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The surprising science that explains why we love thrillers

Entertainment isn’t frivolous. Walter Hickey’s new book You Are What You Watch explains why.

Book cover for Walter Hickey’s You Are What You Watch
Walter Hickey’s new book You Are What You Watch explores how entertainment shapes the world we live in.
Hachette Book Group
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

I’ve been writing about movies for a long time, but even I find myself with a lot of questions that go unanswered. Why do my palms get sweaty when I watch a horror film, even though I know it’s not real? How does “soft power” really work when it comes to Hollywood, or Japanese cinema, or Chinese epic movies? What do we even mean when we say things like “you are what you watch”? Are we talking about feelings and intuitions and whether kids will want to buy a particular breakfast cereal? Or is there more to it than that?

Luckily, Walter Hickey is on the case. Hickey is Insider’s deputy editor for data and analysis, and before that he was the chief culture writer at FiveThirtyEight. That means he’s a Pulitzer-winning data expert who writes mostly about popular culture. His new book, You Are What You Watch, is one of the most fun and insightful books I’ve ever encountered about pop culture, anchored in real data and science. It’s a beautiful hardcover full-color book in which Hickey uses his expertise to make a larger argument: that we should take pop culture seriously because it takes us seriously.

I talked to Hickey for an episode of The Gray Area, in which we discussed everything from the way horror films affect our bodies to the real reason blockbuster films became big in the 1970s (it’s not what you think). Below is an excerpt from our conversation, in which Hickey confronted the idea that Hollywood is all about profit and mentions one of the biggest drivers behind movies that we often forget about. The whole conversation is fascinating, and I hope you’ll listen.

This excerpt has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Walt Hickey

There’s this idea that the only motivation in Hollywood is profit ... and I do want to push back on that idea. Because it’s not really about profit; it’s more about not losing money, which is different than profit.

A great historical way to look at the film industry is actually to look at Broadway. You have reboots on Broadway — they just call them revivals. There’s a whole Tony for it! It’s great.

What [Broadway] found is that revivals are more consistent bets. [It’s true that] the heights that a new show will go to are often far higher than a revival. The shows that have run longest were all originals, right? They weren’t revivals. But you’re much more likely to make it to 100 performances or a break-even point if it’s a revival.

So we see this incentive in Hollywood all the time. When you ask yourself, “Why are they making sequels? Why are they investing their money in reboots? Why are they taking old IP and doing it?” It’s not because they think it’s going to be profitable. It’s that they think it’s going to make back their budget. Nobody ever lost their job by delivering back the budget. But do you lose your job by taking a big splashy risk and then it not working out? Then you’ve lost money, and then you lose your job. So when you think about the permanent class of people who run these [movie] studios and ecosystems and produce this movie and raise this money, it’s really not a profit motivation. It’s a risk-aversion motivation.

When you start to see the industry from that perspective, it makes a lot more sense of why some of these decisions get made the way they do.

Alissa Wilkinson

I think that even helps explain some other things. Barbie comes out, it’s just a monster hit, and immediately we get a story in the New Yorker about how Mattel is now developing a billion Mattel movies. People say, “Why are they doing that?” Well, they see an opportunity, and this is what happens. We get a hit, and then we get a hundred imitations of that hit, which trickle down into the bargain bin of Netflix Originals or something eventually.

Walt Hickey

It’s so interesting that you bring up Mattel because I have a little bit in the book on Hasbro. They’re a fascinating company. You can look at Hasbro’s earnings over time, and there are spikes from year to year, and they literally come from one of three things.

The first one is Star Wars prequels, because George Lucas — the best independent filmmaker who ever lived — financed those movies by pre-selling the toy rights to Hasbro. That’s where the budget for The Phantom Menace came from. Hasbro made off like bandits; you can literally see a $300 million spike every time one of the prequels comes out. Obviously, those were very toy-focused movies that lent themselves well to a lot of different action figures.

Alissa Wilkinson

And the audience are people who are accustomed to buying action figures.

Walt Hickey

A hundred percent. I think Star Wars is interesting because of how toy-friendly it is. George Lucas is a very successful toy maker! Really good filmmaker, but nobody would ever design Boba Fett unless they had an interest in the toy line.

So you have the Star Wars era, and then when they run out of prequels, what do they do? They start producing the Transformers movies. Paramount made a little bit of money off of that when it came to the actual film distribution, but those movies are genuinely toy commercials. There’s a toy spike every single year one is released, even for the crappy Transformers movies.

And then, My Little Pony was a huge boon for them. They basically took their girls division from zero to several hundred million dollars over the course of only a few years.

I think not being naive about where this money comes from is a lot of fun. But I think Mattel was jealous of Hasbro for decades because they didn’t get Star Wars, they didn’t get Transformers. Now, finally, Barbie’s a hit. So they’re like, “Of course we’re gonna make the Guess Who movie.”

Alissa Wilkinson

I know. I had to explain to someone 10 years younger than me what a Polly Pocket was. They did not know.

Walt Hickey

Do you mean, the fifth-highest-grossing film of 2027?

Alissa Wilkinson

I sure do. Directed by Lena Dunham.

This does all ring a bell for people of a certain age. The cartoons that were on TV when we were kids [in the 1980s and early 1990s] were all purely toy advertisements, right? It was even hard to tell whether the toy or the show came first because they were so integrated with one another.

Walt Hickey

That’s Reagan for ya!

Alissa Wilkinson

So, it’s spooky season right now. You have a couple of really delightful insights about horror in the book. One has to do with the secretion of a coagulant. You write that there was a study in which some people are watching a soothing documentary, and 86 percent of the participants saw a decrease in the level of this particular coagulant that indicates that the blood is more prepared for clotting. After the group watched the scary movie, 57 percent saw that coagulant rise.

The thing is, 57 percent of people in that movie did not think they were literally about to be slashed or killed. But their bodies thought they were.

Walt Hickey

I did a ton of research into scientific findings and talked to a lot of scientists to do this. I actually built something called a GSR device, to measure galvanic skin response. There are tiny pores on your palm, and they secrete a little bit of sweat. The amount of sweat that they secrete goes up when you are in a more emotionally charged situation — your fight-or-flight response. It’s basically just making you a little bit more slippery, more dextrous. It’s your body’s way of subliminally preparing you for whatever might come down the pipe.

So I built this cool little thing, where you have two little electrical [sensors]. One sends out electricity, one receives it, and you put them on two different fingers, and it basically measures how much of the electricity gets from point A to point B. The higher it is, the sweatier you get. So we can infer that you’re a little bit more emotionally intense at a time. This is one of the tests in certain polygraphs.

If you put one of these on a person and show them a movie, you can actually see how they feel during the movie. I got I think a dozen and a half of my friends to do this. It was a cool experiment. I built about nine of these things. You’re able to watch how people feel over the course of a movie. I put this on during Jaws, which I just think is a phenomenal film. I was just so excited when I saw the chart for it. There’s a spike every 10 minutes, and that’s how that movie works. It’s basically a slasher movie where every 10 minutes, something horrible happens to somebody.

Then there’s 10 minutes of quiet — too quiet. Then it happens again. It spikes right in the middle during the Fourth of July scene, which is obviously Spielberg at his finest, at his earliest, and like just kind of revealing the director that he would eventually be. And then over the course of the back half of the film, it’s just three guys on a boat being terrorized by a shark. So you have, again, this punctuated emotional intensity that is just so fun.

But not all movies are like that. Another one — it’s not spooky per se, but Mad Max: Fury Road really involves kind of a slow rise. Then right 40 minutes before the end, when it’s that last chase, boom, [it spikes] right to the top.

It’s also not just horror. I put Casablanca in the book right next to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing because those charts came out looking similar. It’s just a slow and steady increase in intensity over the course of those films. You wouldn’t necessarily think to pair those films as peers, but when you really think about it, those are both movies in which it’s getting hotter hour by hour. The temperature’s going up. People have to make some big decisions. People’s lives are going to be irrevocably changed. The emotional intensity just ratchets up minute by minute by minute in each of those films. You wouldn’t necessarily think that they are too similar on the outside, but when you actually look at what they’re doing to the viewers, it’s a similar roller coaster.

Alissa Wilkinson

That matches what we intuitively feel. My senses have to be dulled a little bit because of the amount of these movies I have to watch for my job, sometimes in very close succession. But I still have that feeling that a lot of people have, where you think “I want to watch that movie, but I don’t want to watch it before bed.” It’s because there’s a real thing going on in your real body. Your body thinks that you’ve escaped something or gone through this big emotional experience.

I think that underlines a point you keep making, which is that this is real. Entertainment is real. Pop culture is real. It’s not just something out there that we chew on and then spit out when we’re done with it.

Walt Hickey

Yeah. The crux of the book is that this stuff is not frivolous. It really matters. It has remarkable effects on the world as a whole. Even the stuff that is frivolous isn’t frivolous.

There’s a chart in the book that I love of [the popularity of] baby names, where you can draw a line. You can see when [Rachel’s baby] Emma showed up on the show Friends. … There’s a chart in the book about dogs. Dog movies make people like dogs. This is a very cool finding. My favorite thing about this is the movie Beethoven, which involves a very big St. Bernard. The entire thesis of this film is “Dang, this animal, woof, tough to care for.” Nevertheless, St. Bernard adoptions spiked immediately afterward. You see this with Lassie. After 101 Dalmatians got re-released in the early 1990s, Dalmatians became the eighth most popular dog in America pretty much overnight.

We laugh, and that’s frivolous. But you’re talking 40,000 dogs that were adopted instead of not being adopted, right? This changed the lives of 40,000 dogs — this is a massive thing. It’s a huge reverberation. It’s not just people, you know, buying sweatpants after Squid Game comes out. It’s literally like this is changing people’s lives in a very very meaningful way.

You Are What You Watch is available from booksellers.