In this article:
- Scary movies can be good for your mental health because they provide an outlet for those fears and anxieties that you might otherwise just bury deep down so you can get on with daily life.
- In some cases, the comfort of horror comes from getting to see your worst fear played on screen, from the safety of your couch, so that you can vicariously live through it and prepare yourself.
- In other cases, it comes from seeing that fear turned into the most absurd, unrealistic (and maybe even silly) caricature of itself so that it doesn’t feel quite as intimidating anymore.
- Either way, scary movies are kind of like mental training, where viewers strengthen their ability to regulate emotions and manually trigger the body’s natural relaxation process.
If you’re a fan of horror, you’re in the minority. Scary movies are, without a doubt, some of the least popular films in cinematic history. Not one of the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time is a horror movie.
If you expand that list to the top 100 highest-grossing films, you still won’t find a horror title in the ranks.
While the genre’s popularity is growing — exceeding $1 billion in gross box office sales for the first time in 2018 — it still comprises less than 10% of total ticket sales per year. Meanwhile, action and adventure alone account for about half of box office sales. People just prefer watching stuff blow up than having the pants scared off of them, I guess.
So, when I tell people that I not only enjoy scary movies but actually find them kind of comforting, I’m understandably met with a lot of confused and concerned looks.
What in the hell do I find so comforting about watching a horde of zombies tear into the bowels of their innocent victims or seeing some masked maniac brutally hack apart a bunch of teenagers at camp?
It’s a fair question. I’ve often wondered if the comfort I find in turning off all the lights and settling in for a good scare is a sign of some deeper psychological disturbance I should maybe get checked out.
As it turns out, though, it’s not. Studies on why people like horror and how that taste for gore is influencing their psychology consistently find that the genre seems to be a really effective tool for coping with fear, grief, anxiety disorder, depression, and even trauma.
Horror fans are not latent serial killers or aspiring monsters — though, admittedly, my first career choice as a kid was to become a vampire — we’re just regular human beings with some healthy (if a little weird) coping mechanisms.
Here’s the science behind why horror can be good for your mental health.
The Comfort of Horror, Explained: Why Scary Movies Work
To understand how horror movies have any effect on our psychology at all, we need to understand what’s happening to us as we watch them.
When a horror movie is genuinely frightening, it’s actually triggering a fear response at the physiological level.
Through a combination of frightening images, spine-tingling soundtracks, and tension-building narrative pace, a horror movie can trigger an increased heart rate, perspiration, pupil dilation, and other physiological responses to a threatening or arousing stimulus.
Essentially, your body is preparing for a fight or flight response as if the threat on the screen were real. At the physical level, then, experiencing a scary movie is similar to experiencing a scary situation in real life.
There’s one important difference, though: the threat in the scary movie isn’t real.
Even though your heart rate is through the roof and you’re clutching the person next to you for dear life, you know that the monster on TV isn’t going to climb out of the screen and get you (unless it’s the girl from The Ring, I mean.)
It’s this unreality that makes it a safe and effective tool for coping with negative emotions as we’ll see later.
When the movie ends, the threat leaves. Physiologically, our body begins the process of calming itself down from the fight or flight state it was in earlier.
Sometimes called the rest and digest state, this involves slowing the heart back down, releasing tension in the muscles, halting the production of cortisol, adrenaline, and other fight or flight hormones that put you in a high stress, high alert state, and generally relaxing the brain and body.
This relaxation process may cause us to feel a sense of relief when the movie is over.
So, at the physiological level, a horror movie watcher is triggering a fear state, controlling their fear response during the movie, and then entering a phase of relaxation when the movie is over. Here’s how that process can affect their psychology.
The Psychological Value of Intentionally Scaring Yourself
Let’s start by clarifying that horror movies are not FDA-approved treatments for trauma or phobias, and forcing yourself to choke down gory movies if you hate them may not be worth the suffering.
However, a lot of research suggests that voluntarily experiencing fear in a safe, controlled setting like the fictional world of a horror movie can strengthen your ability to deal with negative emotions and negative experiences in real life.
Improved Ability to Handle Stress
Regularly watching movies that give you nightmares seems to be a good way to train yourself to regulate your emotional response and keep your head about you during times of stress. Knowing the movie is fiction, you know it would be unreasonable to run screaming for shelter because there’s a swamp monster on your TV. So, you suppress that instinct.
That ability to control your emotional response during a movie carries over into real life. A study published in January this year in Personality and Individual Differences found that horror fans exhibited more resilience, less psychological distress, and better preparation for the COVID-19 pandemic than those who didn’t like horror.
The researchers that conducted the study theorize that not only do horror fans have more practice with emotional regulation thanks to regulating their fear response during scary movies, they also have more familiarity with distressing situations.
If you’ve watched your share of post-apocalyptic movies, you’ve probably also done your share of imagining what you would do if you found yourself in an apocalyptic scenario.
So, when the pandemic hit and brought the world to a crashing halt, all that hypothetical planning for end times suddenly became more relevant. Instead of panic buying toilet paper, you were ready to kick into survival mode.
Horror Movies Work Like Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy is a method of treatment in which a patient is exposed to the object of their fear in a safe, controlled environment.
When done right, it’s an incredibly effective way to help people with phobias or anxiety disorders cope with that fear and bring it down to a level that doesn’t disrupt their day-to-day life.
Horror movies, which are intentionally made to scare their audiences, often deal with the very things that many phobias and anxieties are fixated on. Spiders, clowns, natural disasters, killer tomatoes — you name it, there’s probably a horror flick about it.
Because they’re fictional and happening on a screen, though, there’s a degree of separation that gives people suffering from an actual phobia or intense anxiety a sense of safety that makes seeing the object of their worst fears a little more manageable.
Essentially, horror movies are a safe way to experience fear.
After repeated exposure to this safe form of an anxiety-inducing concept, the horror movie watcher’s amygdala (the part of the brain primarily responsible for feeling fear) becomes desensitized to it.
When the amygdala doesn’t react as strongly to the object of fear, that sense of dread you feel at encountering it also becomes weaker.
Over time, this process can help build up a resilience to what was once a debilitating fear, helping people with anxiety better cope with real life and people with phobias get a few steps closer toward being able to confront that object of their fear in the real world.
When you watch a genuinely terrifying movie, the physiological relaxation that occurs at the end can diffuse the stress you felt before the movie along with the stress you experienced during it.
For people who struggle with chronic stress, then, giving yourself a good scare can help trigger the rest and digest process that lowers cortisol levels and other stress-related hormones and functions. This works even when the stress you were experiencing existed before you sat down for the movie.
If voluntarily scaring yourself doesn’t sound like a good time, campy horror can offer similar stress relief results.
A cheesy scary movie that’s too ridiculous to even trick your body into feeling fear can instead make you laugh. Tons of studies confirm that laughter triggers a relief response and soothes muscle tension.
While a comedy might get you laughing, too, the advantage of a ridiculous horror movie is that it’s getting you to laugh at things that should be terrifying.
Sure, there’s nothing even slightly realistic about the zombie baby breaking through a woman’s skull in Dead Alive — but such a disturbing situation would be cause for serious concern if it were really happening.
This opportunity to laugh at scenarios that should be downright terrifying helps diffuse the threat and build up a resilience to confronting frightening scenarios. That resilience will carry over to real-life stressful moments, even if you (hopefully) never have to deal with a zombie baby bursting out of a woman’s head.
Regain Control as a Trauma Survivor
While it might seem counter-intuitive, some survivors of trauma are actually drawn to horror movies — though, not necessarily ones that feature the specific trauma they experienced. From a psychological perspective, though, it makes sense.
Scary movies can give their audiences a sense of control. You choose the film. You choose when to watch it. You’ve got the remote right there to pause it or turn it off if it gets to be too much.
It’s a way of confronting that feeling of dread that you can’t get rid of while removing the sense of helplessness that makes it so unbearable.
With that feeling of control while experiencing fear, trauma survivors can face tough emotions and start to grapple with them. Over time, regular exposure to that controlled fear can build up emotional strength and restore your sense of agency.
Again, a Texas Chainsaw Massacre marathon isn’t a substitute for therapy but, if you’ve survived trauma, the ability to feel that fear in a controlled setting can be an empowering experience that aids in your recovery.
While horror movies are notorious for their unresolved and even downright bleak endings, there’s usually at least one scrappy protagonist surviving the ordeal and sometimes, even defeating the evil.
Watching someone survive a truly horrific situation is incredibly cathartic and heartening.
The horror might be unrealistic or, at least, unrelated to anything in your own life. But it still feels good to watch someone persevere and come out the other side of an ordeal in one piece — bonus points if it’s a protagonist you can identify with.
Coping With Acute Emotional Distress or Chronic Mental Illness
The pandemic’s effect on the film industry was an unexpected case study on the tendency of people to use horror movies as a coping mechanism.
While theater closures meant that nearly every genre underperformed in 2020, horror not only avoided a similar decline, it experienced a boom year that carried over into 2021. On streaming platforms and apps, horror was one of the most-watched genres in 2020.
Trends like this suggest that horror isn’t just for the folks with emotional disorders, it’s also a genre neurotypical people turn to in times of distress.
While the exact mechanisms aren’t fully understood yet, it’s possible that people use the genre as a way to prepare for real-world problems. One of the most-watched movies in 2020 was Contagion, after all.
Another factor might be that same ability of horror movies to trigger a transition from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest,” a transition that can create a feeling of relief and calm.
Whether you’re suffering from a chronic mental illness or you’re going through a temporary period of grief or pain, sitting in the dark with a horror movie can help induce a state of calm while building emotional resilience and restoring a sense of control over your own life — all while relishing in the glory of a possessed girl vomiting pea soup on her priest!