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How Horror Films Help Individuals Cope With Scary Situations

October 27, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck
(A still from the 2018 edition of "Halloween" Photo by Ryan Green - © Universal Pictures)

WASHINGTON — A study funded by the Research Program for Media, Communication, and Society at the School of Communication and Culture at Aarhus University in Denmark reveals how watching horror films may have helped individuals cope and prepare for the psychological distress of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My colleagues and I have been talking in the past about how horror can act as a stress simulation, in a way that you practice your response to threats, and learn how to act under pressure and deal with those things we typically avoid in everyday life,” said Coltan Scrivner, the lead author of the study, during a phone interview with The Well News.

“The pandemic offered this strangely interesting way to study this question we had for a while of whether horror fans actually deal with scary and uncertain situations in the real world better than non-horror fans,” continued Scrivner.

To conduct the study Scrivner and researchers recruited 310 individuals in April and May, 2020, consisting of horror fans and non-horror fans, equally distributed across age and gender and administered a series of online questionnaires.  

The questionnaires were used to evaluate the participant’s psychological resilience, personality, morbid curiosity and preparedness for the pandemic. 

To test whether a participant was morbidly curious, questions were asked such as whether the participant would be interested in attending an autopsy,  had an interest in the occult or if they would like a job as a criminal profiler.

Questions were also asked about what movie genres the participants watched the most and if they had ever seen a pandemic-related film, known as a ‘prepper’ film, which usually involves an apocalypse, zombies or an alien invasion. 

Participants were also tested on their preparedness for the pandemic such as what supplies they bought.

“People who scored higher were more interested in prepper genres and reported not only better psychological resilience, but they felt like they knew what they needed to do. Maybe the toilet paper rush was an exception,” joked Scrivner. 

Scrivner said that horror fans have practiced the art of regulating feelings of anxiety and fear in a safe setting and when it came to the real-world pandemic they could return to that practice. 

“The films portrayed an upheaval in the social world where the social infrastructure begins to break down, which is a screen representation of what was going on in the real world,” said Scrivner. 

In general, the study shows how morbidly curious people exhibited greater positive resilience during COVID-19. 

“Basically, watching at least one pandemic film was related to psychological resilience,” said Scrivner. 

Scrivner said in this way horror films could serve as a kind of  ‘home-brewed’ exposure therapy, in which viewers can draw upon the same strategies used in clinical exposure therapies, which use simulations to help individuals overcome conditions like PTSD, social anxiety, or phobias. 

His experiments surrounding horror don’t stop with films as Scrivner is currently developing a study by measuring people’s heart rates as they go through a haunted house to understand how the body can predict how bad things will get in the face of fear. 

“I’m working on lots of different projects relating to the broad realm of scary play, why people scare themselves for fun, and what it can do for you,” said Scrivner. 

Alexa can be reached at alexa@thewellnews.com 

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