Pop Culture

Science Confirms: Horror Helps You Feel Better

This is exactly how horror makes me feel right now.
This is exactly how horror makes me feel right now. Screencap from the Lamb trailer
Last April, I wrote a piece about how watching a bunch of horror movies got me out of the first stage of COVID-related depression (an expanded form of the essay appears in my new book). Science has since confirmed that I was right. Horror movies do help some people when it comes to the existential dread of a worldwide plague.

We can all agree that 2020 was something of a monstrous year, but let’s check the math just to be thorough. In December 2020, 42 percent of Americans were experiencing anxiety and depression, up 11 percent from the previous year. It’s not hard to see why. Quarantines left many of us housebound, financial insecurity was through the roof as the economy broke through the basement floor, the dead were literally piling up with no place to put them, and a good chunk of the world was loudly screaming conspiracy theories.

In 2020, horror watching increased a significant amount. Sales of horror movies on apps went up nearly 200 percent. Some of that can be chalked up to the fact that we’re living in a golden age of horror and 2020 was especially good, but it wasn’t that much better than 2019.

Coltan Scrivner, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, started looking into how the horror fan mind works. She was the lead author on a study that showed horror fans typically showed less psychological distress and greater resiliency than others. It mirrored my own experiences in the original article. Horror can be cathartic. The experience of controlled atrocity can mitigate the feeling of uncontrolled terror that was being shotgunned into our senses during the plague.

Leigh Richardson, the founder and director of the Brain Performance Center in Dallas agrees.

“Anticipating the fear changes the way neurons synchronizes in the threat response network,” she says. “You’re on the couch, you’re very safe, got your blanket over your head. But at the end of the movie, you’re safe and the world looks a lot less scary. People who are anxious tend to like horror flicks.”

That’s not to say that the cure for depression is catching Lamb this weekend (though I am definitely going to do that). Based on the Scrivner study it might simply be that people who are drawn to horror movie are more psychologically prepared to deal with the emotions brought on by the current crisis. Please don’t drag an anxious friend who hates slasher flicks to Halloween Kills hoping it will help. As always, the best practice is to find a way to process the trauma that is beneficial to the individual.

“Think about getting grounded,” says Richardson. “We are so all over the place. The reflexology points of the brain connect to the big toes. Push them into the floor, focus on your breath. Slow the breath rate down, and you’ll slow your heart rate. When you find yourself anxious, you can think about what you can do to create calmness.”

All good advice. However, if you are a horror fan, don’t feel bad if wallowing in violence and scares is making you feel good. Science says you’re doing alright.
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner