How horror movies can help mental health, according to science

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Years ago, when I was a huge fan of The Walking DeadAnd I only have one rule: don’t watch before bed. I’ve had a hard time sleeping since I was a kid, and my nightmares were bad enough to overcome the most horrific TWD scenes. (In fact, I was told I had to write it down and turn it into movies.) I assumed that watching before bed would only make the problem worse.

But in July of this year, I discovered a new zombie show that I couldn’t help but eat all night: Black Summer on Netflix. I broke my old rule, watched it right before bed, and inadvertently discovered something strange: I fell asleep better. The show made my heart race and filled my mind with frightening and violent images – however, these images were conspicuously absent from my dreams.

Upbeat, I kept watching zombie shows and movies every night, marking my biggest foray into the genre to date. I watched the kingdom (very good), army of the dead (meh), I’m a legend, alive And much more. And I didn’t have a single nightmare.

As a lifelong anxiety sufferer, I have several calming tools close to my heart: Convention on Biological DiversityAnd weighted blankets And Zoloft alike. I never expected to add zombies to the list. As it turns out, there is a scientific basis for this phenomenon, and I’m not the only one who tested it. horror moviesFrom zombies onward, it can help relieve anxiety for many people. With rates of anxiety through the roof due to COVID-19, an astonishing number of people are turning to terror to cope – and it works.

Read more: All 20 Horror Titles Released on Netflix via Halloween

Horror and Anxiety: An Unexpected Couple

“You might expect it Each Anxiety avoids horror – after all, why would a person with anxiety want to watch something specifically created to induce fear or anxiety? “Pathological curiosity.” However, my research found that people with anxiety, on average, are more They are likely to be horror fans.”

to be sure, horror movies dont feel Very comfortable. The brain doesn’t always clearly distinguish between fantasy and reality, so when I watch a movie about zombies, parts of my brain react as if they I Hunted by creatures of the zombie apocalypse, as shown in an August 2020 study in NeuroImage. This means that horror movies can trigger the fear response in your nervous system, also known as the “fight or flight” response, in some of the same ways a frightening event can happen in real life.

The fear response is the system our ancestors’ bodies developed to survive threats, such as a bear attack. Your body is full of stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline and your body heart rateAnd blood pressure And breathing begins to increase, which allows you to act quickly. When the threat is gone, the fear response is followed by the “rest and digest” response, which prompts your body to calm down and return to its base state.

But in people with anxiety or shock, the fight-or-flight response has some faults. Our brains react to normal daily events as if they were a major threat to our lives. And because there He is There is no real threat, just a general vague sense of death, we rarely get any sense of resolution or relief.

For some anxious or traumatized viewers, horror movies only make matters worse. But for others, terror can help relieve pent-up stress. It’s a way to practice feeling fear in a safe environment, refocus your mind away from real life fears and enjoy the release that comes after the movie is over.

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Make friends with fear

When my nightmares are particularly bad, I start to get nervous as bedtime approaches because I never know what will happen to me while I sleep. On the other hand, zombie movies are a nightmare I have the power to squeeze in. This may be part of what makes her so attractive.

“Horror films have a long history of providing reassurance,” says Margaret J. King, director of the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis. “Viewers can immerse themselves in a shocking story, but at the same time they are completely safe, able to control the trigger by turning it off or diverting attention to the surrounding space.”

Horror movies also teach you that despite how you sometimes feel, fear can’t kill you, explains Lana Holmes, a clinical psychologist in Decatur, in the Voice Therapy Program for Black Girls. “When you expose yourself to something you’re afraid of, even a horror movie, over time, you realize — oh, I can survive this,” Holmes says.

Not only that, but there’s a euphoric “comedon” effect after you finish watching something scary, according to Scrivener. This is a great feeling for someone like me, whose brain often forgets the idea of ​​”rest and digest” for a bit after panicking.

Escape from real life

In real life, you often feel that the triggers for anxiety are inevitable, and it is easy to get caught up in an endless cycle of anxiety. Often times for people with anxiety disorders, there may not always be He is One obvious trigger, which makes it impossible to “fix”.

But in the case of terror, there is a clearly defined threat that has a definite end. The somewhat predictable plots provide a reassuring roadmap, but they suck enough to keep your attention glued to the screen (and out of your thoughts).

“If someone is feeling anxious, they may find that terror helps them stop ruminating about other things in their life,” Scrivener says. “The horror forces the viewer to focus – the monster on the screen draws us in and focuses our attention.”

And most importantly, what happens with zombies on screen has absolutely no consequences is yours life. In most cases, Scrivener says, people are drawn to terrifying content that has nothing to do with their current realistic fears. “Horror that strikes very close to home may be disgusting or disgusting,” he explains.

First go to your worst fears

Sometimes, instead of escaping from real-life fears, horror can be a way to delve into them — almost like a form of exposure therapy.

“Horror fans score very high on a trait called pathological curiosity, which can be defined as an interest in recognizing dangerous situations,” Scrivener says. “Interestingly, anxiety and pathological curiosity seem to stem from similar psychological roots – a central aspect of both anxiety and pathological curiosity is the growing interest in collecting information about threats, even if it’s not a good idea to collect that information,” he explains. “This may be part of the reason that many people with anxiety are horror fans.”

The same could be true on a larger scale. “Horror as a literary genre often speaks of the horrors of the real world at the time in which it was created,” Scrivener says. For example, he says, torture films like Saw and Hostel “became popular at the time torture of Guantanamo Bay prisoners became public,” though it’s not clear if there is a direct link.

This may also have something to do with the popularity of horror content with themes of race among black viewers, such as Get Out and Lovecraft Country.

It is almost certain It has to do with the sudden explosion in epidemic horror films during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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‘Quar-horror’ and the COVID-19 terror boom

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability of terror to calm anxiety and stress has been put to the ultimate test. In a December 2020 survey from the US Census Bureau, more than 42% of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, compared to 11% the year before. Meanwhile, 2020 was a “boom year” for horror even as other genres failed to perform as expected.

Many people seem to have been drawn to horror films as a means of coping – at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in the US, the pandemic thriller Contagion has become one of the most watched movies on iTunes. Data from digital movie app Movies Anywhere showed a marked rise in interest in “reality-escaping movies like horror and thrillers,” general manager Karen Gilford told Insider. In May 2020, horror sales on the app were up 194% from the previous May.

Did all this horror really help people cope? Yes, it seems. Scrivener was the lead author of a January 2021 study that found that horror fans were more psychologically resilient during the pandemic, with films like Contagion serving as a kind of practice simulation of the real thing.

The pandemic has left its own mark on the horror genre, spawning a new subgenre called “Quaternary Horror”. As horror director Nathan Crocker told NPR, “Horror can be a way to deal with our worst fears.”

For horror to be truly useful for anxiety or stress, the content has to get to that cool point: frightening enough to capture your attention and stimulate a fear response, but not so frightening that you feel upset or shocked. This will vary based on your individual threshold and background, and there are many different monsters to choose from. Some of my favorite horror movies and TV shows for anxiety are:

  • Black Summer: A zombie series on Netflix consists of brief snippets, so you get that “comedown” effect multiple times during each episode.
  • Train to Busan: A South Korean zombie movie remains one of the most compelling zombie movies I’ve seen to date.
  • Haunting Bly Manor: I’m usually pretty freaked out by ghost themes, but this one had just the right atmosphere and narrative to draw me in.
  • A quiet place: This movie is, well, quiet, which makes the constant high tension and suspense more bearable for me (I often mute the horrific stuff in horror anyway).

Even if you don’t have anxiety, the COVID-19 pandemic is the kind of situation that can leave you feeling constantly on edge in a similar way. The threat of the coronavirus is very real, but it is largely out of your reach and with no clear end in sight, which makes it hard to truly feel comfortable. Other stresses, such as climate change or racism, can have the same effect.

Horror is one way to regain control of your emotions when you feel too much life Outside out of your control. And at a time when the apocalypse is on our minds, it makes sense to find horror a bit soothing. At the moment, real life is complex and difficult. In zombie movies, the threat is simple, and the solution is straightforward: aim for the head and don’t bite.

The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to provide medical or health advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

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