It may not make sense, but some people with anxiety disorders–myself included—love nothing more than calming down with a terrifying film. I talked to researchers to find out why.
Photo by Peter Bernik via Stocksy
Like around 5 percent of the UK population, I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder. When I was a kid I would worry about certain things—usually catastrophic in scale but blown entirely out of proportion—When I was ten, I learned about comets at a museum. For weeks, I'd lie awake at night worrying that a comet might be heading on a collision course with Earth. As a teenager I believed I suffered from every incredibly rare and fatal disease I saw on TV. These days my anxiety manifests in a way that's much harder to explain to people who haven't experienced it: Imagine a sort of mild feeling of dread, a bit like the fear you get when you're hungover and know you did something but don't know what. That, but basically all the time.
I'm lucky that my anxiety is moderate enough for me to handle it without medication; I rely on regular exercise, not drinking too much, and just keeping tabs on my own mental state on a regular basis. But when it gets really bad, there's one instant fix that makes me feel better: a horror film. The gorier, darker, and more disturbing, the better. Last week I watched Would You Rather, a low-budget plotless gore-fest with a Netflix rating of two-and-half stars. The cover image is of an razor blade right next to somebody's eye, about to slice into it. You get the idea.
When I first noticed the effectiveness of this unconventional way of coping with anxiety, I pretty much freaked out: What was I, some kind of psychopath who derives comfort from the suffering of others? Is it just me? I asked on /r/anxiety, the Reddit forum for the topic. Is there something wrong with me?
While horror films aren't a true alternative to seeking medical help if you need it, I was nevertheless inundated with responses from people saying they'd noticed the same thing. "I too have noticed horror movies make me feel better," said one user. "It creates a different anxiety, an anxiety that isn't about me, ya know?"
"YES!" another said. "I think it's because you're scared/anxious for a real reason."
"I become worried about whether someone's going to break in or I'm going to see a ghost," confirmed one Redditor, "versus whatever silly thing I had been worried about earlier."
To find out why some anxious people like me are self-medicating with horror movies, I spoke to Dr. Mathias Clasen from Aarhus University in Denmark. He's been studying the psychological effects of horror movies for 15 years. "Exposure to horror films can be gratifying when the negative emotions caused by the film are manageable," Dr. Clasen explained. "Moreover, there's psychological distance when we watch a horror film. We know it's not real—or at least, some parts of our brain know it isn't real. Other parts—ancient structures located in the limbic system—respond as though it were real."
He explained that this creates a flight or fight response, but confines it to a controlled environment. "I'm not surprised to learn that some anxious individuals find horror films therapeutic," he said. "The genre allows us to voluntarily—and under controlled circumstances—get experience with negative emotion."
Dr. Clasen reassured me that I wasn't about to spiral out of control into a Freddy Krueger-style spree, but his theories didn't really explain why feeling afraid was having the paradoxical result of making me feel calmer in the long run. On another forum, socialanxiety.com, one user theorized, "The adrenaline makes me forget [my anxiety] for a while."
Was I steeling myself against my real fears by exposing myself to them in the form of onscreen serial killers?
When an anxious person watches a horror movie, are we binging on low-level anxiety as a form of psychological inoculation against the real thing? Or are we basically just mainlining adrenaline? Dr. Maria Ironside is conducting research at Oxford University into anxiety and depression using something called non-invasive brain stimulation. In effect, she passes small, harmless electrical currents through the brains of her volunteers and records the effects on groups with and without anxiety. I asked her what's actually going on in my brain when I feel anxious, scientifically speaking. "There's a part of the brain that is largely thought to signal danger," Dr. Ironside says. "This is called the amygdala. Studies have shown that people with high trait anxiety—[meaning] very anxious people—and anxiety disorders have a hyperactive amygdala, compared to healthy people."
I asked Dr. Ironside her opinion on the theories about anxiety and adrenaline. Could my reaction to horror movies be explained this way? Was I steeling myself against my real fears by exposing myself to them in the form of onscreen serial killers? "Research shows that if people repeatedly see a picture of a fearful face in an experiment, their amygdala reaction to this decreases over time. In exposure therapy for phobias, patients are exposed to the source of their phobia (e.g., closed spaces or spiders), and, over time 'learn' that it is not associated with a negative outcome and hence become less fearful of it. This is similar to your scary movie idea, though I'm not sure it would work as I think this kind of approach needs to be more targeted to specific fears."
I've always loved horror, since back when I was that nervous, paranoid kid. My favorite sleepovers were at the house of a friend with an older brother and a pile of VHS tapes: Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist, Halloween. All watched with the sound down low, in case her parents came into the room and caught us, sitting really close to the screen, wrapped up in our sleeping bags and feeling like conspirators.
Steph Hovey, an assistant psychologist at the Tavistock Centre and Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, told me that "anxiety can develop from experiences in our childhood which affect the way we see the world as adults." So perhaps, for me, a horror movie is about confronting fear, in a safe environment and with the help of somebody I trust. "Memories of enjoying horror movies with friends when you were younger could be helping you to deal with your anxiety by stopping you from overreacting. Because you've encountered these feelings of nervousness and fear before, but know that nothing bad actually happened, you may be more equipped to deal with these feelings now."
According to Anxiety UK, anxiety is on the rise: 12.8 percent more people are diagnosed with the condition today than they were 14 years ago. With so much to worry about in today's world, from viral pandemics to international terrorism to Brexit and Trump, this hardly seems surprising.
A couple of years ago, my housemate, George, and I embarked on a Saw marathon. We watched every movie back to back over a weekend. It was so much fun a few weekends later we did the same thing again with the Paranormal Activity franchise. It became our little tradition. It figures that watching a horror movie with someone else is a bonding experience. Like going on a rollercoaster, or eating an incredibly hot curry, it's something slightly crazy but basically entirely safe that you feel like you "got through" together. I may never find out why horror movies work for me, but in an increasingly scary world, knowing you can get through something frightening—even if it was entirely fictional—can be oddly soothing.