Anxiety is something that has probably impacted, or will impact, everyone’s life at some point. To put this in statistical terms, over 40 million people across the United States suffer from varying degrees of anxiety on a regular basis. I myself can say that the impact that stress can have in our lives can be so extreme, that it seems to be this giant weight propped on your shoulders. In our world today, stress triggers can be found almost anywhere, from impending school deadlines, to paying taxes. Many people believe that anxiety can be lessened with soothing remedies, which may be true for some. However, for most, the opposite is true. As such, there seems to be an unlikely antidote that can remedy anxiety – horror movies. It is odd to think that watching other people go through terrifying times can actually calm our own nerves. However, the reasoning behind this is quite intuitive.
As a matter of fact, people have been using horror movies to calm anxiety for decades, often kept a secret due to its weird and unorthodox method. In basic terms, the horror content that the viewers watch allows them to redirect their stresses and anxiety over onto something that does not impact them directly. Not only that, but it allows the viewers to shift their anxiety onto something that is also not even real. As a result, since the anxiety of the movie overruns their stresses of life, their initial anxiety begins to calm down and diffuse. According to a Reddit user who is using this method to relieve their anxiety, they become worried about events in the movie, rather than what they were worried about earlier.
Dr. Mathias Clasen from Aarhus University has been studying the psychological effects of horror movies for the past 15 years. According to his studies, people leave feeling relieved after watching a horror movie as their brain reacts as if they were experiencing the horror movie themselves. Thus, after the horror movie is over, there is a relief of making it through a high-stress situation. As a result, the anxiety that was felt earlier on is usually forgotten about. In an interview with Broadly, Clasen says that “the genre allows us to voluntarily – and under controlled circumstances – get experience with negative emotion.”
It is also possible that this therapeutic remedy acts as an exercise for the amygdala. The amygdala is a part of the brain that will signal if there is any danger. However, this system can be quite overactive or agitated due to generalized stress disorder. According to Clasen’s studies, along with many surveys done on people, if people with hyperactive amygdala were exposed to horror at a regular rate, it could have the possibility of reducing a person’s anxiety over time as well. On the contrary, this remedy has only been tested a few times, and could vary depending on the type of horror movie (supernatural, gory, etc.) or the person. The amygdala’s main purpose is to initiate a “fight or flight” reaction which is very helpful when faced with potential danger. However, this feeling is also closely related to being happy or excited, which could also explain its ability to quell anxiety. Furthermore, since watching a movie is usually done in a safe environment, like a couch in your house, it is easier for your brain to distinguish the difference between irrational fears and reality.
Although this technique may help some, it is safe to say that not everyone with anxiety will experience relief after watching a horror film. It turned out that this remedy proved to yield an opposite effect due to the same fight or flight response in our brain. According to Glenn Sparks, a Purdue professor at the Brian Lamb School of Communication, “one study reports that about a half-dozen people had to seek clinical help after seeing ‘The Exorcist’ because the lingering fear was so intense.” This is similar to the paranoia that may follow after watching a horror movie of hearing sounds in your house or seeing things that are not there. The way people handle the triggering material depends greatly on how the brain is able to perceive, then react to it.
Conclusively, there is a necessity for further investigation in this topic, and there needs to be a conclusion of just how effective horror movies are in relieving stress and anxiety. As a horror movie watcher myself, I could see myself adopting this method of reducing stress, as I can be entertained, all the while benefiting my mental health. However, for those who are not fond of horror, maybe meditating will be the better option.