Many people are fans of the horror movie genre, but for people with anxiety, it can be more than just a fun, spooky hobby. For some, watching scary movies is actually a powerful way to deal with their anxiety symptoms.
But why is this the case? After all, it feels a bit counterintuitive to turn to terrifying cinematic experiences when you’re already dealing with internal worries or fears.
HuffPost spoke to mental health experts to find out why some people with anxiety love horror movies and how they can actually help the condition.
It’s A Helpful Distraction
For some people with anxiety, horror movies provide tangible fears where they can focus their minds.
“People with anxiety will notice that a lot of the time their thoughts are racing about a variety of concerns in areas such as work, family, romantic relationships, health, finances, etc.,” Jocelyn McDonnell, a therapist and member of the cognitive behavioral therapy team at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, told HuffPost.
McDonnell added people with anxiety often struggle to stay present in the moment and instead dwell on the past or worry about the future. Getting caught up in the plot of a scary movie can be an appealing distraction or outlet for those feeling bogged down by personal concerns.
“I can see how watching horror movies would allow a person with anxiety to focus their worry and attention towards something unrelated to their lives,” she explained. “These movies could provide a distraction from their personal worries that are causing them physical and emotional distress. For example, instead of worrying about making a mistake on a presentation at work tomorrow, the person would be focusing on fearful stimuli that is unrelated to their lives, such as being chased by a clown that lives in a sewer.”
Alicia Clark, a Washington, D.C.-based therapist and author of “Hack Your Anxiety,” said more of her patients than she would expect have a deep affection for horror movies. “Channeling everyday anxiety into something more focused and acute that’s about something and someone else, appears to offer some relief from what’s going on inside them,” she said.
The Anxiety Gets Validated Or Normalized
For some people with anxiety, watching a horror movie is a way to confirm the many fear-inducing triggers they deal with on a regular basis.
“There is some satisfaction, maybe even relief, that [people with anxiety] can find in the confirmation that, ‘Yes, the world is indeed a dangerous, anxiety-producing place as I’ve been saying and feeling all along,’” said Elias Aboujaoude, a Stanford University professor of psychiatry.
“For other patients, however, it is a way to place their anxieties in a broader spectrum that includes much more severe forms,” he continued. “Paradoxically, horror movies can ‘normalize’ their symptoms and send the reassuring message that, ‘Yes, you are anxious, but things could be so much worse.’”
There’s A Sense Of Control
While anxiety about everyday concerns like work, health or relationships can be overwhelming, the sense of anxiety people experience when watching a scary movie feels more within their power.
“Horror movies let anxious people experience anxiety in a safe, controlled way,” said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. “They can always look away if the anxiety is too much. And because most horror movies end with the monsters being defeated, they give viewers the sense that if we tolerate our anxiety, we will be OK in the end. That’s reassuring for anxious people.”
Clark said her patients have reported feeling more control over their anxiety when watching it on a screen. This is in part because they know it is fictional, and they themselves will not be harmed. The plot resolution ― or just the fact that the film has to end ― offers a sense of safety, so viewers can experience the catharsis of feeling acute anxiety from the beginning up to the conclusion.
“So often, anxiety sufferers avoid experiences where they will feel anxiety in such a way that anxiety is escalated,” Clark said. “It may be that the horror genre allows watchers to gain practice facing and withstanding this complicated, uncomfortable, and full-body emotion in a safe and controlled way.”
It Can Be A Kind Of Exposure Therapy
The controlled environment of watching a scary movie helps people with anxiety practice working with and resolving intense, uncomfortable emotions ― something many struggle to do effectively. McDonnell believes horror movies could be a useful tool in exposure therapy.
“Exposure therapy is a therapy that exposes clients to their feared stimuli with the idea of teaching the client they can handle the perceived threat, and that the fear is likely not as bad as they thought it would be,” she said, noting that horror movies can expose viewers to the physical sensations of anxiety, such as their heart racing, sweating and heavy breathing. Indeed, a 2012 study from the University of Westminster showed that the body experiences an adrenaline surge during scary movie viewings.
A trained therapist could thus use horror movies to create these physical sensations and show the client that they’re not necessarily dangerous and in fact tolerable.
“A client could see that even though their heart is racing, and their muscles are tight during the movie, they really aren’t in any danger,” McDonnell said. “This realization could help them in future situations in which physical sensations of anxiety are present, because they could remember that even though their bodies are preparing for possible danger, it is likely just a false alarm.”
Going through this experience can help cultivate emotional resilience. Clark said patients have told her that watching horror movies gives them “a sense of confidence and calm knowing they can handle their intense feelings of fear and anxiety.”
It Can Be Relaxing
Though it seems counterintuitive, watching a horror movie can be relaxing. McDonnell pointed out that when people are in a state of anxiety, their nervous systems respond and release adrenaline to protect us against perceived danger.
“Our bodies prepare for danger by going into ‘flight or fight’ modes, which can include heavy breathing and increase in heart rate,” she said. “Since our bodies cannot remain in this heightened physical state forever, our systems will eventually calm us down and restore us to a more calm and balanced state. It is possible that watching horror films can produce the same type of physical responses, which could eventually relax someone who is experiencing anxiety in a variety of areas.”
Although watching horror movies can make some people with anxiety feel more relaxed and present, McDonnell believes this coping mechanism should be used cautiously.
“It is possible that horror films have fearful content that might further trigger an individual,” she said. “For example, people who have anxiety about something bad happening to their family, might feel more anxious or fearful after watching a horror movie where a family was tortured by an unknown masked figure. This would leave the person feeling more anxious than they were prior to starting the movie.”
Clark echoed this sentiment, noting that trauma survivors or anyone else who has experienced acute life-threatening anxiety may even need to avoid such viewing experiences as a form of self-care until broader coping tools are in place.
“Under no circumstances should an anxious person who does not want to watch horror ever feel that they are somehow inadequate,” she said, emphasizing that coping with anxiety involves learning what works and doesn’t work for you, without shame or worry.
Fortunately, there are many strategies and techniques to help people handle their anxiety. Horror movies may be one such tool, in addition to therapy and other more traditional coping strategies. For people who already enjoy the genre, Clark said she works to uncover insight into why, and incorporate it into their individualized coping toolkit.
Ultimately, the helpfulness of the horror genre for people with anxiety depends on the way they’re using it, said Christen Sistrunk, a licensed professional counselor in Texas who specializes in treating anxiety disorders. If they’re turning to horror as a form of pure distraction from their issues, this may not be the best approach.
“One thing that we know about anxiety is that when we avoid people, places or situations that cause anxiety, the anxiety doesn’t actually get better. It will get worse over time,” she said. “The best thing to do is confront the anxiety head-on. If you’re not sure how best to do this, look for a clinician trained in treating anxiety disorders to help you find the best way to win your life back from anxiety.”