Flip on any number of channels from your cable or satellite provider this week, and you are sure to come across a bevy of horror movie marathons leading up to Halloween. For those who can’t get enough of the thrills and chills of the genre, researchers suggest that there are a number of health benefits attached to a healthy obsession with horror films.
Willing exposure to that which is frightening provides a counterbalance to everyday stressors, and can help allay our anxiety while making us more resilient, according to Forbes. There are a number of psychological theories to explain why this happens.
One theory, called the controlled-environment theory, suggests that watching horror movies allows us to trigger our fight-or-flight response in a safe environment where we control all the variables. A similar theory called exposure theory says the more often we can experience anxiety triggers in a controlled environment, the more capable we become in dealing with those anxieties in the real world. Exposure theory is often used by therapists to treat patients with severe phobias.
Another idea is that horror films produce “good stress,” which provides manageable bouts of stress that can generate an immune response that strengthens our system against greater stressors. In this way, the horror film acts as a sort of inoculation against stress, generating greater resilience. A recent study in The International Journal on the Biology of Stress, which can be found on Taylor & Francis Online, indicated that there was a significant link showing the positive effects of watching horror films on the immune system.
Some social benefits of watching horror films are related to memory and social bonding. Researchers argue that it is perhaps not the content of the films that is of paramount importance, but rather in the memory of watching it, which allows us to draw comfort in our recollection of how we faced our fear. Additionally, those experiences with iconic horror films tend to be shared within social groups, creating a social bonding that relieves anxiety.
People who willingly watch horror films experience an elevation of mood as the central nervous system is flooded with neurotransmitters and hormones that boost euphoria. We also tend to feel a sense of accomplishment after enduring the experience and coming out of it in good form. Dr. Margee Kerr, a sociologist who researches fear, demonstrates this effect in her TED talk.
However, all of these benefits are only applicable if we are open to the experience. Those forced to watch a horror film when they don’t want to may suffer not only an immediate rise in anxiety but also carry that anxiety forward even after the experience has passed.
So for those who consider Halloween to be their favorite holiday and are presently enjoying the never-ending marathon of horror films on television and in theaters, you may end up reaping some long-term psychological benefits from the experience.