Review: Nightmare Fuel by Nina Nesseth

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Nightmare Fuel by Nina Nesseth is a pop-science look at fear, how and why horror films get under our skin, and why we keep coming back for more.

Do you like scary movies?
Have you ever wondered why?

Nina Nesseth knows what scares you. She also knows why.

In Nightmare Fuel, Nesseth explores the strange and often unexpected science of fear through the lenses of psychology and physiology. How do horror films get under our skin? What about them keeps us up at night, even days later? And why do we keep coming back for more?

Horror films promise an experience: fear. From monsters that hide in plain sight to tension-building scores, every aspect of a horror film is crafted to make your skin crawl. But how exactly do filmmakers pull this off? The truth is, there’s more to it than just loud noises and creepy images.

With the affection of a true horror fan and the critical analysis of a scientist, Nesseth explains how audiences engage horror with both their brains and bodies, and teases apart the elements that make horror films tick. Nightmare Fuel covers everything from jump scares to creature features, serial killers to the undead, and the fears that stick around to those that fade over time.

With in-depth discussions and spotlight features of some of horror’s most popular films—from classics like The Exorcist to modern hits like Hereditary—and interviews with directors, film editors, composers, and horror academics, Nightmare Fuel is a deep dive into the science of fear, a celebration of the genre, and a survival guide for going to bed after the credits roll.

“An invaluable resource, a history of the horror genre, a love letter to the scary movie—it belongs on any horror reader’s bookshelf.” —Lisa Kröger, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Monster, She Wrote


I was very excited when I heard the announcement for this nonfiction book. I mean who wouldn’t want to read something about why horror movies scare us? I know I have people around me that ask me why I spend so many hours watching and reading horror, why I like to be scared and watch blood and guts all of the time. I really do not have any of the answers. I was hoping that this could give me some ammunition to the questions, but alas, it is not the case.

Nightmare Fuel is a deep dive into the science of why movies scare people, why people want to be scared, what is happening in our brains when we watch scary movies. Nina Nesseth explores many topics, including the formatting of jump scares, the ways people are scared, and how sound plays an important role in our fear. There are explorations and analysis of several studies that question if violent content makes people violent, why there are things that we see at a young age that scare us our entire lives, and how many psychological studies are flawed. These studies are torn apart and many are slanted toward getting the results that the researchers wanted. A majority of the book seems to be in the defense of horror movies because the research studies against them are usually bogus or skewed. The point is that there is not a scientific reason not to like horror. 

I found the idea of this book more interesting than the book itself. I am not into deep science writing, and sometimes I felt little interest in the depth that Nina Nesseth was going. Even though I appreciate the things that this book does, it really is not a book I would read again. I have recommended this to people who are interested in how the brain works more than how horror works. There are some highlights in the book though. I really enjoyed some of the in depth looks at certain classic films like Jaws and The Thing. I also like the short interviews, particularly the one with John Fawcett, the director of Ginger Snaps, because it is one of my favorite horror movies and it is interesting to get some of his story. There are also a few films mentioned that I need to see or revisit, but the actual takeaways from this discussion are not as useful as I hoped.

I received this as an ARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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