Spooky, but not silly! Experts decode the psychological power of horror movies
The article delves into the psychological benefits of horror movies, exploring stress relief, resilience, and the safe navigation of intense emotions within the film realm.
For years, horror movies have maintained a distinctive and lasting allure for audiences worldwide. These films enthrall viewers with their intense thrill and suspense, immersing them in a world of fear and excitement. From spine-chilling jump scares to eerie atmospheres and explorations of supernatural and psychological realms, horror movies offer a diverse array of experiences.
According to some psychologists, watching frightening movies can positively impact well-being by triggering the release of natural feel-good chemicals in the brain, like endorphins and dopamine. These chemicals aid in stress reduction and pain relief.
Dr Kristen Knowles, a neuropsychologist at Queen Margaret University, highlighted that watching horror can enhance pain tolerance due to the production of endorphins, while also suggesting distraction from pain as a plausible explanation. "Distraction from pain is also a likely explanation, since attention and energy resources are diverted towards threat evaluation and away from other bodily functions," she told The Herald.
Brian Bisesi, a Minneapolis-based data analyst, shared his perspective, expressing how horror movies serve as a stress-relieving escape from reality. For him, these films provide a means to alleviate tension and divert attention from the anxieties of daily life. He finds solace in the notion that his real-life challenges, particularly parenting stress, pale in comparison to the scenarios depicted in horror movies.
"For sure, if I was stressed out or anxious, I would be more likely to watch a horror film than any other kind of film. I'm not sure why, but it does relieve the tension. I don't want to see a movie about the anxieties of day-to-da life; I want to watch a movie about a ghost or a killer on the loose, because that seems so far from my reality," Bisesi said.
"The toughest challenge in my life right now is parenting; it's really stressful, but watching horror movies really puts my problems into perspective, so I can say, 'Okay, nobody tried to murder me today; I didn't get possessed by a demon today'. It sounds silly, but I do feel more grateful for my own life after I watch a horror movie," he added.
Dr Kristen Knowles also noted that studies indicated horror enthusiasts displayed increased psychological resilience in the face of adversities like Covid-19. Exposure to the 'emotional exercise' of artificial threats in horror films may contribute to this resilience, according to researchers. These movies offer a secure platform to explore intense emotional experiences and confront fear and suspense in a controlled setting.
"Watching horror films gives us a safe way to explore a very intense emotional experience. The body's response to fear or suspense is to ramp up production of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, which mobilise your body's energy resources. This is paired with increased heart rate and focused attention; this can all feel rather exhilarating when that tension is released at the end of the film," she said.
She further added, "Doing this safely can feel good simply because it is thrilling; consider skydiving as a similar activity, which is frightening but also euphoric. One theory about why some people enjoy being frightened proposes that the film format makes it possible to safely play with negative emotions."
"In horror films, the objects of fear are discrete and more simplistic than in real life. Through this safe interaction, we can learn to cope with negative emotions and develop resilience to fear and stress," she concluded.