You feel your chest tightening, your breathing becomes erratic and your hands start to sweat. For most people, this may describe the physical experience of watching a spine-chilling horror movie. Yet for some anxiety sufferers these symptoms just need a good jump scare to resolve – something I only realised after I had already been self-medicating with horror movies for years.
(Of course, as with any type of self-medication, it’s worth pointing out that these coping mechanisms should only be used alongside proper medical care. If you’re struggling with anxiety, your first move should be to seek out a good therapist to help you work through it.)
I was always an anxious child. In hindsight, it’s ridiculous that I wasn’t diagnosed until age 25 – I was scared of water, dogs, carnival rides, fires and many other things including, yes, horror movies. But as much as I was terrified of even watching a trailer for movies of my childhood years like Scream and The Ring, I was oddly intrigued by them, too.
I found methods of engaging with these frightening concepts in ways that were just thrilling enough, but not too scary. I’d covertly look over the VHS covers when we went to the local Blockbuster, for example, or stay awake at night listening to the spooky sounds of The Twilight Zone from the safety my bedroom.
As I grew older, and logged onto the internet more often, I would read the synopsis of scary things on Wikipedia, experiencing them without really experiencing them. I know more about the Silent Hill series than someone who’s never played a single game in the series should. I developed an obsession with The Grudge, scared enough by the short trailer that I would think about it for years.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I finally started actually watching the movies and playing the scary games I had been drawn to for years. When I first dove into that pool of fear, beyond the initial blast of terror was a strange feeling of calm and relief when I reached the other side. Of catharsis.
Horror movies can teach you that fear isn’t always scary
Catharsis may be the best description of the otherwise puzzling idea of watching horror movies for anxiety. The Greek root of the word means ‘cleansing’ or ‘purifying’, an apt description of how I feel when watching a horror movie to cleanse out all that heart-pounding terror. The concept of catharsis was first defined by Aristotle in relation to ancient Greek theatre, when he called it a “purging of the spirit of morbid and base ideas or emotions by witnessing the playing out of such emotions or ideas on stage.” So, as it turns out, I may be partaking in a centuries-old tradition.
The theory of catharsis as put forth by Aristotle, and later Freud, is now under question however. As Marc Wilson, Professor of Psychology at the Victoria University of Wellington, points out: “Freud had a theory of ‘catharsis’ the idea that we can alleviate psychological pressure by doing various things. People have taken this idea and proposed, for example, that violent sports allow people to vicariously express their own aggression or anger. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to work.”
So if it’s not Freudian catharsis, then why do horror movies work such wonders for my anxiety? It could be one of a number of reasons, and Professor Wilson puts across a few of them.
“First, distraction is an effective way of managing one’s negative emotions (including worry) and movies can do that if you immerse yourself in them,” he suggests. “Another benefit that comes specifically from horror movies is that people typically feel better afterwards by virtue of a contrast – they get to leave the movie theatre not having been eaten by zombies.”
Dr Dougal Sutherland, a clinical psychologist from the Victoria University of Wellington compares the idea of self-medicating with horror movies to elements of cognitive-behavioural therapy or CBT, a common clinical treatment for anxiety.
“The basic idea is that people are deliberately getting into situations where they feel anxious and then learning that they can cope with this feeling and that their worst fears aren’t realised,” Dr Sutherland explains. “CBT helps people with anxiety learn that they are worrying too much about something that is unlikely to happen and a core part of CBT for anxiety is setting up “behavioural experiments.” These experiments involve people identifying situations that make them anxious and then putting themselves, gently and gradually, into these situations. The outcome is that people learn that their anxiety is manageable and that it reduces over time.”
This sounds awfully similar to my experience with horror, and how I gradually exposed myself to concepts and ideas that terrified me–even if it was without any kind of proper medical supervision. But there’s one element to this puzzle that’s still missing: the physical element.
Horror movies let you experience an adrenaline rush and relief
My anxiety was first diagnosed through its physical symptoms, long after I had taught myself to stop being afraid of water, dogs, fire and carnival rides. These days, much of my anxiety consists of physical symptoms, with just a vague feeling of emotional wrongness, with the main one being a tightness or pain in the chest. This and other symptoms are often eased or at least made more comfortable by watching a good horror movie, and the reason could be physiological.
“There is a bit of research into why people are drawn to horror movies (and why some aren’t) and that shows that people who are into horror often like adrenaline kick they get out of them and then the relief when this goes away,” Dr Sutherland explained. Professor Wilson also mentioned that “the physiological arousal generated by the suspense lingers some wee while after and as a result positive experiences are heightened.”
While adrenaline is usually a factor in the physiology of anxiety and its symptoms, perhaps in this case it’s the relief experienced after the movie is resolved that makes it different.
How to know if horror movies might help you
If you’ve started wondering about adopting horror movies as your own self-medication, there are some important things to consider. If you have specific phobias, for example, you probably shouldn’t turn to horror movies unless it’s something you’ve discussed with a therapist.
“For example, if you’re anxious about spiders then going to see Eight Legged Freaks may not help,” Professor Wilson explains. “Unless it’s part of therapeutic use of systematic desensitization which involves progressively exposing people to something they fear, say to learn that they won’t die by looking at a toy spider, and building up to watching Eight Legged Freaks.”
For some people with anxiety, watching horror movies might be the exact opposite of helpful. “There is a danger in using horror movies with someone who is not into them or unaware of what’s happening as watching these sorts of movies could be quite unsettling and even traumatising for some,” Dr. Sutherland explained, mentioning that he places himself in that category, too. “As a teen/young adult I suffered from anxiety and freaked myself out on a number of occasions watching scary movies. Sometimes after watching them I couldn’t sleep very well and still felt agitated the next day. I’ve largely conquered my own anxieties but tend to avoid watching horror movies now because of the feeling they give me.”
Watching horror movies is much more likely to be useful to an anxiety sufferer who is already engaged with the horror genre to begin with. “If a person is already drawn to these sorts of movies and regularly watches them it could be a useful self-help tool,” Dr. Sutherland said.
So, chances are, if horror movies are likely to be a good coping mechanism for you, you’re probably already doing it. Of course if you’re experiencing bad anxiety on a regular basis, even the best new slasher flick is nothing compared to proper therapy. Like all other coping mechanisms, horror movies for anxiety are best taken alongside ongoing therapy sessions and advice from your psychologist.