The fear felt from watching horror movies may help build resilience.
Halloween means different things to different people. For some, the holiday is a time to get the kids dressed up in silly costumes for a walk around the neighborhood in search of candy. For others, who may not have children, it’s an occasion to go out on the town for a fun evening with friends. One other popular Halloween tradition that is beloved by many is curling up on the couch to watch a scary movie. Now science shows doing so many actually be beneficial to one’s mental health.
With so many people across the United States and around the world struggling with mental health issues, it’s no surprise that researchers are looking anywhere they can to find signs that certain activities or treatments can help. While many different types of treatments exist, some are more effective than others, and many people continue to search for something that will give them the relief they seek.
On some level, any adult who is watching a scary movie knows that what is happening on the screen is not real. Those are actors playing parts, the blood is fake, and the weapons are made of plastic. Yet, despite logically knowing all of that to be true, there is something about the scenarios and visuals that the movies produce that makes them seem real.
When watching a scary movie, an individual is actually rehearsing how to deal with fears and navigate them successfully. When emotions like fear start to rise up, movie watchers are forced to confront those feelings, rationalize them, and decide that they are safe and it’s okay to keep watching the movie. Of course, this process isn’t being thought of in the moment as valuable training for real life, but it might play out to be just that.
Studies have shown that people who do enjoy horror films and other movies in similar genres actually tend to do better when real-life challenges come up. These people seem to be able to better retain their mental health even when difficult periods are presented. Perhaps at no time was this better demonstrated than during the COVID-19 pandemic, when everyone around the globe was forced into a stressful situation that they did not see coming. People who like scary movies seemed to do better through the pandemic in terms of staying steady and not getting too low as a result of what was going on in the world, when compared to people who don’t watch the same kinds of films.
“There is some research on this in psychology, but I think what’s basically been found is that there’s a benefit to rehearsing fears in your mind,” said Matthew Strohl, an assistant philosophy professor at University of Montana. “You can gain a sense of distance from them. You can gain a sense of control over them through this sort of exposure therapy, as it were, by repeatedly putting yourself in a position where you have to engage with them. But because it’s in a fictional artistic context, you have a sense of control.”
Should people force themselves to start watching scary movies simply because of the mental health benefits they may possess? Probably not – but those who already enjoy this genre can enjoy knowing that watching some of your favorite movies could not only be entertaining, but also a positive move for their overall mental health.