For non-horror movie watchers, horror movie fans are strange people. They find it difficult to understand why someone would enjoy watching serial killers stalk teenagers or a girl getting possessed by a demon. But there’s a science to watching horror movies, one that, when understood, comes with comfort and a sense of safety. Watching scary movies is, in the moment, scary. Afterwards it’s cathartic.
Dr. Andrew Scahill spoke with Healthline about this popular phenomenon, discussing a little bit of the history of horror and how experts observing the genre have shifted their perspective with the passing of time. While, at first, they thought horror would be a bad influence on people, especially children, nowadays there are other schools of thought that provide different perspectives.
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“Today, we have what we would call ‘surrogacy theory,’ which essentially says horror films allow us, in a way, to control our fear of death by giving us a surrogate experience,” explained Scahill. “Our body is telling us we’re in danger, but we know that we’re safe in these cushy theater seats. Allowing yourself to be triggered in a safe environment can actually be a process of therapy.”
In 2022, when there’s a lot to be afraid and anxious about, it might sound crazy that people are watching more horror content, but it’s true. According to Business Insider, in 2020, horror movie sales were up by 194% when compared to the previous year. The most watched movie was “Contagion,” which tells the story of a global pandemic. At the time, many experts reasoned that “Contagion” gave people a blueprint as to how a pandemic would play out in the real world.
For some, horror movies provide a distraction from real world problems. Coltan Scrivner, a pHD candidate from the University of Chicago spoke to CNET and said that many people with anxiety love horror for this reason. “My research finds that, on average, people with anxiety are more likely to be horror fans.”
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While the movies are stressful and put our bodies in a fight or flight state, a lot of people feel safe since it’s all happening within a screen, allowing them to use these moments as learning experiences, so their bodies know how to handle stress better when faced with a real world situation.
You can’t force people to enjoy certain types of content, but, if you’ve been finding yourself more anxious and stressed out than usual, it wouldn’t hurt to give horror movies a try. You might discover a new trait about you, and a coping mechanism for your real life problems.