Scream Therapy: The Mental Health Benefits of Horror Movies
Watching frightening films can give you much more than a good scare, they can also help relieve stress and anxiety. (Yes, really.)
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Feel better after watching a scary movie? You’re not alone in the dark. Art by Wenzdai Figueroa
Monsters under the bed, zombies rising from the grave, and chainsaw-wielding maniacs aren’t exactly the first things that come to mind when one is trying to conjure soothing images.
Yet, for many horror movie aficionados, part of the draw of fright cinema is finding a certain degree of comfort nestled within the thrills and chills.
But, lest you raise an eyebrow at the notion of finding reprieve in the genre of blood-curdling screams, know that there’s not only validity to the idea… there’s precedent.
In an interview for the documentary “Fear in the Dark” (1991), acclaimed director Wes Craven (“A Nightmare on Elm Street“, “Scream”) famously stated that “horror films don’t create fear, they release it.”
Though succinct in delivery, Craven’s message nonetheless spoke to a layered truth: Our engagement with the things that frighten us can be its own form of catharsis.
More than just the embodiment of the time-honored chestnut of “facing your fears,” the contained adrenaline of a horror movie might actually be good for some viewer’s frame of mind.
Indeed, the beneficial qualities of fright flicks has become such an engaged topic of late, even the Mistress of the Dark herself, Elvira, got in on the action with a recent Netflix promo that cast her as fright therapist offering to “prescribe” horror movies for what might ail you.
Of course, part of the fun of digging into the discussion of horror’s beneficial nature is knowing that for a great number of years (and to many still), there were those in academia who saw no benefit to the genre at all.
“In the 30s, there was a lot of anxiety about what people consumed and whether it transformed them — especially children,” said Andrew Scahill, PhD, an assistant professor in the English department at the University of Colorado Denver and the author of “The Revolting Child in Horror Cinema.”
“There was a worry over what people get titillated by in the horror genre,” Scahill said. “Early criticism on film came from this place where horror cinema was seen as enabling sadism, essentially — that it gave flesh and body to fantasies that should not be reinforced.”
But as film continued to impact popular culture, scholars began to change their consideration over how it was received.
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Building resilience scream by scream
Initially thought of as a passive activity, critics and academics took note of the fact that the filmgoing audience instead operated as active receptors to the material presented to them. Thus, their engagement with darker material might actually speak to a deeper need beyond surface titillation.
“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,” Scahill said. “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.”
“Our body is telling us we’re in danger, but we know that we’re safe in these cushy theater seats,” Scahill added. “Allowing yourself to be triggered in a safe environment can actually be a process of therapy.”
According to Kurt Oaklee, MA, MFT, founder of Oaklee Psychotherapy in San Francisco, California, the audience’s surrogate experience with horror films is akin to the practice of exposure therapy, wherein a patient is presented with stressors in a controlled environment to reduce their impact over time.
“[Horror] can actually teach us how to handle real-world stress better,” Oaklee said. “During a stressful film, we are intentionally exposing ourselves to anxiety producing stimuli. We usually don’t engage in the same unhealthy coping mechanisms that we utilize in real life. We learn how to manage the stress in the moment. This practice can translate to helping us manage everyday stressors and fears.”
Admittedly, the concept of using horror films as a “contained trigger” to affect a form of release may just be one of the ways audiences are looking to horror films as a means of catharsis.
For marginalized individuals, horror’s active engagement with the concept of otherness may serve as a message of empowerment.
For others, horror’s ability to use metaphor and give tangible flesh and body to subconscious fears might allow those things to be conceptualized and compartmentalized.
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Horror movies can help us face our fears
Intrigued by horror’s potential to empower, filmmaker Jonathan Barkan set out to explore the genre’s engagement with mental health in a forthcoming documentary on the subject, aptly titled Mental Health and Horror.
Barkan says he recognized the genre’s cathartic malleability early on while dealing with the real-life tragedy of his sister’s battle with cancer.
“I just knew that there was some faceless, invisible monster that was attacking her,” Barkan said of the experience. “Horror became a way to face that monster and, more importantly, to see that monster, that evil, vanquished.”
Galvanized by the genre’s ability to promote empathy and face down the ineffable monsters of our daily lives, Barkan’s exploration of how others use horror to heal and grow speaks to the wider impact of our engagement with these movies that are so often dismissed as having little moral value.
“I’ve learned that so many people see and use horror in so many different, unique, and beautiful ways to help their mental health,” Barkan said. “The ways that we engage with horror are as diverse and amazing as the genre itself.”
Feeling fear in a safe space can be a big relief
And, as it turns out, turning to horror movies for relief isn’t just for the die-hards (pun intended).
According to Business Insider, in May of 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, horror sales on the digital movie app Movies Anywhere were up 194 percent from the previous May. At a time when the world was facing horrors of its own, audiences still looked to genre material for escape.
Global crisis notwithstanding, Oaklee believes this uptick in the hunger for horror cinema makes perfect sense.
“It’s not unusual for people to be drawn to thrillers or horror movies in times of high stress,” he said. “Horror movies force you to be hyper-focused. The ruminating, anxious mind is no longer spinning out on the stressors of the world. Instead, your body is in fight-or-flight mode, and nothing matters except the terrifying monster on the screen. During a global pandemic, that is very inviting.”
In fact, Oaklee pointed to a 2020 study published in the journal NeuroImage, which found that scary movies can indeed trigger our body’s fear circuit, producing a “fight or flight” response just as a frightening event in real life can.
Because of this, Oaklee noted that horror movies can negatively affect some people, particularly those who are more sensitive to anxiety, as what they’re watching on screen can increase feelings of stress and panic.
But for others, he said the continual building and release of tension that’s a core part of the horror-movie viewing experience, can help relieve stress from their everyday life, leaving them feeling more empowered and resilient when the credits roll.
So, if you’ve ever turned to Dracula, Freddy, or any other manner of phantom for a small measure of comfort after a long day, know that you’re not alone.
Astute pop culture historians have long noted horror’s ability to use the dark lens of the fantastic to confront contemporary issues (ex. Frankenstein tackling the “God vs. science” debate of the day, Godzilla being a direct response to the use of atomic weapons, etc.), and mercifully have also begun to recognize its propensity for healing.
Of course, beyond the allegory and psychology of fright, it’s also just plain fun.
Sometimes, the best thing that we can do for ourselves is to check out of the real world and check into something that brings a smile… and possibly a scare or two along the way.