"I don't like scary stuff," you tell people — as if it's an allergy of some kind. You won't go to haunted houses, you wouldn't dream of playing the new Resident Evil, and your fingers are perpetually crossed in the hope your moviegoing friends won't pick a horror flick. Well, what if I told you scaring yourself is actually good for your mind, body and soul?
Illustration by Angelica Alzona.
Fear Clears Your Head
Some people go for a run or do meditation to clear their head, but a spooky story works just as well. When you get scared, your body engages its "fight or flight" mode. Your heart rate spikes, your palms sweat, and you get hit with an adrenaline rush. As Dr John Mayer, psychologist and author, explains, the excitement of fear forces you into the present and helps you forget about the worries and pressure of the real world you were feeling before. As he puts it, "It works like an eraser for the mind."
You also release some happy hormones when you're terrified. According to psychiatrist David Zald, thrilling activities like scary movies and spooky games activate a dopamine response in the brain. Dopamine, also known as the brain's pleasure chemical, plays a major role in everything from sleep to motivation to sex. In short, it feels good to get a hit of it, and scary things do that. That's why many people, myself included, think horror is so much fun. Zald does note, however, that some people's brains are less prone to this type of dopamine release than others. You may not be wired to be a thrill-seeker, but even so, there are plenty of other reasons to give fear a chance.
I spent an hour on this opening paragraph. The hour wasn't time well spent, mind you. Sure, I was working — writing, deleting, fiddling with words here and there — but my paragraph-per-hour pace was more the byproduct of a stubborn lack of motivation than of indecisiveness.
Controlled Horror Brings Catharsis
Think of the last time you watched a horror movie. How did you feel afterwards? Maybe a little drained? Maybe you had a newfound appreciation for the mundanity of your own life? I usually think about how nice it is to not be chased by an unkillable slasher, or be haunted by a demon that wants to rip off my face and wear it as a mask.
Horror can be a tool for inducing catharsis, or the purging of your emotions. While you experience these terrifying things, you know deep down you're in a safe place, but yet you also feel everything the characters do. As psychotherapist Anita Morse puts it, horror is a lot like tragic Greek theatre. You watch it, you feel it, then there's an emotional release and all your pent-up frustrations go out the window. A lot of horror wraps up with a satisfactory and just resolution as well. So when it's over, it's like exhaling after holding your breath. You feel cleansed. You made it through the horror alive and now you can move on with a blank emotional slate.
Scary Movies Can Burn Kilojoules and Boost Your Immune System
How about a movie that can actually undo the kilojoules of that chocolate bar you're munching on at the theatre? According to one study, watching a horror movie can burn an average of 113 extra calories — around 473kj, or the equivalent of taking a 30-minute walk. And some films in the study, like The Shining, Jaws, The Exorcist and Alien, burned 150 calories (628kj) or more. As lead researcher Dr Richard McKenzie, formerly at the University of Westminster, explains, adrenaline is the cause of that extra kilojoule burn:
As the pulse quickens and blood pumps around the body faster, the body experiences a surge in adrenaline. It is this release of fast acting adrenaline, produced during short bursts of intense stress (or in this case, brought on by fear), which is known to lower the appetite, increase the Basal Metabolic Rate and ultimately burn a higher level of calories.
It's like doing light cardio, but instead of walking on a treadmill, you're trying not to pee your pants. But keep in mind, while the study was conducted by an actual specialist in cell metabolism and physiology at an actual medical institution, it wasn't peer-reviewed, used a small sample set, and wasn't published in any journals. So don't go thinking watching scary movies all day is the next big weight loss trend. It's just an added perk of activating your fight or flight response for funsies.
That adrenaline jolt does more than burn a few kilojoules, though. One study, published in the journal Stress, suggests it can increase your white blood cell counts and boost the strength of your immune system. Study participants that watched the classic horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre showed an increase in white blood cell counts comparable to levels you might find in someone fighting off a small infection. More white blood cells in your body means more defence against disease.
Terrifying Experiences Create Bonding Opportunities
Nothing brings people closer together than sharing a harrowing experience. This is partly due to another hormone your body releases when you get spooked: Oxytocin. The hormone is known to promote pro-social behaviour, and, according to Kristina Kendall, PhD, can actually help people bond with each other. As Kendall explains, scary things activate the brain's survival instinct, which is to pair up with other humans and increase our odds of making it out alive.
That's why you give your companion a "here goes nothing!" look right before the big drop of a roller coaster, you stand back-to-back and grab each other's arms as you navigate a haunted house, and you huddle close on the couch when you watch a scary movie. Suddenly, nothing is more important than the people you're with. That closeness continues after the experience too. You high-five in triumph as you exit the roller coaster, you excitedly chat about the scariest parts of the haunted house once you're safe outside, and your huddling on the couch continues even when the movie is over.
We also like to compare ourselves to other people. Jeffrey Goldstein, psychology professor and expert in violence and entertainment at Utrecht University, suggests that doing scary things in a group gives us an opportunity to show our friends that we're strong enough to take it. Basically, it's an opportunity to demonstrate your value to your social group or "tribe", and, in a way, show them you're willing to stick through things thick and thin. This basic social value may not be immediately obvious to you as you chat about movie monsters, but it does further facilitate your potential for bonding. Say, for example, you're going to a theme park with two friends. One is willing to ride the roller coasters with you and the other isn't. By the end of the day, you'll feel much closer to the friend who is willing to risk nausea and a sore throat from screaming with you. The people you're with during these experiences aren't just friends or partners any more — they're fellow survivors. You've "seen some crap" together and nobody can take that away.
Overcoming Horror Can Make You More Confident
If you're looking for a boost to your confidence and self-esteem, try sticking it through a frightening video game, or watching an entire horror movie at home alone in the dark. Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear, says getting through an experience you think is scary does the same thing to your brain as when you finish any other type of challenge. In fact, that feeling of accomplishment can be on the same level as running a race, finishing a long book, or completing a number of other challenging tasks. And that feeling of accomplishment breeds the confidence to try and accomplish more.
In its most basic form, horror provides a playground where we can confront and overcome our fears safely. You can always stop the movie or close the scary book you're reading if you need to. But when you finally power through, it's like you've overcome the same terrifying experiences the protagonists did. When they come out on top, so do we. This can be especially beneficial for kids, who are still learning the ways of the world. When a kid wades through a scary story, they learn how to cope with fear in a low-stakes setting, which mentally prepares them for the times they will face real fear in the real world as they grow older. Remember, nobody is born with bravery — it's earned.