A chainsaw buzzing into gear. A river of blood flowing out of an open elevator. A vengeful spirit crawling out of a television set. As counterintuitive as it might seem, these frightening scenes can actually help lower anxiety for many people. So much so that one recent study found horror fans are experiencing fewer symptoms of psychological distress during the pandemic.1

“We think this is because they have lots of experience with regulating their own emotions,” says Mathias Clasen, one of the study authors and a professor at Aarhaus University in Denmark who specializes in studying our response to horror. “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.”

This finding isn’t a one-off. Other research has found that watching horror movies boosts adrenaline and that getting scared boosts mood.2,3

As Halloween approaches, here’s the low-down on horror and anxiety.

What’s So Therapeutic About Horror?

Before we get into the theories about how horror movies help ease anxiety, it helps to understand the body’s response to fear.

When you feel fear, your heart beats faster, your breathing picks up, and the nervous system releases cortisol and adrenaline—stress hormones. All ways the body prepares to protect itself; the fight or flight response.

While a lot of questions remain unanswered, researchers around the world are hard at work breaking down the science behind this phenomenon of horror’s impact on anxiety. A few ideas:

  • It helps us feel in control. In one recent study, Clasen found that anxious people might get better at handling their own anxiety by watching scary movies. “There may be a relief in seeking out situations that give you a blast of well-defined fear with a clear source and a crucial element of control,” he explains. “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.”
  • It stops the hamster wheel. Anyone who suffers from anxiety knows the pain of constantly spinning thoughts. Horror movies may help us stop that wheel through a simple technique: distraction. “Horror forces you to focus on one thing, not the thing you’re currently worrying about, but the monster in the room or whatever it might be,” says Coltan Scrivner, a PhD student in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago who researches morbid curiosity. “So in watching a horror movie, 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 threat goes away.”
  • It puts us in fight or flight mode. Physiologically, watching horror movies seems to benefit anxious minds in the way exercising does. “Broken down to the very basics, it’s choosing to stress your body,” says Margee Kerr, sociologist and author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. In a 2019 study, Kerr discovered that participants exiting a haunted house experienced a global reduction in brain wave activity similar to a runner’s high. “Your body is thinking something stressful is happening,” she says. “That essentially draws activity away from abstract thinking and critical thought. Ruminating thought gets pushed to the back burner because we are grounded in our body.”

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I Walked Out of Hereditary. Should I Still Be Watching Horror Movies?

Who benefits more from scary movies: someone who has seen every installment of the Halloween franchise or someone who recoils at the sight of the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz? The jury is still out, but there is some evidence to suggest that those who feel some anxiety watching horror movies get more mental health benefits than those who breeze through.

“We found from interviewing people and collecting brainwave activity before and after they went through a haunted house that it does improve mood,” says Kerr. “Those improvements are even greater when people report that they’ve learned about themselves when challenging their fears.”3

That’s similar to what Scrivner has seen in the early data from an ongoing study of people who walk through a haunted house.

“Certainly there are some people who are more predisposed to benefiting from it,” he says. “There seems to be a subgroup of horror fans we call ‘white knucklers’ who are really afraid, but they will still show up at a haunted house. It’s not clear yet what they get out of it, but some pilot data I have shows that they [white knucklers] also reported that they developed as a person, more so than an adrenaline junkie would.”

Kerr points out that choice is critical. “Only those who want to do scary things should. In other words, the positive gains from engaging with horror-related content are tied to maintaining agency and control, just like someone choosing to climb a mountain or go on a roller coaster.”

So if you don’t enjoy being scared, there may not be any mood or anxiety benefits.

How to Find The Right Scary Movie for You

If you don’t know your Carpenter from your Cronenberg, dipping your toe into horror can prove intimidating. The key? Finding what subgenres suit (and scare) you best. For example, you might not be able to stomach slasher films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th, but enjoy the fantastical thrill of monster movies, like Alien and Frankenstein, that border on science fiction. Or a psychologically-suspenseful film (Sixth Sense, anyone?) that messes with your mind.

Picking the right horror movie—or the one that is most likely to help ease your anxiety—is a matter of discovering your personal sweet spot of “just scary enough.” You shouldn’t get overwhelmed with fear, but you shouldn’t be bored, either.

“Making fear safe allows you to develop a healthier relationship with it and use it for what you need,” says Kerr. “If it’s too close to home, you can’t really do that.”

[Stress vs. Anxiety: Click to Learn the Difference]

That’s not to say one subgenre doesn’t stand out though, according to Scrivner. In a recent study, Scrivner and his colleagues found that zombie movies in particular have eased anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It could be because they’re a catchall,” he says. “They have all four sub-categories of morbid curiosity. Zombies typically have rotting flesh (a big-time disgust factor), supernatural elements in that they defy biology, dangerous people or people-like things, and aspects of violence. The monster changes—sometimes it’s the zombies, the infection, or even other people.”

Our Experts’ Favorite Horror Flicks

Looking for something scary to help get you in the Halloween mood?

Kerr recommends

  • Cabin in the Woods
  • Get Out
  • The Invitation
  • The Babadook
  • American Mary
  • They Look Like People

Scrivner’s top picks

  • Dawn of the Dead (2004 remake)
  • 28 Days Later
  • The Girls with All the Gifts
  • It Follows
  • Hereditary
  • Haunting of Hill House (a spooktacular miniseries)

Still Spooked? 3 Tips to Help You Skin That Scardey Cat

Don’t watch alone. There’s truth behind the saying “safety in numbers”—even if the danger at hand is actually on the big screen. “Watching a horror movie with friends and people you trust builds stronger bonds and good memories,” says Kerr. “Being there for each other will make it less scary and more fun.”

Consider a different medium. If you feel out of your league watching It, pick up Stephen King’s iconic novel by the same name. It’s still terrifying (minus the jump scares) and the visuals are only as creepy as your own imagination can dream up. “Reading is less immersive,” says Scrivner. “It tones it [the horror] down a bit.”

Forget forcing it. Any mental benefits of watching a scary movie will likely be a wash if someone is pressuring you to sit through it. “That’s probably going to have the opposite effect,” says Kerr. “To get a sense of relief of whatever you’re looking for, that sense of agency and control has to be there. Otherwise you risk going into real fear or trauma territory.”

Still scared? Read spoilers and never, ever watch horror movies in the dark. Keep those lights on!

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Last Updated: Oct 28, 2020