A therapeutic thrill

Imagine this: you’re watching a horror film with some friends about a person alone in a house, this person knows someone else is in that house too, and they’re out to kill them. As you watch your protagonist manoeuvre around dark hallways, quickly and tensely open and close doors, in a shot where the protagonist is facing the camera, you suddenly see a figure appear behind them in the dark. The figure stares, silently.

Whilst you’re watching this sequence unfold, you’ll likely feel your heart rate increase, you might feel your muscles tense, feel yourself lean forward, maybe the palms of your hands become a little clammy, your eyes widen, you’re ready.

But, ready for what? What you have just read is a fairly standard response to stress, threat and danger. In biological terms, what is happening here is a sympathetic nervous system response. Generally, when people talk about the fight, flight or freeze response (now with fawn and flop added on too), what they’re referencing is a sympathetic nervous response.

After this unconscious response that allows us to react and respond to danger in the most appropriate way, we can consciously and cognitively assess the danger and make ourselves safe. When we’re watching a horror film, this process begins when we can consciously recognise that we are responding to a film, not a real danger. This is where the parasympathetic nervous system comes in.

The parasympathetic nervous system is basically the breaks on a car that’s ready to go off at full speed. It involves relaxing your muscles, releasing counteractive hormones that calm us, make us feel happy and safe and tells our body to restart essential functions such as digestion that take a backseat during a stress or threat response.

So, how does this all come into play when we watch horror films? And why might it actually be a soothing process for people with anxiety?

It turns out, watching horror films can help us to regulate our emotions, so much so that a study from last year found that those who regularly watch horror films experienced fewer symptoms of psychological stress during the pandemic.

One of the study’s authors, Mathias Clasen, a professor at Aarhaus University in Denmark and who specialises in our psychological and biological responses to horror, said in an interview with Psycom, “When you watch a scary movie, you’re actively regulating your own emotions, for example by reminding yourself that it’s just fiction or covering your eyes or controlling your breathing.”

Coltan Scrivner, a professor from the University of Chicago with a specialist interest in ‘morbid curiosity’ and another author on the study, spoke to Science Focus about horror lovers and their ability to regulate emotions:

“This matches up with data which shows that kids who engage in thrilling or scary play might be at a lower risk for things like anxiety later in life, because they’re learning how to navigate negative emotions, high arousal, and learning that they can get through those situations.”

You’d think then, that people who are already anxious, or already struggling to regulate their emotions and the physical effects of those emotions, might not get the same benefits from watching a horror film than those who do it regularly. Well, you’d be wrong.

Clasen, in another study, from 2020, found that already anxious people can also benefit from watching horror films, by getting better at managing those feelings of anxiety. It all comes down to control, Clasen said, noting “well-defined fear with a clear source and a crucial element of control”.

“You know where the fear is coming from – the screen in front of you – and you know you can switch it off at any time.”

Going back to Coltan Scrivner, he said another factor for why people experiencing anxiety can feel relief and release when watching horror films is that “…your perceived threat shifts from whatever thing you’re worrying about to whatever the character in the movie is worrying about. And then when the movie ends, the feelings of anxiety go away because the treat goes away.”

One of the key factors of trauma disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD is that the cycle of our stress response (sympathetic nervous system) and of our calming response (parasympathetic nervous system) often does not complete. Instead, those experiencing the long-term symptoms of trauma are often stuck in the stress response, unable to feel at ease or safe.

Watching a horror film allows us to safely experience those stress responses, then reacting to the simulated danger through a narrative that either resolves itself or ends, we can experience the positive side effects of our parasympathetic nervous system activating (think back to those feel-good hormones we mentioned earlier).

Unprecedented times call for…Horror films?

Speaking again with Science Focus, Scrivner points out a very interesting fact. He noticed that the peak in Google searches on Google trend for ‘coronavirus’ (January 2020 to March 2020) correspond to a similar peak in Google searches for ‘horror movies’ during the same period.

Scrivner specifically cites the pandemic thriller, Contagion, which saw a resurgence of popularity in early 2020, so much so, that Netflix added it to its library. Scrivner said this makes perfect sense because, “It showed what a pandemic might look like, but in a safe way.” As well as Contagion, Scrivner and Clasen’s study found that zombie horror films were also particularly popular during the pandemic.

Of course, this approach comes with a somewhat sensible warning. If you are someone who finds it hard to separate your psychological or physiological reaction to jump scares or horror beyond the end of the film, any possible benefits are probably not worth it.

Watching a horror film is also something to enjoy with people, if possible, even if that’s with someone on the other end of a phone call, or video call. Watching horror and safely experiencing fear as a communal experience is almost guaranteed to up the positive effects and decrease the negative.

Returning to our poor, unaware protagonist who’s about to get jumped by the mystery intruder behind them, lurking in the shadows…

The camera is still, you see the figure behind them approaching, slowly and with intent. The shadowy figure raises their hand, just metres away from our protagonist now. You see the glint of a knife. You hear the creak of a floorboard. Just like that our protagonist swings round, the camera imitating their movement. There’s nothing there, the hallway is empty. You breathe a sigh of relief, maybe let out a laugh, and share a knowing look of slightly morbid exhilaration with your friends, dig your hand back into the popcorn on your lap and strap yourself in for the rest of the ride.