatic with, that’s right, a hatchet. The small group must try to overcome their differences as they navigate the dark and unknown woods. Unfortunately, each of them meets an ignoble end -- one-by-one their heads are torn off their necks, their arms are ripped off their torsos, and one of them gets a nice mouthful of frothy lunatic vomit. This movie follows rather gracefully in the footsteps of its predecessors like Black Christmas, and the Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises, among others.

The formula is decades old, and audiences never grow weary of watching scantily clad teenagers trip over themselves while running from a dark and brooding stalker. The popularity of these films teaches us something very simple about the psychology of the horror genera: some individuals are ‘sensation seekers’. These types of individuals tend to seek new experiences, are more likely to demonstrate uninhibited behaviours, and are more susceptible to boredom than others (see Zuckerman, 2006, for a review on sensation seeking and horror film watching!). Those that seek sensation may find that there is just enough novelty in watching people get ripped to shreds, just enough mystery in the darkness of the woods, just enough excitement in trying to resist and fight against the animal rage and strength of their hunters, and just enough make believe in Hatchet to keep their cortisol levels high, giving them the vicarious rush that they desire.

Check out Hatchet here:

Green, A (Producer), Green, A (Director). (2006). Hatchet [Motion picture]. United States: Anchor Bay Entertainment.
Zuckerman, M. (1996). Sensation seeking and the taste for vicarious horror. In J.B. Weaver III & R. Tomboroni (Eds.), Current Research on Audience Preferences and Reactions (pp 147-159). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. 


Peeping Tom (1960)

Released in Britain around the same time Hitchcock's Psycho, Peeping Tom (Cohen, 1960) turned theaters of curious onlookers into voyeurs spying on a mild-mannered young man, Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Bohm), who is determined to create the ultimate documentary on human fear. Seducing women into quiet, secluded rooms, he turns a video camera on them as they are impaled by the cold impersonal blade at the end of his tripod. On film, he captures their contorted and terrified faces as he snuffs out their lives. 

Though Peeping Tom is arguably one of the earliest 'slashers', it is more complex than many films in this category, and has inspired film makers both within the horror genre and otherwise since its release. The motivation for Mr. Lewis's macabre film project comes from his own experiences as a child. The subject of his father's indecent and unethical experimentation on the effects of early fear on the nervous system, Lewis matures into a man obsessed with the concept. Indeed, Mr Lewis reveals that his father filmed his reactions to all sorts of psychologically traumatic stimuli, including forcing him to share a bed with an unwanted lizard.  Mark's father was unquestionably more concerned with his career as a psychologist than with his duties as a father. 

Interestingly, experiments of conditioned fear in humans were not unheard of in early studies by behaviourists. The most famous case, that of 'Little Albert', claimed to demonstrate that you could train a child to fear an animal (and animal-like things) by pairing presentations of the animal with startling, frightening noises (see Watson & Rayner, 1920). Further, it is often suggested that Little Albert's fear lasted into his adulthood. Whether this is true or not, we are pretty certain Albert did not venture into the world of snuff documentary film-making as an adult, though (as the video below might suggest) he probably was never quite comfortable around video cameras, men in suits, or white rats.

Check out Peeping Tom (1960) here:

Learn more about the 'Little Albert' Experiment here:

Cohen, N. (Producer), Powell, M. (Director). (1960). Peeping Tom [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributers.
Watson, J.B. and Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1, pp. 1–14 


The Human Centipede (2010)

The 2010 After Dark Toronto Horror Film Festival was brought to a close by a screening of the most talked-about horror film of the year. Sitting in the packed Bloor Cinema, a crowd of sick minds braced itself for a lesson in the disgusting, a tutorial on the depraved. Choking on our own mental vomit, festering in our own gut wrenching shock, those of us lucky enough to have a seat in the historic sold-out theater witnessed The Human Centipede (Six & Six, 2010).  In this lovely Dutch film, we follow three hapless tourists as they are kidnapped by a deranged German surgeon who is determined to create the world's first siamese triplet. By surgically connecting the helpless victims, mouth to anus, and training them to perform depraved acts -- including fetching his morning newspaper from the front lawn -- the surgeon proves his creative genius and relishes in his over-nourished vanity. Enough said. 

The hype generated by this film is proportionate to its ability to shock and disgust. The thought of the deranged doctor's siamesse triplet, for very primal and visceral reasons, is excruciating torture for anyone who has an ounce of dignity and a pound of self preservation. As you might be able to guess, this movie capitalizes on at least one very basic aversion. Indeed, the aversion to human feces appears to develop quite readily in infancy. Brain structures such as the insula (a cortical region tucked deep within the temporal lobe; see Calder et al., 2000) seem to be critical for interpreting and experiencing feelings of disgust in response to social signals -- for example, the contorted face of the 'second-position' as she gulps a big load of ---). In The Human Centipede there is no shortage of opportunities to exercise the insula's response to these social signals of disgust, and, quite frankly, we feel that this film could serve as the basis for a neuropsychological test designed to probe this brain region's activity. 

Check out The Human Centipede at:

Calder, AJ., Keane, J., Manes, F., Antoun, N., & Young, AW. (2000). Impaired recognition and experience of disgust following brain injury. Nature Neurosceince, 3, 11, 1077-1078.
Six, T., & Six, I. (Producers), Six, T. (Director). (2010). The Huamn Centipede [Motion picture]. Netherlands: IFC Films.


I Spit On Your Grave – Day of the Woman (1978) / I Spit On Your Grave - Unrated (2010)

The editors had the opportunity to take in some festival horror at the 2010 Toronto After Dark Film Festival. One of this year's highlights was the remake of I Spit on Your Grave (Zarchi & Zbeda, 1978; Hansen & Hertzberg, 2010). Falling under the 'rape and revenge' sub-genre of exploitation/horror, both versions of this controversial film test the viewer's endurance for brutal and malicious violence, each beginning with a detailed and horrific rape scene that lasts no less than 40 minutes. But there are rewards for those that make it through the sordid ensemble of painful and nightmarish images, as we watch our heroine (Sarah Butler reprising Camille Keaton's original role as Jennifer Hills) exact a calculated and immensely satisfying revenge against her assailants. 

Whether she is doling out pampering facials with bubbling lye, moisturizing her assailant's eyes with fish guts, or hosting dinner parties with the guests’ own genitals as the main course, we are left hauntingly satisfied with our protagonist’s vicious and merciless revenge. But how could such a thing be satisfying? This is a controversial film for obvious reasons, but our shared experience as sympathizers with the victim shows us something bizarre about human evolution. Experimentally, it has been shown that individuals will punish defectors in a group, a demonstration of what has been called 'altruistic punishment'. In such studies, group members will readily punish cheats, defectors, and tyrants at a great cost to themselves, though they receive no immediate personal benefit (usually these studies involve money or food; see Fehr & Gachter, 2002). That is, revenge is prevalent in human society. In social groups, the presence of altruistic punishers provides strong incentive for even the most villainous to cooperate with the group. 

We are not trying to suggest that the severity of the plot of I Spit On Your Grave reflects in any way the trivialities of human behavioural experiments in economics, but our satisfaction at the carefully exacted revenge in the film does hint at a very powerful human tendency: the tendency to desire and seek revenge, even at cost to oneself.  After watching I Spit On Your Grave, we can leave with a feeling that justice has been served, knowing that the horrid acts of the maniacal perpetrators have been adequately countered with a punishment that tastes a bit like rotting rat carcass. 

Check out I Spit On Your Grave - Day of the Woman (1978) here:

Check out I Spit On your Grave (2010) here:

Feher, E. & Gachter, S. (2002). Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature, 415, 10, 137-140.
Hansem, L., & Hertzberg, P. (Producers). Monroe, SR. (Director). (2010). I Spit On Your Grave [Motion picture]. USA: Anchor Bay Entertainment. 
Zarchi, M., & Zbeda, J. (Producers), Zarchi, M. (Director). (1978). I Spit On Your Grave [Motion picture]. Canada: Cinemagic.

Cold Prey (2006) & Ice Spiders (2007)

There is something terrifying about the remoteness of an uninhabited mountain range, where human tracks are scarce and well off the cell phone coverage maps. Yet, they remain inevitably attractive locales to vacationing extreme snowboarders, and of course, covert military science agencies. This is obviously why the team behind Cold Prey (Sundland & Lyngner, 2006) selected the Jotunheimen mountain region in south Norway as the setting of their blood feast, in which we follow a group of young snowboarders in pursuit of fresh powder and the ultimate rush. However, the thrill hunters become the hunted as they are pursued and killed one by one by a madman, somehow surviving in the secluded mountains, in a revenge-fueled rage. Here, we are faced with the classic terrors of a raging madman, hell-bent on mercilessly ripping apart the nubile bodies of our helpless protagonists. This award-winning film is an excellent, though rather humourless, example of the power of a formulaic slasher to excite our spines and raise our neck-hairs.

The mystery and terror of secluded mountain regions, too, must have been the motivation for the setting of Ice Spiders (Colichman et al., 2007), in which a military experiment in genetic mutation goes awry and a group of hapless snowboarders are faced with monstrous -- and colourful! --  computer-generated spiders hunting and eating the flesh of unsuspecting vacationers. A battle with the spiders is ‘heroically’ championed by a washed-up skier who shows everybody, especially the rigid scientists, that sometimes you just have to think with your guts and ignore all that is reasonable and logical. 

In addition to the shared setting, these two films both conjure strong emotions in their viewers, but for different reasons. To understand how a film is capable of inducing such emotions, we must visit the scheme by Russell (1980) (provided below), which maps human emotions in two dimensions using a continuum of arousal (aroused --> not aroused) and pleasantness (pleasant --> unpleasant) to define various emotional states. Cold Prey is a smart, effective, slasher, able to thrill and terrorize the viewer. The music, pace, and atmosphere are all arousing enough, and combined with ruthless slaughter, they are unpleasant enough to actually induce fear. Ice Spiders, on the other hand, is hardly arousing but it is chock-full of unpleasant stimulation -- all the gore is in broad daylight, the dialogue seems like it was written by a kid at bible camp, and the spiders look terrible, but not in the intended sense. This combination makes the viewer disgusted with themselves at best for continuing to watch, and most definitely saddened by the antics unfolding. These two films are certainly not alone in their abilities to induce a change in the emotional state of the viewer, but together they illustrate the importance of coordinating the arousing stimulation in creating an effective horrific experience.

Check out Cold Prey at: 

Check out Ice Spiders at:

Colichman, P., Hess, A., Hess, S., Jarchow, SP., & Rosenthal, JR. (Producers), & Takacs, T. (Director). (2007). Ice Spiders [Motion picture]. USA: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. 
Russell, JA. (1980). A circumplex model of affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 1161-1178. 
Sundland, M., & Lyngner, M. (Producers), Uthaug, R. (Director). (2006). Cold Prey [Motion picture]. Norway: SF Norge AS.