I just recently got into watching scary movies, and that’s a huge step for me. I don’t think I can fully put into words how scared I used to get. Scary movies gave me nightmares, but even worse, they heightened my anxiety like you wouldn’t believe. I’m a fully grown man, and even watching a silly zombie movie like Shaun of the Dead was torture for me. And although I’m an adult, I have no problem admitting how truly scared I used to be.
This past year, things changed a little bit. I’ve been dating my lovely girlfriend for coming up on four years, and she loves scary movies, and up until recently, I pretty much just let her watch them alone. Then, my son started becoming interested in the YouTube channel Dead Meat, and he really wanted to watch the It remake.
One day, I decided it was time to fight my fear because I didn’t want my son to be in his 20s and 30s as scared of movies as his dad was. So, my son and I started watching scary movies with my girlfriend, and we watched a lot of them. When we first started, my son and I would sit next to each other on the couch and close our eyes together. But after months of exposure therapy, him and I watch scary movies and scary TV series like champs.
He absolutely loves watching scary movies with us, and not to brag, but I think I’ve impressed my girlfriend with how not scared I am these days.
But after diving deep into the horror movie genre, I started noticing something interesting about the human mind and how we think while watching scary movies. I know there are plenty of fellow horror fans out there, so I thought it’d be fun to blend a little psychology and critical thinking with how we watch horror movies.
Something I noticed while watching horror movies is that a lot of us have a lot of opinions while we watch the movie. We say what we’d do in those situations, and we have ideas about what the characters should and shouldn’t do. Aside from previously being extremely afraid of scary movies, something else that makes me a little less manly is that I’m not a sports fan, but I imagine we watch scary movies like people who yell at football games on TV about what the players and coaches should do.
As I’ve grown more familiar with horror movies, I’ve also started to notice that the horror community is quite critical of these films. While I could do a whole different video about the nuanced discussion around preferences for what makes a good horror movie or TV series, I wanted to cover something that I noticed while doing some self-reflecting. Since coming to this realization, it’s not only helped me enjoy horror movies a bit more, but I also try to use it in my daily life to help me better understand the decisions that other people make, which I may find silly or irrational.
The Curse of Knowledge
Recently, we watched The Haunting of Bly Manor, which was the follow-up season to The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. Not to spoil much, but there was one scene in the early episodes where the main character Dani goes down into the basement alone and sees a doll sitting there by itself.
As I watched this scene, I remember thinking, “Turn the lights on! ALL OF THE LIGHTS!”, and “Why are you walking down there? RUN! RUN DOWN THERE. GRAB THE DOLL AND LEAVE!”
It was then that I realized a major thinking error that many of us have, so I started thinking about it, and I noticed it even more as I watched more scary movies and shows. This thinking error is what psychologists call “the curse of knowledge”, and it can also fall under the category of the false consensus effect bias. This is a problem we all have where we think that other people know what we know or have the same information that we do.
Before I dive further into this thinking error, we should first discuss the theory of mind. The theory of mind is something that separates humans from non-human animals, and it’s our ability to tune into others and predict what they know. For years, psychologists have studies children to see when various stages happen, and they’ve found that the theory of mind typically develops around age 4–5.
In 1983, they first did the classic experiment testing for theory of mind. They brought children of different ages in for the study, and here’s what they did as explained in this article from The Guardian:
“In the experiment, children were presented with two dolls, Sally (who has a basket) and Anne (who has a box). Sally puts a marble in her basket, and leaves the room. While Sally is away, Anne takes the marble from the basket, and hides it in her box. Finally, Sally returns to the room, and the child is asked three questions:
Where will Sally look for her marble? (The “belief” question)
Where is the marble really? (The “reality” question)
Where was the marble at the beginning? (The “memory” question)
The critical question is the belief question — if children answer this by pointing to the basket, then they have shown an appreciation that Sally’s understanding of the world doesn’t reflect the actual state of affairs. If they instead point to the box, then they fail the task, arguably because they haven’t taken into account that they possess knowledge that Sally doesn’t have access to.”
What’s interesting is that although we develop theory of mind by early adolescence, we still fail theory of mind tests on a regular basis, and I think scary movies are a great example.
We assume people know what we know and see what we see, and this is the curse of knowledge at play. In another experiment from 1990 at Stanford University, they paired people up as either the “tapper” or “listener”. The tapper would pick a well-known song like “Happy Birthday”, and the listener would have to guess it as the tapper played the song on a table.
Before the experiment started, the researchers asked the tappers the probability that the listener would guess correctly, and they predicted about 50%. What actually happened? The listeners only had an accuracy ratio of 2.5%!
Why was the accuracy so low but the predictions were so high? The curse of knowledge. The tappers hear the song in their head with various notes playing, whereas the listener only hears the tapping on a table and a certain rhythm.
If you’ve ever played a game of Pictionary, you’ve most likely been frustrated by your curse of knowledge as you try to draw what you think is the perfect image of a cat.
So, bringing it back to scary movies and TV shows, I’ve enjoyed them quite a bit more when I leave my curse of knowledge to the side.
As soon as we turn on a scary movie, we already have a lot more information than most of the characters in the movie. The biggest piece of knowledge that we have is that we know the genre of the movie. We know what the typical scary movie brings to the table, which can include things like an antagonist, supernatural occurrences, and the possibility of jump scares. If we’ve seen previews of the movie or if the movie is a sequel, we know even more about what the unsuspecting characters are going to be facing.
If we revert back to the theory of mind, we can take a step back and realize that some of the characters in the movie don’t know what we know. When we watch from this perspective, I’ve noticed that it makes the movies much more enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of bad scary movies like The Turning, which was based on the same ghost story as Bly Manor. But there are some scary movies that are much better than we give them credit for when we realize the writers did a great job writing around what the characters do and don’t know at different points throughout the film.
Not only does this make scary movies more interesting to watch, but when we remember this in our daily lives, we start cutting people some slack. So many of our disputes with other people are because of the curse of knowledge, and we neglect to realize that the other person doesn’t know what we know. When we take a step back and come from a place of understanding and overcoming our curse of knowledge, we can enjoy scary movies a lot more while simultaneously improving our emotional intelligence in our everyday relationships.
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