Yes, although for some watching horror movies may exacerbate feelings of anxiety, for others scary movies can help provide relief from pent-up tension. Vicariously experiencing negative emotions that surface when watching a horror movie in a safe and controlled environment can be useful for managing anxiety. The brain’s limbic system has a primary role in responding to anxiety-arousing scenes in scary movies because it cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality. Akin to experiencing a real-life frightening event, scary movies can trigger our body’s fear circuit, producing a “fight or flight” response, according to a 2020 study published in the journal of NeuroImage. Psychology Today explains that when watching a horror movie, the amygdala detects emotions of fear and prepares to protect itself (e.g., your heart beats faster, your breathing picks up, and the nervous system releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, etc.), while our conscious perception recognizes that these alarming events are not real. There are several ways scary movies can be helpful for easing anxiety, some of which include:
- It helps us feel in control: One recent study, found that “there may be a relief in seeking out situations that give you a blast of well-defined fear with a clear source and a crucial element of control.”
- Reduces emotional reactivity: Repeated exposure to scary movies can have a have a desensitization effect, as over time they will become less emotionally reactive to the images, which can result in lower levels of anxiety and fear.
- Increases resilience and distress tolerance: Horror movies can teach you that, despite what it feels like sometimes, fear cannot kill you.
- Acts a form of exposure therapy: Rather than trying to escape real-life worries, some researchers suggest that watching scary movies can be a way to dive into them, headfirst; acting as a form of exposure for individuals with anxiety, wherein a patient is presented with stressors in a controlled environment to reduce their impact over time.
- Improves mood: Other research has found that watching horror movies boosts adrenaline and that getting scared boosts mood.
The positive gains from watching scary movies are tied to maintaining agency and control and may not produce the same benefits for everyone. For many, horror movies can be a way to practice feeling scared in a safe environment, draw one’s focus away from real-life anxieties, and enjoy the release that comes with the resolution of the movie when it ends.
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