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The Mental Benefits of Horror Movies

One of Dr. Johnson’s favorite ways to spend a cold, dark October night is by turning on a horror movie. One with ghosts and suspense instead of jump scares and gore, of course. Check out the 2007 movie The Orphanage to see Dr. Johnson’s all-time fav.

Love them or hate them, horror movies can actually provide several benefits to your mental health, especially if you struggle with anxiety. This blog will explain the science behind horror movies and the unique benefits they can provide to your mental well-being.

The paradox of horror:

There are no other species on earth that deliberately scares itself. So why do the majority of Americans enjoy horror-based entertainment? The enthusiasm with which humans seek out horror movies and the accompanying emotions of fear, disgust, and anxiety has become known as the “paradox of horror” by philosophers and psychologists alike.

So, why do we like horror entertainment so much? One psychologist, Dr. Glenn Walters, identified three primary factors behind an attraction to the horror genre:

  • Tension → Producers and directors use elements of shock, gore, suspense, and terror to foster feelings of tension. It’s what keeps you on the edge of your seat during the final chase scene.

  • Relevance → Many horror movies have some level of relatability or relevance to the viewers watching. Universal relevance draws on shared fears of death, the unknown, or other social issues.

  • Unrealism → While special effects have become scarily realistic, most viewers are able to recognize that what they’re watching on the big screen is not real. Horror movies and TV shows will even use soundtracks, humor, and certain camera angles to remind viewers that what they’re watching isn’t real.

No one really knows exactly why we like horror movies so much, but it might have evolutionary roots. The tendency for humans to be attracted to dangerous or threatening stimulus traces back to when our ancient ancestors lived in constant fear of threats. While we no longer encounter real-life threats as often as our ancestors, watching a horror movie lets us put our innate threat detection system to use. And, because horror movies do such a good job at mimicking real threatening situations, this means our emotional responses are similar to what it would be like in the face of a real threat. This is why we feel anxiety and terror during a scary movie, but tend to walk out feeling a sense of accomplishment and mastery.

The science behind horror movies:

Other researchers speculate humans' love of horror movies is mainly about the physical and emotional release that follows a scary situation. When done right, horror movies can trigger your unconscious fight-or-flight response- your heart starts to beat faster, your muscles tense, you lean forward, your breathing gets faster, and your palms start to sweat. This is your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), pumping your body full of adrenaline and cortisol. The SNS will also trigger the release of endorphins, which produce feel-good effects similar to morphine.

However, once your brain processes that the threat isn’t real and you’re just watching for entertainment, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) will kick in. Your PNS response reverses all the physiological changes caused by the SNS, slowing your heart rate, relaxing your muscles, and releasing hormones to calm us down and make us feel happy and safe.

Following a scary scene, your body becomes flooded with feel-good chemicals. That’s what keeps you going back to see horror movies time after time.

The benefits of horror movies:

While research is limited, several studies have demonstrated how watching horror movies might help to alleviate anxiety and improve mental well-being. But why? And how?

Several researchers have offered several explanations for this phenomenon:

  • Horror movies offer a sense of control over your anxiety → We tend to worry many about many things out of our control- the weather, job security, inflation, and the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do to change or remove any of these stressors. But a horror movie? That stressor can be removed with the click of a remote. Allowing fear to be a choice instead of an unavoidable misery gives a sense of control.

  • Watching a horror movie will provide a safe way to have real horrors → Have you noticed that themes in horror movies tend to mirror the horrors of real life? However, unlike reality, horror movies have a definite end point, one usually with some sort of happy or satisfying ending. In this way, horror allows us to safely explore some of our greatest fears while still gaining catharsis in the end. One study found that people who watched pandemic-related horror films exhibited more resilience and better coping strategies throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In this way, watching a horror movie can actually teach us how to handle real-life stress better.

  • A scary movie will capture all of your attention → The human brain is wired to focus all attention on the most imminent threat. This bias towards imminent threats makes horror movies especially attractive, as our attention is pushed towards the ax murderer and away from everyday stressors. As a result, watching a horror movie can actually be a powerful mindfulness exercise by holding our attention in the present moment.

Some other benefits of horror movie viewing include:

  • You’ll burn some calories → Yep! Watching a horror movie gets your heart rate and adrenaline pumping, burning calories in response. One study found that participants burned up to 200 calories, just by sitting and watching The Shining.

  • You might get some relief from feelings of anxiety and depression→ As described above, watching a horror movie will release adrenaline throughout your body. The adrenaline will help to stabilize your mood and decrease your anxiety and depression in the short term.

  • You’ll develop a strong bond with those around you → When you watch a horror movie with a friend, you’re more likely to form a strong, intense bond with that person. Moreover, enjoying horror entertainment with someone is more likely to create more vivid and layered memories.

  • It can boost your immune system → This may sound like a stretch, but yes, one study found that after watching horror movies, the participant’s blood had higher levels of disease-fighting white blood cells. Further, we also know that exposing your body to short, term manageable stress (like a scary movie) will boost your immune system.

A recent article analyzing the research around horror movies found that people with high levels of anxiety actually report greater enjoyment of horror than those without. This research suggests that watching horror movies is reinforced by a positive response from those with anxiety. Moreover, for those with anxiety, experiencing feelings of anxiety and stress while watching a horror movie can act as a form of exposure therapy to normalize the sensations.

Another study found that anxious people can benefit from watching horror films. In the study, researchers found that watching horror films promotes healthy coping strategies and anxiety management techniques for those with anxiety. One researcher speculates that this positive reaction is due to the sense of control over a fear that horror movies provide.

But horror movies aren’t for everyone:

If you’re one of those people that just can’t stomach a horror movie, then maybe scaring your way into better mental health just isn’t in your cards. And that’s totally okay! Your ability to watch horror movies is actually not totally in your control. For many who hate horror movies, it’s a true psychological aversion. Many such horror avoiders are highly sensitive people (HSP). And an HSP’s brain is simply wired to have higher levels of empathy, which can make watching scary movies feel too intense or uncomfortable to bear.

Moreover, one study found that you’ll only get positive benefits from horror entertainment if you choose to do it. Forcing yourself to watch a scary movie or being dragged to a haunted house when you really don’t want to will likely give you no benefits. As, some researchers think the benefits of horror entertainment are tied to maintaining control and agency over the situation.

So this Halloween, if horror movies are your thing, grab some friends and get to watching some scary movies! You'll not only boost confidence and your immune system, but you'll also challenge fears and overcome anxiety. Happy watching!

For more information about the Johnson Center, click here to contact us, or call 276-235-3205 to schedule your complimentary discovery call with Dr. Johnson.

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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