There’s a science-backed reason why horror can calm people down
aura Turner was on a road trip in Iceland with her brother when she found an unconventional method to manage her anxiety: watching horror movies. “It Follows and The Thing provided a really great distraction from the reality of having just had a miscarriage; I could totally forget about my anxiety for a while because the movies were just so completely immersive,” she says.
While the intensity of the films distracts her mentally, Turner, 34, says watching horror movies also has a physical impact. She notices her body bracing to manage the anxiety she knows is coming. “I slow my breath down, especially during the scary parts, almost practicing a sort of meditation so I can be prepared for whatever jump scare is about to hit,” she says. “My eyes are laser focused on the screen, and all my other senses are either dimmed or directed toward the movie.”
It may seem counterintuitive to watch a scary show or movie when you’re struggling with fear or anxiety, but some viewers, like Turner, find horror oddly comforting. And experts think there may be something to the unconventional approach of immersing yourself in fear for fun.
Mathias Clasen, a Denmark-based researcher who studies horror entertainment, says while there aren’t any empirical investigations on how scary movies could improve anxiety, he isn’t surprised that some people with anxiety use horror films to alleviate their worries — and he suspects the ability to prime for a fear you can predict is a major part of the appeal.
Watching something that should be scary without the actual threat attached to it can be enjoyable — a refreshing break from the buzzkill people with anxiety are used to experiencing.
Unlike real life, when your worst fears could come to fruition at just about any given moment, holding a remote in your hand while watching something scary comes with a sense of control. You can fast-forward through the intense parts if you don’t want to watch, turn the TV to mute, or distance yourself from the intensity by reminding yourself that it’s not real, and it’s not happening to you. And since the movie is meant to be alarming, you can brace yourself for the impact of the scary parts, which isn’t always possible off-screen.
“For a horror experience to be fun, you need to feel that you’re in control of the experience — that you can switch off or look away when you want,” Clasen says. “I imagine that people who suffer from deeply unwelcome anxiety attacks may feel some comfort in voluntarily seeking out anxiety in controllable doses. It’s like facing your enemy, but in a context where you have the upper hand.”
Kristen Lindgren, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Washington Medical Center and associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington, says the ability to experience fear in an entertaining context may also draw fear-prone people to horror movies. While anxiety is normally paired with very real worries, watching something that should be scary without the actual threat attached to it can be enjoyable — a refreshing break from the buzzkill people with anxiety are used to experiencing on a regular basis.
“Horror movies can make anxiety fun for a change, instead of scary,” Lindgren says. “In the same way that the sensation of fear on a rollercoaster feels good — that sense of high arousal you get — people with anxiety can get a rush from a scary movie.”
As Turner experienced, some anxious people might enjoy scary movies (and other intense, all-encompassing forms of entertainment like a true crime documentary) because they provide a distraction from normal, everyday worries. When you’re watching a murderer go on a killing spree, you’re able to shift your focus away from your everyday worries, like the balance of your bank account or conflict with a significant other. Clasen’s research suggests that this type of all-encompassing experience — the feeling of being “present” in a mediated world — is a crucial part of any horror entertainment, and perhaps one reason people are attracted to it.
But is it possible that watching something scary isn’t just a way to experience (or escape) from anxiety, but also a beneficial way to deal with its effects? With these controlled doses of fear, Clasen wonders if those with anxiety can sharpen their ability to manage their anxieties, and then apply that skill to real-life situations — like Turner did after watching the films in Iceland. “It looks like people can use horror films as a kind of sandbox, a context for playing with fears and honing coping strategies,” he says.
Lindgren agrees: Horror movies can offer a type of exposure therapy that could be really helpful for people with anxiety, and especially for people who have anxiety about anxiety.
Since the bodily sensations that come with fear can feel intense and overwhelming, exposure to scary things in a controlled setting like a movie theater or the comfort of a living room could, theoretically, could help someone who tends to avoid situations where they may feel afraid. But there’s one caveat: To benefit from the scary movies, you actually have to let yourself feel the fear.
“If you have the intention to get control of the anxiety, what you have to do is learn that you can tolerate it,” Lindgren says. “Part of it is about learning what does happen when you feel afraid and blocking the avoidance. You have to hang in there and stay with it until you learn that you don’t have to be worried about what happens when you feel afraid.”
While there’s currently a lack of research on the positive impact of horror movies on mental health, there’s also plenty of research to suggest that horror entertainment can have negative psychological effects, such as sleep disturbance, generalized anxiety, and unwanted recurring thoughts. For horror-seekers who suffer from anxiety, whether diagnosed or not, the key is to feel in control, balancing out the scary parts with a grounded sense of reality.
Clasen suggests that these potentially sensitive viewers be extra thoughtful about horror, avoiding super intense movies, or watching alone, on a big screen, or when it’s dark out — all of which may amplify the negative effects and increase fear for some people. “Baby steps with horror movies is my advice,” he says.