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Title:A cognitive poetics of the threat scene: How movies scare us
Author(s):Baird, Robert Thomas
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Carringer, Robert L.
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Psychology, General
Mass Communications
Abstract:This dissertation analyzes horror and thriller films in light of contemporary cognitive psychology and film theory in order to understand how they inspire fear, startle, and disgust in spectators. Films like Cat People, John Carpenter's Halloween, and Ridley Scott's Alien contain what I term threat scenes, moments where characters are threatened by offscreen menaces. By suggesting threats in offscreen space, filmmakers can accentuate fear by encouraging a greater imaginative investment from spectators. Val Lewton's 1940s horror films established the threat scene and startle effect as we know them today, but later films increased and intensified them, contributing to what is popularly considered film "sensationalism." The contradiction that spectators can be frightened and startled by films they know to be fictional is explained as a result of the mind's use of parallel processing. Thus, bottom-up cognitive processes like spatial monitoring are largely involuntary, Darwinian adaptations that operate in spite of conscious reason's knowledge of film artifice. Threat scenes also engage the cognitive imagination when they partially reveal threats onscreen, but obscure them through masking, graphic metonymy, and the use of doors. Such techniques can be found in films as diverse as Fatal Attraction, Silence of the Lambs, and Jurassic Park. Unlike fear and startle, disgust is largely an onscreen phenomenon. However, disgust does involve the cognitive imagination, namely the empathetic projection of a human or biological schema onto a verisimilar representation that has been disfigured. Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park reveals the apogee of the threat scene as spectacle. Analysis of the film and its production history shows a well-orchestrated strategy of animalizing dinosaurs. By modeling dinosaurs on real animals and their mediated appearance, the Jurassic Park filmmakers were able to tap a global, largely extra-conscious cognitive appreciation of animal form, motion, and sound. This dissertation challenges contemporary models of the film spectator that tend either to endorse seamless determinism in films or seamless activity and agency in viewers. Parallel, modular cognition, though, offers theoretical space for both film's manipulations of the viewer and the viewer's manipulations of film.
Issue Date:1995
Rights Information:Copyright 1995 Baird, Robert Thomas
Date Available in IDEALS:2011-05-07
Identifier in Online Catalog:AAI9624281
OCLC Identifier:(UMI)AAI9624281

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