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By Rachel Kretchmer
When you think about calming, you do not think about Ghostface slashing teenagers, abandoned houses at the end of creepy roads, or crazy men with chainsaws. You usually think about a safe place that you feel comfortable in, such as your house, a warm campfire with friends, or a day at the beach. However, studies have found that watching horror films can be beneficial because watching frightening films can give you much more than a good scare; they can also help reduce stress, anxiety, and trauma.
“Allowing yourself to be triggered in a safe environment can actually be a process of therapy,” said Dr. Andrew Scahill, Assistant Professor of English at University of Colorado Denver. “Thinking about what [horror] offers us, how could that be in any way pleasurable? Why would we subject ourselves to negative affect? It seems counterintuitive to any evolutionary picture of humanity.”
“Today, we have what we would call ‘surrogacy theory,’ which essentially says horror films allow us, in a way, to control our fear of death by giving us a surrogate experience,” he said.
Watching horror films can build resilience while in a safe setting, whether or not you are scared of it being potentially real. Our bodies naturally tell us when we are in danger, but you know you are safe at home or in the crusty theater seats — which is how horror works as therapy. Fear can actually teach us how to handle real-world stress better during a stressful film when we are intentionally exposing ourselves to anxiety-producing stimuli. We usually don’t engage in the same unhealthy coping mechanisms that we use in real life; we learn how to manage stress in the moment. This practice can translate to helping us manage everyday stressors and fears.
Coping and release
In an article entitled, “How horror movies can help people overcome real-world trauma,” National Geographic writer Nicole Johnson said, “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,” she said. “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.”
Fight or flight — or fright
It’s helpful to understand how our bodies process fear when addressing trauma and phobias. The fight-or-flight response kicks in: we face whatever is frightening us, or we escape. When we recognize that a threat is no longer present or isn’t real, the parasympathetic nervous system takes control, assisting us in relaxing and aiding the body’s “rest and digest” reaction. After a threat has passed, this instinctual response may lead to a sense of relief.
Researchers are using exposure treatment to tap into this sense of comfort. The effectiveness of exposure therapy has been proven through extensive research, and has been found to be particularly effective in the treatment of anxiety disorders such as PTSD, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The treatment works by activating the amygdala, the brain’s fear center, and retraining it by exposure to the dreaded object or situation.
For example, if a person has a fear of spiders, therapists will have them purposefully interact with them by picturing them, touching real ones, or even experiencing them through virtual reality. The fear fades with frequent exposure.
Next time you watch a horror movie think about how spooky it is that you are in therapy while in bed with popcorn!