How horror movies can help mental health, according to science


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Many years ago when I was a mega-fan of The Walking Dead, I only had one rule: Never watch just before bedtime. I’ve had trouble sleeping since I was a kid, and my nightmares are bad enough to surpass even the most gruesome TWD scenes. (In fact, I’ve been told to write them down and turn them into movies.) I assumed that watching before bed would only aggravate the problem.

But in July, I discovered a new zombie show that I couldn’t help but binge all night: Netflix’s Black Summer. I broke my own old rule, and saw it just before I went to bed, and accidentally discovered something strange: I was sleeping better. The show made my heart rage and filled my mind with scary, violent images – and yet such images were conspicuously absent from my dreams.

Hopefully I continued to watch zombie shows and movies every night and marked my biggest attack on the genre yet. I saw Kingdom (so, so good), Army of the Dead (meh), I Am Legend, Alive and many more. And I did not have a single nightmare.

As a lifelong anxiety sufferer, I have many soothing tools close to my heart: CBD, weighted blankets and Zoloft alike. I just never expected to add zombies to the list. As it turns out, there is a scientific basis for this phenomenon and I am not the only one experiencing it. horror movies, from zombies onwards, can help relieve anxiety for many people. With anxiety rates through the roof due to COVID-19, a surprising number of people have turned to horror to cope with it — and it works.

Horror and Anxiety: An Improbable Duo

“You can expect that all with anxiety would avoid horror – after all, why should someone who feels anxious want to see something created specifically to evoke fear or anxiety? Says Coltan Scrivner, a Ph.D. graduate of the University of Chicago studying horror and morbid curiosity. “But my research finds that people on average are more likely to be horror fans. “

To be sure, horror movies do not feel very relaxing. The brain does not always clearly distinguish between fantasy and reality, so when I watch a zombie movie, parts of my brain react as if it is me being chased down by the devastating undead, as a study in NeuroImage from August 2020 showed. This means that horror movies can trigger your nervous system’s fear response, also known as the “fight or flight” response, in some of the same ways that a scary event can, in fact.

The fear response is the system that our ancestors’ bodies developed to survive threats, like a bear attack. Your body is flooded with stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, and yours heartbeat, blood pressure and breathing begins to increase so you can act fast. Once the threat is gone, the fear response is followed by the “rest and digest” response, which causes your body to calm down and return to its original state.

But in people with anxiety or trauma, the fight-or-flight reaction has a bit of a flaw. Our brains respond to normal, daily events as if they were a major threat to our lives. And because there is no real threat, just a general, vague sense of doom, we rarely get any sense of dissolution or relief.

For some viewers who have anxiety or trauma, horror movies only make things worse. But for others, horror can help relieve tension. They are a way to practice feeling scared in a safe environment, focus your brain away from real worries and enjoy the release that comes after the movie is over.



Making friends with fear

When my nightmares are particularly bad, I start to get nervous around bedtime because I never know what will happen to me in my sleep. Zombie movies, on the other hand, are a nightmare that I have the power to pause. That may be part of what makes them so enticing.

“Horror movies have a long history of providing a kind of security,” says Margaret J. King, director of the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis. “Viewers can immerse themselves in a shocking narrative, but at the same time be completely confident and able to control the stimulus by turning it off or shifting attention to the surrounding space.”

Horror movies also teach you that despite how it sometimes feels, fear can not kill you, as Lana Holmes, a clinical psychologist at Decatur, explains on the podcast Therapy for Black Girls. “When you expose yourself to something you’re afraid of, even a horror movie, over time, you realize – oh, I can survive this,” Holmes says.

Not only that, but there’s a happy “comedown” effect after you finish watching something scary, according to Scrivner. It feels good for someone like me whose brain often seems to forget the “rest and digest” bit after panic.

An escape from real life

In fact, the triggers for anxiety often feel inevitable and it is easy to get caught up in an endless cycle of worry. Often for people with anxiety disorders there may not always be be a single clear trigger, making it impossible to “correct”.

But in horror, there is a clearly defined threat with a particular end. The fairly predictable plots provide a reassuring roadmap, yet they absorb enough to keep your attention glued to the screen (and away from your own thoughts).

“If someone feels anxious, they may find that horror helps them stop ruminating about other things in their lives,” Scrivner says. “The horror forces the viewer to focus – the monster on the screen draws us in and focuses our attention.”

And most importantly, everything that happens to the zombies on the screen has absolutely no consequences for your life. In most cases, Scrivner says, people are attracted to horror content that has nothing to do with their current fears in reality. “Horror that hits too close to home can be too repulsive or triggering,” he explains.

Go into your worst fears first

Sometimes horror, rather than a way of escaping real-life worries, can be a way to dive right into them — almost like a form of exposure therapy.

“Horror fans score very high in a move called morbid curiosity, which can be defined as an interest in learning about threatening situations,” Scrivner says. “Interestingly, anxiety and morbid curiosity seem to stem from similar psychological roots – a key aspect of both anxiety and morbid curiosity is an increased interest in gathering information about threats, although it can be uncomfortable to gather that information,” he explains. “This may be part of the reason why many people with anxiety are horror fans.”

The same may be true on a larger scale. “Horror as a genre often speaks to the horrors of the real world at the time it was created,” Scrivner says. For example, he says torture films like Saw and Hostel “became popular around the time the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay became public,” although it is not clear if there is a direct link.

This may also have something to do with the popularity of racially themed horror content among black viewers, like Get Out and Lovecraft Country.

And it’s almost for sure has something to do with the sudden explosion in pandemic horror films during the COVID-19 pandemic.


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‘Quar-horror’ and the horror-boom COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the horror’s ability to soothe anxiety and stress was put to the ultimate test. In a December 2020 survey by the US Census Bureau, more than 42% of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression compared to 11% the year before. At the same time, 2020 was a “boom year” for horror, although other genres did not perform as expected.

It seems that many people have been attracted to horror movies as a way to cope – in the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, the pandemic thriller Infection became one of the most watched films on iTunes. Data from the digital film app Movies Anywhere showed significant peaks of interest in “escapist films like horror and horror,” general manager Karin Gilford told Insider. In May 2020, the app’s horror sales increased 194% compared to the previous May.

Did all that horror really help people cope? Yes, apparently. Scrivner was the lead author of a January 2021 study that found that horror fans were more psychologically resistant during the pandemic, where films like Contagion served as a kind of practice simulation for the real thing.

The pandemic has even left its own mark on the horror genre and has given birth to a new subgenre called “quarter-horror”. As a quarter-horror director, Nathan Crooker, told NPR, “horror can be a way to deal with our worst fears.”

For horror to really help with anxiety or stress, the content must hit the sweet spot: scary enough to hold your attention and stimulate your fear response, but not so scary that you feel overwhelmed or retraumatized. It will vary based on your own individual threshold and background, and there are so many different monsters to choose from. Some of my own favorite horror movies and TV shows for anxiety are:

  • Black Summer: A Netflix zombie series consisting of short vignettes so you get the “comedown” effect multiple times in each episode.
  • Train to Busan: A South Korean zombie movie that is still one of the most compelling zombie movies I have ever seen.
  • Haunting of Bly Manor: I’m usually too scared of ghost themes, but this one had just the right mood and narrative to join me.
  • A quiet place: This movie is, well, quiet, which makes the constant high-tension and suspense much more bearable for me (I still often turn the cruel things into horror).

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Even if you have no anxiety, the COVID-19 pandemic is the kind of situation that can make you constantly feel on edge in a similar way. The threat of coronavirus is very real, but largely out of your hands and without a clear end in sight, making it hard to ever feel really comfortable. Other stressors, such as Climate change, or racism, can have the same effect.

Fear is a way to regain control of your emotions when so much of life is being felt out of your control. And at a time when the apocalypse is in many of our minds, it makes sense to find horror a little soothing. Right now, real life is complicated and hard. In zombie movies, the threat is simple and the solution is straightforward: aim at the head and do not stay a little.

The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as a health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified healthcare provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

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