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Some people are not only drawn to watching scary movies, they can experience psychological responses similar to exposure therapy, a technique used to treat anxiety disorders.

Photo Illustration by Image Source via Getty Images

How horror movies can help people overcome real-world trauma

Films that terrify you today may improve your fear responses tomorrow—and could provide relief from anxiety and stress.

When I was seven, my mother died of a drug overdose. In the years that followed, I struggled with excessive fear and anxiety surrounding death. I convinced myself that one day I would die young, too; I avoided many of the things my friends did, like learning to ride a bike, because they seemed too risky.

Then, in junior high school, I found salvation at the local video store.

A group of friends and I rented Return to Horror High, a low-budget 1987 slasher film, and for just under two hours, I watched through splayed fingers as a monster tormented and killed people while I screamed from the safety of my living room. Afterward, I felt two things: pride at having made it through the movie—and an immediate sense of relief tinged with euphoria. It was the best form of cathartic release. For the next several decades of my life, horror movies became a way for me to deal with tragedies and obstacles, including a divorce and the deaths of other loved ones.

For me, horror movies remain an invaluable coping tool. The effect is a primary tenet of what’s called exposure therapy—forcing ourselves to face fear as a way to overcome it.

Controlled fear experiences such as watching horror movies “may have positive effects in terms of fine-tuning coping strategies,” says Mathias Clasen, director of the Recreational Fear Lab and an associate professor in literature and media at Aarhus University in Denmark. Notably, a recent study of more than 300 people shows that horror fans are faring much better psychologically than non-fans during the emotionally draining months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It may be people learn about their own fear responses and about regulating their own emotions through watching horror movies,” says Clasen, author of the 2017 book Why Horror Seduces. So though it’s unlikely we’ll find the latest scary flick being screened at a therapist’s office, research on how we cope with fear—and why some people are drawn to fear-inducing forms of entertainment—is offering a window into new ways people might learn to overcome trauma.

Feeling exposed

When discussing trauma and phobias, it helps to understand first how our bodies process fear. The automatic response is the familiar fight or flight: We either stay to confront what’s scaring us, or we flee in an attempt to avoid or outrun danger. This response is driven by what doctors call the sympathetic nervous system, the collection of neurons weaving from the spine into the rest of the body. In perceived dangerous situations, this system triggers involuntary responses—increasing heart rate, raising blood pressure, sending extra blood to our muscles—so we are ready to address the threat.

When we realize that a threat no longer exists or isn’t real, the related parasympathetic nervous system takes over; it helps us to calm down, facilitating the “rest and digest” response in the body. This instinctive response may contribute to the feeling of relief after a threat has passed. And that relief is part of what researchers are tapping into with exposure therapy.

Extensive research has confirmed the effectiveness of exposure therapy. It has been found particularly helpful for treating anxiety disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The treatment works by retraining the amygdala— the fear center of the brain—through a process of activating it via exposure to the feared object or situation. For example: If someone has a phobia of spiders, therapists will have that person intentionally engage with arachnids either by imagining them, handling real ones, or even experiencing them via virtual reality. With repeated exposure, the fear recedes.

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The benefit of a controlled fear experience like this is that it happens in a safe environment. The terror takes place under a therapist’s watchful eye, in situations that can be manipulated and ended at will. The therapeutic effect of horror movies may operate similarly: A 2018 study found that horror fans may enjoy being scared because it helps them gain a sense of mastery or control over their fears from the safety of living room couches or darkened movie theatres.

As early as the 1950s, Martin Grotjahn, a University of Southern California School of Medicine professor and a Freudian psychoanalyst, argued that scary movies are “self-administered psychiatric therapy for America’s adolescents.” And in the 1990s, a case study discussed how a troubled 13-year-old boy used horror movies therapeutically. “The modern horror film serves many of the same functions for the adolescent that the traditional fairy tale serves for the younger child,” the researchers wrote at the time.

More recently, a 2020 study concluded that horror movies are the optimal fear-inducing stimulus. The study revealed that parts of the human brain process the horror movie as if the threat were real, which prepares the body to react in the same way it would in a real-life situation--the heart rate increases, pupils dilate, and blood pressure goes up.

We often have a pleasurable feeling after a horror film based on the subsequent sense of relief, says John Edward Campbell, a professor of media studies at Temple University. Zlatin Ivanov, a double-board certified psychiatrist, agrees. After watching a scary movie, the brain’s ability to calm itself down can be pleasurable neuro-chemically speaking, Ivanov says, “because the dopamine release related to the ‘rest and digest’ brain response causes an increased sense of well-being.”

Another possible explanation for horror films’ positive effects is the excitation transfer theory popularized by Dolf Zillmann, dean emeritus and professor of information sciences, communication and psychology at the University of Alabama. Essentially, this theory argues that the fear we experience while exposed to something intensely frightening, such as watching a scary movie, will intensify the positive emotions that we feel later.

Scream therapy?

At this point, horror movies have not been scientifically proven as a treatment for trauma or phobias. But many researchers understand their potential.

Psychiatrist Leela R. Magavi, regional medical director for the California-based Community Psychiatry, is a horror movie fan who has experienced the genre’s cathartic effects. “Horror films could be used to desensitize individuals with phobias and various forms of trauma,” she says.

Clasen of Aarhus University is now devising a study with his colleague, Coltan Scrivner, that will examine the clinical potentials of horror, and whether people with serious psychological trauma might find constructive uses for horror media. There is even a podcast called "Psychoanalysis: A Horror Therapy Podcast"—co-hosted by a licensed therapist—that explores the link between horror films and anxiety.

Margee Kerr, a sociologist and author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, has done preliminary research on voluntary arousing negative experiences (VANE)—that is, situations such as watching a horror movie or running through a haunted house for fun. In a 2019 study, Kerr and her colleagues found that the euphoria people feel after engaging in these activities “could help individuals to cope with subsequent stressors” by reducing the brain’s neurochemical responses to fear-inducing stimuli. “To the extent that this phenomenon is replicated in clinical situations, it could inform clinical interventions,” she says.

Kerr is now working on a grant proposal that would allow her to investigate how exposure to these kinds of VANE activities would modify stress responses. The idea, she says, “is that exposure to ‘fun-scary’ stimuli, which includes rewarding elements, could make more stressful elements more tolerable.”

As for me: When the pandemic hit, I immediately found myself seeking out more scary movies. I found a local store that sells used DVDs, and I am now revisiting the slasher films I loved so much in junior high. At the end of the week, I use them to help me unwind. Once again, I am finding comfort in the darkness of my living room, safely screaming away the fear.