Some people’s brains process horror on a much deeper — and more unsettling — level.
When it comes to horror movies, I get a strong emotional reaction that is not thrilling, but painful. And while I might be convinced to watch anyway — usually under some major peer pressure — it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m having a good time.
Of course, people like me get made fun of. We get teased for being “squeamish” or “afraid,” but that’s not really the issue. Instead, about 30 percent of the population, known as highly sensitive people (HSPs), are wired differently than everyone else. We have a brain that processes information very deeply and feels emotions very vividly, compared to other people.
This trait is linked with many good qualities — empathy, creativity, and giftedness among them — but it also means we experience unsettling scenes very differently than other people. Even in the best Oscar-winning scary movies. In other words: If you’re ever surprised at your sensitive friend’s reaction to a horror movie, it’s because the two of you aren’t actually watching the same film.
How is that possible? Let’s take a look inside a highly sensitive person’s head. Although not all HSPs avoid violent movies like I do, there are five big reasons — rooted in both neuroscience and psychology — that we tend to react to them quite strongly.
(Wondering if you’re a highly sensitive person? Here’s how to tell.)
Why the Sensitive Brain Struggles With Violent Movies
1. Our mirror neurons are more active.
Mirror neurons are the part of the brain that lets people “feel” the things they see someone else doing. It’s the reason you can feel bad for someone who just lost their job or feel happy when you see someone beaming with glee. It’s also the reason you yawn when someone else yawns. Everyone has mirror neurons, not just sensitive people.
However, according to the L.A. Times, the mirror neurons of highly sensitive people are more active. When we witness an action, sometimes we actually feel it happening as if we were experiencing it ourselves. For some HSPs, this feeling of empathy is so intense that it can be difficult to separate our own experiences from those we witness.
Mirror neurons are something that neuroscientists still don’t completely understand, but we do know they dramatically change how people react to images of pain. For us sensitive people, this means a scene of violence can be difficult to stomach. Watching someone in pain can cause our brains to almost experience that scene ourselves, as if we were actually there. We cannot just watch and feel amused, pretending it isn’t real (even if it isn’t). Instead, our minds are more inclined to live through the experience ourselves and feel keenly for the characters on screen.
2. We don’t just observe, we feel.
While other people can simply observe what they see, either on a screen or in real life, we usually cannot. Instead, our sensitive brains experience the world with incredibly vivid emotions. This is wonderful when we see things of beauty or moments of joy, as we experience these happy feelings powerfully. But dark, foreboding scenes or glimpses of monsters have just as strong of an effect — and it’s not a fun one. And we feel a sense of anxiety whenever something is too violent, especially when a character or actor reminds us of someone we love.
For some, violent action or horror films might be an easy thing to sit through, especially if they are capable of laughing them off or treating them as unrealistic forms of entertainment. For us, however, our minds connect with the possibility that this could be real. We know we’re watching a movie, we tell ourselves it isn’t happening, but that doesn’t change the emotions we experience. We’re like an emotional lightning rod.
3. We can’t shake those emotions the moment the film is over.
Horror movies make a lot of people jumpy or grossed-out, but it doesn’t usually stay with them long after the movie is over. Instead, they may simply move on as if it never happened.
For the HSP, this is much harder, and we are likely to feel the emotional effects for a long time. We may even find ourselves feeling those painful emotions years later when something reminds us of the movie we watched. Everyone else might be ready to move on to another activity (dinner after the movie, anyone?) but the HSP still feels those lingering thoughts and emotions.
For me, violence hangs around like a sullen mood I just can’t shake — I can even appear depressed. I still think about the book I read last week or the movie I watched a year ago, and when I do, it can make me feel physically ill.
4. It damages our sleep.
Sleep is important for everyone, but remember: The highly sensitive nervous system processes so many little details that most people just ignore. That means our brains and nerves work overtime all day long. Sleep is incredibly important to us, and can be the only way we avoid overstimulation and overwhelm in our day-to-day lives.
But horror films or violent movies can make it difficult to sleep. This isn’t just a cliché, at least for HSPs — we may find ourselves going over those horrific scenes again and again, and sleep becomes impossible. We can even experience traumatic nightmares at times, so each time we close our eyes we may relive those sequences. You may not even realize it’s happening to your HSP friend or partner; HSPs may try to pretend that we’re fine, not wanting to seem like we’re overly sensitive to something most people are perfectly fine with. It can be painful to feel so misunderstood for something we cannot change.
5. We aren’t capable of just “shutting it off.”
While some people can detach from and become desensitized to the violence around them, for the HSP, this may not be possible. We cannot just expose ourselves to more violence in order to feel adjusted to it. This type of “exposure therapy” would probably only make us feel like an emotionally exhausted shell of a person, anyway. For some of us, the more we experience these painful emotions, the more overwhelming they become. And while there may be times we wish we could simply shut it off, the truth is, we can’t; this is who we are.
And I think this is a good thing. It’s true, the world needs those who can set aside their feelings when the situation calls for it. But we also need the opposite, the sensitive ones. If anything, we need more people who aren’t constantly desensitized to pain and violence. People who can’t stomach it even as entertainment. Without those people — without HSPs — I think the world would be a much darker place to live in.
Need to make it through a scary movie anyway? Here’s how you can do it.