In his book Dreadful Pleasures, pop culture author and occasional plagiarist James B. Twitchell looked at both the origins of the horror genre and at the sustained appeal of being scared shitless. “Modern works of artificial horror originated in the late-eighteenth-century discovery that by inducing extreme feelings of dreadful pleasures, both print and illustration could arouse and exploit powerful feelings deep within the human spirit,” he wrote.
A couple of centuries later, a group of researchers from the United States and Denmark have questioned whether the “extreme feelings” prompted by horror flicks could be beneficial to our mental health, now that every day is literally terrifying. For their study—which was recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences and funded by the Research Program for Media, Communication, and Society at the School of Communication and Culture at Aarhus University—they recruited 310 participants and asked them a series of questions about the kinds of movies and TV shows that they liked, about whether they watched pandemic-related films, and asked how much they agreed or disagreed with 13 questions about their emotional state (“I have been more depressed than usual”) and mindset (“I feel positive about the future”) during the early days of this crisis.
“Although most people go into a scary movie with the intention of being entertained rather than learning something, scary stories present ample learning opportunities,” they wrote. “Fiction allows the audience to explore an imagined version of the world at very little cost. Through fiction, people can learn how to escape dangerous predators, navigate novel social situations, and practice their mind-reading and emotion regulation skills.”
What they learned was that people who indicated that they were fans of horror films and who “engaged more frequently with frightening fictional phenomena” were experiencing lower levels of psychological distress during the pandemic than those who preferred other genres.
“One reason that horror use may correlate with less psychological distress is that horror fiction allows its audience to practice grappling with negative emotions in a safe setting,” they concluded. “Experiencing negative emotions in a safe setting, such as during a horror film, might help individuals hone strategies for dealing with fear and more calmly deal with fear-eliciting situations in real life.”
In addition to their focus on horror flicks, the researchers combined four film types (alien invasion, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and zombie) into one category that they called the “prepper” genre. The subjects who indicated that they enjoyed those films the most were—surprise!—better mentally prepared for the pandemic and experienced “fewer negative disruptions” to their lives.
Finally, the participants were also asked to rate themselves on the Morbid Curiosity Scale, a 24-item assessment that determines their interest in “unpleasant things,” including death. (Some of the statements on the scale include “If I lived in Medieval Europe, I would be interested in attending a public execution” and “I would be interested in attending or watching a video of an exorcism.”) The most morbidly curious reported having more positive experiences, and they were also among the most likely to kick back and watch Contagion or other pandemic-related films while we’re living through a real one.
Lead author Coltan Scrivner, a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago, told VICE that the morbidly curious might consider this time a positive one, because they’re learning about pandemics, for example, or how they affect the world. “This of course doesn’t mean that they enjoy the pandemic, simply that they are able to find something interesting about it, even if it is awful,” he said.
The original research was conducted in April, and the participants were asked the same questions one month later, with similar results. Obviously things have gotten worse (millions of cases and tens of thousands of deaths worse) since then, and it might take more than horror movies to make any of us feel psychologically resilient if this keeps going. “It would be interesting to see how long this sort of buffering effect lasts,” Scrivner said. “I suspect that it would be pretty similar [to the original study]. Of course, six months later may bring about new challenges that have arisen that are related more to the social impact of the virus, like loneliness [or] financial insecurity.”
What Scrivner isn’t sure about, at least not yet, is whether, say, forcing ourselves to sit through all of the Annabelle movies tonight would help us feel any better going forward. “Assuming the causation flows from watching horror movies to becoming more resilient, it may depend on the mechanism by which this happens. For example, if the primary mechanism is practicing emotion regulation and learning to deal with fear and anxiety, it’s possible that it could help,” he said.
“Of course, if someone hates horror movies, it may simply make it worse […] If emotion regulation skills are what are being improved and helping people deal with the pandemic, it may also be best to watch movies that are scary to you, not movies that are considered the scariest in general. If this is how it works, the whole point would be for you to learn to accept feeling afraid or anxious, and learn how to overcome that feeling.”
So on the one hand, you just have to accept feeling afraid. On the other, you just have to accept feeling afraid. Cool, cool.