Spooky films may actually aid your mental health. Experts reveal the psychology of Hollywood horror

Although horror movies have traditionally been the subject of panic, experts say they can benefit the mind

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 14, 2023 3:59PM (EDT)

Two young boys sit in a basement late at night on a weekend watching a horror flick. (Getty Images/RichVintage)
Two young boys sit in a basement late at night on a weekend watching a horror flick. (Getty Images/RichVintage)

The 1973 horror film "The Exorcist" was so scary that audiences left the theater up and out — throwing up and passing out, that is.

Local news reports from the time confirm that some people left the auditoriums early to treat their nerves; others passed out from their fear or vomited profusely. Surprisingly, the Catholic Church did not take a stance against the film about a crucifix-defiling possessed little girl, and reportedly even liked it despite the graphic and often sacrilegious content. Perhaps Christian conservatives accepted the film because, if nothing else, it was effective at scaring people back into church.

The same cannot be said of a horror movie released in 1984, "Silent Night, Deadly Night," which was denounced by Christian conservatives when the trailer showed creepy clips of a mass murderer in a Santa Claus suit. The movie's footage was so unsettling that parents' groups claimed the film would traumatize children and even scare them away from Christmas. More progressive voices like powerful film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert joined the public chorus of outrage, denouncing "Silent Night, Deadly Night" as "blood money" because of how it would supposedly upset audiences.

"What's basically been found is that there's a benefit to rehearsing fears in your mind."

Based on this evidence after the release of such famous horror flicks as "The Exorcist" and "Silent Night, Deadly Night," it would seem that horror movies are bad for people's health. Yet literal hysterical reactions notwithstanding, experts actually argue exactly the opposite: The venerable Halloween tradition of watching scary movies is actually beneficial for your mental health.

"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," Matthew Strohl, an assistant philosophy professor at University of Montana and author of "Why It's OK to Love Bad Movies," told Salon. "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."

Frank T. McAndrew, Ph.D. — the Cornelia H. Dudley Professor of Psychology at Knox College, who has studied how places can "creep" people out — elaborated on the science behind how horror movies are in many ways ideal as a specific vehicle for meeting this need to be scared.

"That is kind of wired into us," McAndrew pointed out. "We like stories. We like to learn through the experience of other people. We learn valuable lessons that might be kind of costly to learn on our own. So we gravitate to horror movies and horror experiences because by watching other people deal with scary things, we can mentally practice strategies that will make us better prepared for dealing with that ourselves in the future. If I watch what happens to people who are being pursued by a serial killer and the mistakes they make, maybe I can avoid those myself in the future."

McAndrew added that while people may not do this consciously, this is an impulse derived from how "for our ancestors, it paid off to learn from the experience of others."

That said, subconsciously preparing for potential life-and-death situations is not the only reason why people enjoy horror movies. For others there is also "that emotional bump that we get. We get that adrenaline rush. We get the excitement. We like any exciting movie that's got a lot of action in it. We get our hearts racing and we have this emotional experience that we find to be pleasurable. Now some people find it to be more pleasurable than other people do, but nevertheless, we're not doing it just because we're going to learn something. You come out of there with the same feeling we have on amusement park rides."

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"We found that the white knucklers report learning important things about themselves and developing as a person as a result of watching scary movies or going to haunted houses."

Mathias Clasen, PhD — an associate professor in literature and media and the co-director of the Recreational Field Lab at Aarhus University — co-authored a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences where he proposed that there are three types of horror movie fans. The first is referred to as the "adrenaline junkie," or "the stereotypical horror fan that everybody has in in mind when they imagine somebody enjoying a scary movie. The adrenaline junkie enjoys kind of the physiological arousal." Next there was the so-called "white knuckler" — essentially a person who will watch a horror film with fists clenched until their knuckles turn pale.

"They're more easily frightened and don't necessarily enjoy very powerful stimulation, but they see horror movies as a personal challenge in making it through with their mental health intact," Clasen said. "And interestingly, we found that the white knucklers report learning important things about themselves and developing as a person as a result of watching scary movies or going to haunted houses."

Finally there is what Clasen described as the "dark coper," or "somebody who actively uses horror movies to cope with a world that they perceive to be frightening. For them it's a kind of medicine and many of them actually quite literally use horror movies as a form of medication to treat symptoms of generalized anxiety or even clinical depression."

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Indeed, Clasen co-authored a different study for the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences in 2021, this one about horror movie-watching during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We set out to investigate whether people who watch many scary movies had better mental health, more robust psychological resilience during the stressful days of the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, than people who stayed away from frightening entertainment," Clasen told Salon. "The idea driving that research project was that when you engage in recreational fear activities, as we call them — so any kind of activity in which people derive pleasure from being frightened, including watching scary movies — what you're doing is you are actively engaged in regulating your own emotions. And anybody knows this from the experience of watching scary movies, you will find yourself being overwhelmed by fear and then you'll use a bunch of different strategies to regulate that fear."

Whether it is turning down the movie's volume, covering your eyes, or reminding yourself that it is just a movie, Clasen said "that kind of playful engagement with fear comes a sort of training of emotion regulation skills that can be used not only to avoid fainting from horror in the face of a horror movie, but also to handle the stresses and anxieties of the real world." Thanks to their study, "we have evidence from the COVID-19 lockdown that that is indeed the case. People who watch many scary movies did a better job at keeping stress and fear and anxiety down."


By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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