Why do horror films make us feel good?
From helping emotional regulation to forming stronger social bonds, here's why watching scary movies is good for you
words Sophie Lou Wilson
Racing heart. Tense jaw. Sweaty palms. The bodily response to watching a scary film mimics how we might feel going into a job interview or exam, feelings most of us want to avoid where possible. Yet watching scary films – be they slashers, possession stories or zombie flicks – can have a positive effect on anxiety, making you a more chilled out person better able to deal with everyday stressors. In fact, many anxious people love scary movies. They’re frightening, unsettling and have the potential to haunt your nightmares forever. So, why do we keep coming back for more?
According to Mathias Clasen, author and researcher of horror fiction at Aarhus University, “A surprising number of people with anxiety actively seek out horror movies. My guess is that it’s an opportunity for them to engage with negative emotions like fear, anxiety and dread, but within a controlled situation.” If the film becomes too intense, you can leave the cinema, turn down the volume, press pause. You know the fear you’re feeling isn’t real. There’s no actual threat, even if your imagination tells you otherwise. In short, if your anxiety leaves you feeling scared all the time for seemingly no reason, channelling that fear into a 90-minute film can be a safe, controlled outlet for those feelings.
How do horror films help with anxiety?
Horror films aren't only a way to channel feelings of anxiety in controlled environments, but research suggests they can also help ease some of the symptoms of anxiety. A 2021 study found that horror fans experienced fewer symptoms of psychological distress during the pandemic and were more psychologically resilient than those who never watched the horror genre. “The emotion regulation strategies we use when we watch a scary movie overlap with those that are effective in a real-life stressful situation, such as giving a public presentation or a job interview,” Clasen explains, “so the training that comes from watching scary movies can make us more resilient and resistant to stress.”
Coltan Scrivner, a behavioural science expert on horror and morbid curiosity, agrees. “When we watch scary movies, we get practice at feeling afraid and dealing with those feelings,” he says. “We can learn emotion regulation skills by scaring ourselves in safe ways.”
Horror fans back this up anecdotally, too. Izzi, 26, finds that watching horror films can sometimes help her manage her OCD symptoms. “I spend a lot of time catastrophising and obsessing over the worst thing that can happen in any given situation,” she says. “I find horror films give me an outlet for some of those tendencies. I know they aren’t real, so at the end of the movie, I can close my laptop screen and go about my daily business.”
Add to that the fact that most horror films are pretty predictable, so once you learn their familiar tropes, you might find some comfort in waiting for the exorcism to happen or for the killer to be revealed. “When you learn the trope, your mind is receiving signals that it’s correctly predicting the world,” says Scrivner. “This might lead to a sense of calm and comfort, even when the thing it’s correctly predicting is something dangerous.”
Forming stronger bonds with others
If you’re someone who can’t watch scary movies alone, then there's more good news for you. Watching a horror film with friends, family, housemates or partners can help you form stronger bonds with them. “There’s some evidence that people who go through real life instances of fear together become more strongly bonded,” says Scrivner. “You see this with military platoons and dysphoric rituals, for example. It’s possible that scary play, such as watching horror movies with friends, could tap into this bonding aspect of social life.” So, as Halloween approaches, find a friend, grab some popcorn and prepare to be scared together. It might make you feel closer by the end of the film.
Can horror films help with sobriety?
More research is needed to explore the links between horror and sobriety, but some anecdotal evidence suggests that horror films can be a comfort for fans who notice similarities between horror and addiction. This has been the case for writer and comedian Tabitha Viddauri, who runs a Substack on horror and recovery. “Watching a person become haunted, possessed, or chased by some kind of hostile force, I’d be like, ‘I recognise that feeling,’” she says. “It was the first step towards approaching my own emotions without judgement. Getting sober and/or recovering from a mental health crisis means having to face some pretty intense feelings, memories, and preconceived notions about yourself, so using horror metaphors helped bring some levity to my day-to-day recovery."
Scrivner notes that, while studies are limited, horror can also be a way to get the thrill that might have once come from substances. “Getting your adrenaline rush from a horror movie is certainly a safe way to experience those feelings,” he says. In that case, if you're sober, or doing Sober October, this Halloween, why not switch the party for a night in watching scary films?
The best horror films that are actually scary
Obviously, fear is objective. For some people, being stalked by a homicidal maniac with an axe is the apex of terror whereas for others, it’s more about what you can’t see – spirits, demons, possession and all the rest – but here are some films that are scary enough to spike your adrenaline so you can get all those feel good benefits.
A woman rents an Airbnb only to find out it’s been double-booked. It’s hard to say much about Barbarian without ruining the twist, but it’s one of the scariest films to come out in recent years.
Watch for: creepy basements, jump scares, twists, gore and psychological elements.
A film from the French New Extremity genre which is typified by being genuinely scary and brutally violent. Inside features a home attack and invasion where a woman tries to steal an unborn baby. It’s gory, bloody and brutal.
Watch for: home invasion, gore, threat, blood and suspense.
From the director of Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring, Malignant tells the story of a woman who has visions of people being murdered, only to realise the murders are happening in real life.
Watch for: supernatural horror, murder, violence, blood, gore.
A group of friends go on holiday and get kidnapped by an organisation who allows people to torture and kill others. It’s extremely gory and received divisive reviews upon release.
Watch for: gore, torture, violence, threat.
Goodnight Mommy (2014)
An Austrian film about the aftermath of a car accident where twin brothers don’t believe the woman who came back from the hospital is their real mother.
Watch for: psychological horror, twists, gore, creepy kids.
A gory classic that spawned nine sequels. The latest one is still in cinemas, but, as with most franchises, the first remains the best.
Watch for: extreme gore, torture, violence, blood, amputation, kidnapping.
An old classic. Some of the effects might look dated, but it still packs a punch. A young girl who becomes possessed by a demon with terrifying consequences.
Watch for: possession, violence, gore, psychological torture.
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