Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films by Nina Nesseth | Book Review

Like horror movies? 

Nightmare Fuel by Nina Nesmith

Released February 2021

Source: Received for Review Consideration

Goodreads  | Amazon

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.

My 2 Cents for Free!

“So you like scary movies? Have you ever wondered why?"

Author and scientist Nina Nesmith uses this space to help us figure out the why and it’s fascinating if you’re a horror movie fan. She mixes in studies and ties them to films and a few of them have some whopping spoilers so if you haven’t seen the big ones you might want to read the movie index which lists them out by chapter so you can watch the films first. But you probably wouldn’t be reading a book like this if you weren’t a huge fan so never mind me, lol.

I love books like Stiff by Mary Roach and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty who gleefully dig deep into their morbid subjects and Nightmare Fuel is another one I’d add to the list. At times the writing of Nightmare Fuel can be a little dry and science jargon-heavy and could’ve used a touch of dark humor but that’s a personal preference. You might not like humor in your non-fiction, and you might only be here to learn some stuff without the haha’s but that’s not me.

There is some interesting stuff here about your brain on horror. This chapter starts the book and then dives into the history of horror which turned out to be one of my favorite chapters (next to the one on body horror and monsters). What is your brain doing and what is physically happening to your body during a jumpscare and/or terrifying scene? She gets into it here without making my eyes glaze over which is a minor miracle really.

I probably could’ve read an entire book on the history of horror through the decades and how the horror movies of each period reflect the fears and horrors in the hearts of people during certain times. I eat this stuff up. If you haven’t already, I’d recommend some of the documentaries currently running on Shudder because they have the room to expand more on all of this.

There are many movie examples and interviews that bring it all back to the movies when the science, psychology,and studies start to become a bit heavy. This wasn’t a book I wanted to zip through in one sitting, my brain would’ve gotten a bit tired, but I read a chapter a night and was always happy to get back to it and dig deeper into my love of horror films.

I think any big horror movie fan will find something interesting here no matter your tastes because it’s pretty comprehensive. But honestly, you need to read it because if you don’t you’ll miss out on who was voted the second most famous sexy monster which made me actually do a double take (spoiler it wasn't Krampus cries). People are SO incredibly weird in this world.

Anyhow, you’re either interested in this stuff or you’re not. If you are I’d recommend checking out this book.



  1. Oh that does sound like it would be interesting to read.

    1. I was a little bit afraid it might get too technical, and it would lose me but fortunately that didn't happen!

  2. OK - now I want to know who was voted!

    1. Anthony Hopkins as hannibal lecter! All these fabulous choices and this? This is who they chose?! lol

  3. I do watch some horror but I don't really get scared. just somehow KNOW it's not real lol But I enjoy it anyway.

    What does your brain get from intentionally making yourself uncomfortable? I'm really curious about how the body processes it though so that would be super interesting to me.

    Karen @For What It's Worth


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