October 8, 2022

Mental & Emotional Health

How horror may reduce anxiety and improve mental well-being

Could watching scary movies actually be good for your health? 

Peter Attia

Read Time 4 minutes

October has arrived. Leaves are turning bright shades of yellow and red, baseball playoffs are underway, and everywhere, children and adults alike are gripped with an inexplicable urge to scare themselves to pieces.

The Paradox of horror

What is it about horror films and haunted houses that holds such appeal? A 2020 survey revealed that a majority of Americans enjoy horror-based entertainment, and the experience of fear appears to be critical to that enjoyment. The eagerness with which humans seek to experience negative emotions of fear, anxiety, and disgust has come to be known as the “paradox of horror” and has mystified centuries of philosophers and psychologists.

Is there any other species on earth that deliberately scares itself? Do squirrels cross the road, stop in the middle, and see how long they can wait there as an oncoming car speeds towards them? No chance. Do deer prance up to wolves, just to see if they can outrun them without being eviscerated? Unlikely. Yet as a species we go out of our way to scare ourselves. Let’s look at one of the ways some of us like to scare ourselves: scary movies.

Is it simply a drive for adrenaline that accounts for the popularity of jump-scare films featuring demonic spirits or flesh-eating zombies? A morbid, can’t-look-away curiosity that kindles perennial interest in real and fictional serial killers, with twelve films devoted to Jason Vorhees alone? (Twelve! Whose idea was it to stop the Friday the 13th franchise at twelve?) Scholars have long pointed to both of these possible explanations, but is that all there is to it? Or is it possible that horror might, in fact, provide meaningful psychological benefits?

Can horror improve mental health?

While research directly investigating the potential benefits of horror is limited, a number of studies have provided intriguing clues as to why we seek the thrill of fright and how doing so might, surprisingly, alleviate anxiety and improve mental well-being. In a recent publication analyzing research to date, Drs. Coltan Scrivner and Kara Christensen note that individuals with high anxiety report greater enjoyment of horror than their less-anxious peers, suggesting that engagement with horror media results in outcomes (namely, reduction in anxiety symptoms) that tend to reinforce this engagement in anxious individuals.

But how? How can on-screen scream fests possibly reduce overall anxiety? Scrivner, Christensen, and others have put forth several possible explanations – some of which I’ve highlighted below:

  • It fully captures our attention.

Humans are hard-wired to bias their attention toward imminent threats. This bias, which is especially pronounced in anxious individuals, makes horror a uniquely effective genre at immersing us in the story, drawing our thoughts away from our endless everyday concerns and shifting our focus instead to the chainsaw-wielding sociopath on screen. In effect, horror can be a powerful mindfulness tool by holding our attention in the present moment and breaking the habit of idly worrying about more nebulous, complex problems of the real world.

  • It gives us a sense of control over our anxiety.

We have very limited ability to change or remove most of our day-to-day sources of anxiety – inflation, job security, the next possible COVID variant, etc. But the murderous, sewer-dwelling clown on your big screen TV? Bring up the lights, shut off the film, and the problem is gone. The feeling of fear and anxiety becomes a choice rather than an unavoidable misery created by external situations.

  • It provides a safe means of facing threats and practicing resilience.

The themes portrayed in horror fiction often mirror real-world horrors of the moment – for instance, over the last couple of years you may have noticed an explosion of TV shows and films relating to deadly viruses or racial violence. Some researchers have noted that this phenomenon may reflect a human desire to learn about relevant threats and to understand how a dangerous situation might “look” and which reactions yield the best outcomes.

However, unlike their real-world counterparts, horror films have a definite end point, and we can typically expect that they’ll conclude with a satisfying resolution to the problem – the threat is neutralized and the “good guys” prevail. In this way, horror provides a safe way to explore some of our greatest fears and experience a degree of catharsis, and there’s evidence that doing so may make us more resilient to these threats in real life: Scrivner and colleagues have reported that individuals who watched pandemic or apocalypse-related horror films exhibited greater psychological resilience to the COVID-19 pandemic and better coping strategies than those who did not.

  • It can promote social bonding. 

Nothing bonds people quite like surviving a harrowing experience together – even if the perceived threat was never more than an illusion. Further, watching a horror film with friends can make the experience less terrifying while simultaneously creating an environment where it is socially acceptable to express fear and cuddle up to others for support. (The Ring probably kick-started more high school romances than any rom-com ever has.)

Fright isn’t always right

It’s important to reiterate that research on the mental health effects of horror-based entertainment is still in its infancy, and many of the benefits described above are merely hypothetical and have yet to be tested. Further, just as appreciation for horror exists on a spectrum, preliminary research indicates that the genre can have a range of psychological effects depending on the individual.

Some simply don’t enjoy being scared – for them, such entertainment may have no effect at all or may even increase general anxiety or promote maladaptive coping strategies. Fright is hardly a prescription that works for everyone. If you experienced panic attacks with every glance at the mirror after watching Oculus, don’t feel you need to fill your Netflix queue with jump scares. This particular strategy for anxiety relief probably just isn’t for you, and trying to force it could do more harm than good.

Happy Haunting

For those who do enjoy a good scare, ‘tis the season for haunted hayrides, hair-raising thrillers, and stories of witches running amok. Some of us favor classic monster movies, others psychological thrillers, and still others a good old-fashioned slasher, but whatever your preference, it’s possible that those nightmarish scenes might just help you to sleep better at night. Who knew?

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