Adapted from Workshop Biology (NSF-funded), University of Oregon, D. Udovik, PI
Sample Student Laboratory Report
Heart Rate and Cinematic Terror

            In the 1950's, movie promoters stationed nurses in theaters "in case anyone was overcome by the terror of the film" (Remember 1972).  We've all heard the expressions "I was scared to death," or "it made my heart skip a beat."  I wondered: Can films (which present no real danger) actually produce a significant physiological response?  This is a significant question, since special effects are becoming more realistic, and movies have become readily available in the home, where people too weak or sickly to make it to a theater are able to watch them.  Are they in danger?
            My hypothesis is that a well-done fright scene in a movie can invoke a fight-or-flight response (Postlethwait and Hopson 1992) in a viewer.  Since one of the characteristics of the fight-or-flight response is an increased heart rate, I predict that the heart rate of a person viewing a scary film will vary during the film, increasing significantly during or very soon after especially frightening scenes.

Materials and Methods
         I monitored the heart of three people while they watched Alien.  The viewings were done separately, and all subjects were allowed to eat microwave popcorn and drink Dr. Pepper.
          Heart rate monitoring was done with s Sears Fit-O-Matic heart rate meter taken from a friend's exercise bike.  The meter attaches to the ear lobe and can be monitored unobtrusively while the subject watches the movie.
          Before the experiment began, I viewed the film and selected three "soothing scenes" and three "scary scenes" during which I would monitor the heart rates of my subjects.  The subjects were seated on a comfortable sofa and the monitor was attached to their ears.  I sat in a chair behind the sofa and noted the readings on the monitor.

        The average heart rate of the subjects increased from 77.6 beats per minute when they were watching calm scenes in a film to 110.1 beats per minute (41.9% increase) when they were watching scary scenes in the same film (Table 1).  However, during the scary scenes, Dave's heart rate did not increase as high as the heart rates of the other two subjects (Figure 1).

        The difference between the heart rates during the soothing scenes and the scary scenes are a measure of the ability of a film to exert an effect on a person's physiology.  The increases in heart rate seen during the scary scenes were comparable in all three subjects.  Dave's increase was somewhat less dramatic, but he had seen the movie several times before.
           These results are consistent with the hypothesis that a well-done fright scene in a movie can invoke a fight-or-flight response in a viewer.  I only measured heart rate, an indicator of flight-or-fight response.  it is possible that the increase in heart rate was occurring without a full-blown fight-or-flight response.  It would be necessary to measure other indicators of fight--or-flight response, such as epinephrine levels (Postlethwait and Hopson 1992), to be certain.
            Since films can evoke extreme physiological responses, something that might be dangerous in a weakened individual, film-makers might want to consider a physiological warning system similar to the current P/PG/PG-13/R system.


1)  Remember, Cent.  1972.  Horrors from Screen to Scream.  A Publisher, New York
2)  Postlethwait, J. H. and Hopson, J.  1992.  Nature of Life, McGraw Hill, New York.

Heart Rate and Cinematic Terror
Experimental Data

Table 1.  Average heart rates (beats per minute) for three subjects who watched soothing scenes (calm) and scary scenes (scare) during a film.
Calm 1 Calm 2 Calm 3 Scare 1 Scare 2 Scare 3
Brad 80 78 84 120 116 123
Janet 72 74 75 115 118 126
Dave 81 76 77 95 90 88
Average 77.7 76 79 110 108 112.3
Average Calm Heart Rate 77.6 beats per minute
Average Scare Heart Rate 110.1 beats per minute (41.9% increase)

Figure 1.  A comparison of heart rates (beats per minute) of three subjects during film viewing of soothing (calm) and scary (scare) scenes.

(Figure not shown).