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Why We Love Horror Movies – Can They Help Some with Anxiety?


by Natasha Tracy - March 2, 2020


Why We Love Horror Movies – Can They Help Some with Anxiety?

Many people love horror movies. Some people love horror movies to the point where they will watch them over and over and every Halloween results in horror movie marathons. In fact, horror movies themselves have been around since the 1880s. But why do people love horror movies? Being scared by a movie seems to, empirically, be a negative experience that invokes anxiety in people. If people try to avoid anxiety in general, why would people want to watch movies that purposefully invoke anxiety? The answers, it seems, are complex. Some say, though, that horror movies can actually help some people with anxiety in addition to any anti-anxiety medications one might be prescribed like Buspar and Norpamin.

The History of Horror Movies

Horror as a genre has been around since the 19th century, although at that time they were called “spook tales.” The earliest surviving motion-picture film was created in 1888 with the earliest horror film, Le Manoir du Diable (The House of the Devil), made a short eight years later. It was just over three minutes long and included many of the things we are still scared by in horror movies today: devils, witches and ghosts.

By the 1920s, more realistic films were being produced and that’s when the iconic film Nosferatu was made. It is commonly seen as a plagiarized version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

It was in the 1930s that the genre known as “horror” was born and sound in movies transformed the way horror could by experienced. In was in the 1930s that classics like Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) were made.

In more modern history, the 15-24-year-old demographic has shaped the way horror movies have been made, always seeking new thrills and chills. Horror movies now succeed at the box office when they represent what we currently fear the most. In the 1970s that was mutations caused by thalidomide whereas today that might be a global pandemic or climate change.

Horror Movies Cause Anxiety and Fear

Of course, when people watch horror movies, they expect to experience anxiety and fear.

This anxiety and fear may occur because horror movies can actually cause physical changes in the watcher. According to Research done by Glenn Sparks, Ph.D, a professor and associate head of the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, a person’s heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increases when watching a horror movie. After the movie is over, this physical arousal lingers, although watchers likely aren’t aware of it.

Horror movies can also induce the fight-flight-freeze response in people. This is the response fear creates that allows us to escape a situation that may threaten our lives. Even though horror movies exist only on the screen, our brain can still enact this response.

Why Do People Watch Horror Movies in the Face of Anxiety and Fear?

There are many reasons people enjoy horror movies in spite of the fact that horror movies cause anxiety and fear. Sparks says the arousal people experience during a horror movie intensifies the positive emotions experienced – such as having a good time with friends – while watching the film. For this reason, when people look back on the experience, they will remember the good emotions and want to come back for more despite the fear and anxiety the horror movie might have also caused. (It’s worth noting this arousal can also intensify negative emotions. This means that if you experienced something negative during the film – such as a fight with your partner – those negative feelings will be intensified, and you’ll be less likely to want to watch another horror movie.)

Other reasons people watch anxiety-inducing horror movies include:

• Entertainment

• Distraction from other feelings

• A feeling of excitement

• To counterbalance life’s stresses

• Social bonding with others who are watching with you – this is often seen in groups of young men

• Childhood memories – people often reminisce about when they first saw a specific horror movie, who they were at the time, their age at the time and so on

Euphoria from Horror Movies Fights Anxiety

Additionally, there is some evidence suggesting that watching a horror movie actually elevates one’s mood. Watching a scary movie temporarily floods the nervous system with a combination of neurotransmitters and hormones, from dopamine to adrenaline, yielding mild, mood-boosting euphoria. If one is experiencing a euphoria, this could be counteracting the anxiety around horror movies.

Horror Movies Helping Anxiety by Allowing Limit-Testing

Film scholar Søren Birkvad of Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences says that horror movies can teach us to deal with our own anxieties through limit-testing in a safe environment. This may happen by ourselves or in a group. Birkvad says:

"We see it in the way teenage boys occasionally use horror films as part of a kind of manhood test where it's about keeping one’s composure as much as possible."

In this way, we test our own limits in a safe environment, through the use of a horror film.

This is related to the benefit of a sense of accomplishment. When people sit through an anxiety-inducing horror movie it may be like achieving any goal – there is a positive sense because of it.

Horror Movies Helping Anxiety Through Emotional Regulation

Testing of limits works because people can mediate the fear and anxiety induced by the film at any time simply by covering their eyes or even walking out of the room.

In other words, people have control over the creation of the anxiety – they chose to watch the film – and then control over the intensity of the anxiety too.

This allows for positive emotion regulation – a term from psychology.

According Wikipedia,

“Emotion regulation is the ability to respond to the ongoing demands of experience with the range of emotions in a manner that is socially tolerable and sufficiently flexible to permit spontaneous reactions as well as the ability to delay spontaneous reactions as needed.”

People with anxiety may find they have poor emotion regulation when it comes to fear and anxiety but when they experience positive emotion regulation in the controlled environment of watching a horror movie, this can allow the practice of controlling anxiety they need. They can then transfer that feeling into everyday life. This basically undermines the power that anxiety has over people.

Anxiety Helped by Horror Movies Through Exposure Therapy

This is similar to what is seen in exposure therapy – a common therapy used in the treatment of phobias.

According to the American Psychological Association:

“Exposure therapy is a psychological treatment that was developed to help people confront their fears. When people are fearful of something, they tend to avoid the feared objects, activities or situations. Although this avoidance might help reduce feelings of fear in the short term, over the long term it can make the fear become even worse. [Exposure therapy can] help break the pattern of avoidance and fear. In this form of therapy, psychologists create a safe environment in which to “expose” individuals to the things they fear and avoid. The exposure to the feared objects, activities or situations in a safe environment helps reduce fear and decrease avoidance.”

In other words, when we are exposed to what we fear, we learn how to handle that fear and learn we are capable of handling that fear so we no longer avoid the thing of which we are scared. This decreases anxiety overall.

Horror Movies Can Help Someone with Anxiety

Not only can horror movies create euphoria, and allow for limit-testing and emotion regulation practice, and act like exposure therapy, they can also be like an immunization against stress and this, too, can decrease one’s anxiety.

Research has shown that undergoing manageable bouts of stress offers some benefit. This is almost like generating an immune response to a small, manageable illness to protect you from a bigger threat. Going through manageable anxiety may protect you when larger anxieties occur.

Horror Movies Not Helping Someone with Anxiety

While horror movies may be able to help some people with anxiety, for others, it may make anxiety worse. The positive benefits of horror movies are seen in those who seek out the experience and who want to watch horror movies. Those who are not open to the experience of watching a horror movie may experience an increase in immediate anxiety and maybe even a residual increase.

In short, if you like to watch horror movies, you may be getting more from it than just entertainment. If you don’t, though, there’s no reason to force yourself to sit through the next terrifying flick.

References

DiSalvo, D., “Why Do We Crave Horror Movies? Science Suggests It's A Head Trip With Surprising Benefits.” Forbes, October 28, 2018.

Martin, G., “(Why) Do You Like Scary Movies? A Review of the Empirical Research on Psychological Responses to Horror Films.” Frontiers in Psychology, October 18, 2019.

Skaare, S., “(Why Do We Like Watching Horror Films?” Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences – INN University, December 5, 2017.

Wikipedia, “Emotional Self-Regulation.” Accessed February 1, 2020.

Wilson, K., “1930s Horror Movies.” Horror Film History, 2005.

Wilson, K., “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, 2005.


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