Horror Therapy

Scary movies relieve anxiety

To calm down the looming presence of anxiety, losing yourself in a film is at the top of the list. Unlikely as it seems, horror movies and a few of their frightening components can put to ease those pestering, intrusive thoughts.

Horror films are seen sometimes as gory and vulgar and other times as psychological and spiritual. The genre’s dazzling stars include the likes of Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Jack Torrance and Chucky. While this genre may not be widely regarded as one with soothing abilities, recent online research suggests watching scary movies to calm anxiety isn’t as unheard of as one might assume.

According to Dr. Mathias Clasen, a horror researcher from Aarhus University in Denmark who has studied the psychological effects of horror films for over 15 years, one of the emotional benefits of watching movies such as Saw and The Ring is knowing the fear you are feeling is entirely simulated and controllable. “Exposure to horror films can be gratifying when the negative emotions caused by the film are manageable,” Clasen told Broadly.

Clasen explained the so-called psychological distance between reality and the big screen feels real and frightening enough to trigger a fight-or-flight response but is controlled by another part of our brain which understands the monsters or scenarios we fear are not real. Being able to face this fight-or-flight feeling—eventually becoming more comfortable with it—gives those with anxiety a sense of agency in dealing with their emotional struggles.

Though facing terror head-on can be a great way to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, horror flicks also contribute to shutting down anxiety by means of simply distracting them.

Clinical social worker Sal Raichbach in an interview with Allure said, “Scary movies create a situation where the worry becomes focused on something separate from yourself.” Although he recommends other varied forms of at-home therapy and self care, Raichbach described the calming sensation after the buildup of a tense horror scene to be a satisfying way to take your mind off the worries and overthinking that go hand-in-hand with anxiety.

By diverting one’s attention from the horrors of the mind to the horrors on a screen, creepy films can also boost your mood. Research conducted by sociologist and fear researcher Margee Kerr suggests your brain is scientifically proven to benefit from a good scare. “The research my colleagues and I have done show a high-arousal negative stimuli improves mood significantly,” Kerr explained to TIME, adding that various neurotransmitters and hormones released while sitting down with a hair-raising movie are to thank.  

However, if you aren’t already fascinated by this genre of movies, Kerr insists steering clear of any films you’re not comfortable with, as the participants of this study consisted only of horror film fans.

When the distracting adrenaline of a jump scare is combined with the relief of knowing the fear isn’t real, you are able to feel something that the vexing presence of anxiety always aims to steal: a sense of control. The ability to face fear by means of horror flicks may just give you hope to conquer the disorder that lives to conquer you.

After all, there’s no better way to destress after a long day than to curl up with some tasty snacks, a cozy blanket and a movie that puts you in an entirely different head space.

The accounts stated in this article are experiences from fans of horror films. If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, be sure to visit PSU’s Center for Student Health and Counseling or contact a mental health professional.