Scary movies can be upgraded or downgraded by getting stoned before you watch them. Your experience will be shaped by innumerable variables unique to your personality, life experiences, subgenre preferences and so forth. However, one variable is relatively less inconstant: your brain.
If you align the distinct neurochemical effects of horror and weed, you can scientifically steer yourself toward a more spectacular showtime. And if you’re a horror and herb fan, you deserve no less. So, read on for a user-friendly way to pair horror with weed to tailor movie night to how you get scared and how you get high.
Your Brain on Horror
The chemicals in your brain that party when you’re immersed in your favorite horror movie assemble as the result of a chain reaction that ends in the fight-or-flight response. A PennMedicine analysis explains that after your mind perceives a threat:
“The amygdala responds like an alarm bell to the body. It alerts the hypothalamus, which sends a message to the adrenal glands to give you an instant burst of adrenaline, the ‘action’ hormone. Adrenaline causes your heart to race and pump more blood to your muscles. You breathe faster, and tiny airways in your lungs burst open, allowing more oxygen to travel into your bloodstream. That extra oxygen goes to your brain and makes your senses keener—your hearing and eyesight, for example. … As your adrenaline burst subsides, the hypothalamus starts up a second series of events, releasing cortisol, a hormone that keeps you ‘revved up’ and ready for action.”
After your body reacts biologically to fear (accelerated heart rate, heavier breathing, etc.), the climax of the fight-or-flight response is a horrorgasm in your brain as bursts of neurotransmitters and hormones pummel your senses. (If you caught the subliminal messaging there, check out this article by Decider for some insight into why horror and sex are inseparable.) The three primary brain stimulants are adrenaline, dopamine and endorphins, the latter of which have an effect on the brain comparable to that of morphine.
An Everyday Health article examining the science of why people love scary movies points out that the sympathetic nervous system perceives threats before we can determine whether they’re real or imagined.
Consequently, even though you know it’s just a movie and you’re not in real danger, you get the real-life physiological reaction just the same. In fact, feeling safe while watching a scary movie is one of the conditions your subconscious establishes with your conscious mind for enjoying the experience, according to a Concordia University study.
Although the intellectual subtlety of inducing the fight-or-flight response is tantalizing, let’s not forget about the less sophisticated tactic employed in horror movies: jump scares. What happens in the brain when a loud noise or bad guy popping out startles you? (Other than disappointment with the movie’s writer and director for resorting to that cheap ploy to scare you.)
A 2020 study on neural systems and fear in “NeuroImage” concluded that heightened activity in the brain in those moments is found in regions involved in processing emotion, evaluating threats and making decisions. By contrast, as a similar study in “Ars Technica” found, when tension is built through foreboding and atmosphere, brain activity increases in terms of visual and auditory perception.
Your Brain on Weed
Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the major active compound in herbal cannabis, and it resembles the cannabinoids produced naturally in the brain. As a CBC News article explains, one of these is anandamide, and THC’s close resemblance to anandamide allows it to commandeer the brain’s effects on our energy, appetite, mood and perception of time.
That accounts for weed’s ability to make you sleepy, hungry and happy, among other things. The overall good feeling though, the core of the high, derives from THC’s ability to get your brain to release extra and longer-lasting dopamine, compared to what anandamide gets it to release.
Dopamine isn’t the only thing that weed (really, THC) and horror have in common neurochemically though; they also share amygdala stimulation. That same CBC News report examines THC’s interaction with the amygdala, the aforementioned part of the brain that regulates emotional responses.
With THC, the amygdala is activated when a large enough amount of THC is present to inhibit the neurons (GABA) that would otherwise maintain calmness in your mind. Without those, the opposing neurons (glutamate) accumulate. Thus, whereas horror sets off the amygdala by tricking your brain into perceiving the presence of danger, weed (via THC) sets off the amygdala by tricking your brain into perceiving the absence of safety.
Before drawing inferences from the information presented above, attention must be called to safety. Always ensure that your physician approves of your introducing anything new into your system prior to doing so. This is all the more important when your objective is to set off the fire alarms in your brain, heart and lungs – all at the same time.
Assuming that you’ve been OK’d to pair horror with weed, here are some ways to apply science to cinema and sativa (or indica, but there’s no alliteration there). For additional details, consult the references in the Sources and Suggested Reading section of this article.
“I get scared easily, so I don’t want to make a scary movie even scarier.” If you want something whose chemistry will intensify your movie-watching experience but maintain your sense of well-being, try a 50/50 sativa/indica blend like Bio Star. Its high THC level (23%) will pack your mind full of dopamine before your brain has even begun to choose between fight or flight. Or, if you made it through the movie OK but can’t sleep because of it, a hard-hitting strain like Cookie Monster will solve that problem.
“I’m about to watch my all-time fav horror movie, and I want to savor every minute of it.” For an uplifting, relaxed, happy high, try a hybrid strain like Mandarin Cookies. With only 19% THC, you won’t be knocked out by the time the first victim is claimed. Another option is Miracle Alien Cookies (aka Alien Cookies, MAC), which has more THC (22%), or Grandaddy Purple (aka Grand Daddy Purp, Granddaddy Purps, GDP, Grandaddy Purple Kush).
“I prefer horror-comedies, not straight horror.” For parodies and quirky horror, try a strain like Sour OG (aka Sour OK Kush). Although the THC level is up there (22%), this strain is said to make its consumer talkative and energetic. Alternatively, Sour Diesel, Blue Cheese or Alien OG (aka Alien OG Kush) will amp up your giggles. Just be sure to pace yourself with that last one if you’re a cannabis beginner or novice.
“I’m into sci-fi horror.” To turn already-weird things into insanely weird things, expand your mind with a highly potent, sometimes overwhelming strain like Girl Scout Cookies (aka GSC).
“I love horror, but I’m new to weed.” Ease into this combo with a sativa-dominant strain like Blue Dream, which is reported to smell and taste like berries, and to boost energy and creativity. Its lower THC level (18%) will take it easier on your amygdala so that your horror-watching experience isn’t immediately too intense to handle. Another fruity option, but with a higher THC level (22%), is Banana Kush.
“I prefer psychological horror to visceral horror.” If you’re more into creepy ideas and terrifying concepts than slashers, try Sour Joker (aka Joker), which will keep your mind sharp despite having 28% THC.
Hit the J and Hit Play!
The internet is full of recommendations of movies to watch while you’re high on weed. Our own list, “Five Great Movies to Watch Stoned,” includes three horror movies, but you can find watch-while-you’re-high lists consisting of only horror movies, too. There’s even a list of (oddly obscure) horror movies to avoid while you’re high. Whatever your levels of risk, tolerance and THC are though, just exercise good judgment – and have a frightfully fun movie night.
Kathleen Hearons is a writer, editor, linguist and voice over actor from Los Angeles. She specializes in creative writing and research-intensive analysis and reporting.
Sources and Suggested Reading
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Budowski, Jade. “Sex & Horror: How Sexuality Shapes The Genre.” Decider. October 26, 2017. Accessed September 16, 2023. https://decider.com/2017/10/26/sex-horror-how-sexuality-shapes-the-genre/.
“Cannabis and Horror Movies: 7 Strains to Binge on Horror.” Have a Heart. Accessed September 16, 2023. https://haveaheartcc.com/cannabis-and-horror-movies/.
“Fight or Flight: The Science of Fear…And Why We Like Scary Movies.” PennMedicine. October 2, 2017. Accessed September 15, 2023. https://www.pennmedicine.org/updates/blogs/health-and-wellness/2017/october/fear#:~:text=The%20amygdala%20responds%20like%20an,more%20blood%20to%20your%20muscles.
“Five Great Movies to Watch Stoned.” Head Magazine. Accessed September 15, 2023. https://headmagazine.com/five-great-movies-to-watch-stoned/.
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