Horror movies may not feel very relaxing in the moment. But they can have surprising benefits for anxiety and stress, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Years ago, when I was a mega-fan of The Walking Dead, I only had one rule: never watch right before bed. I’ve had trouble sleeping since I was a kid, and my nightmares are bad enough to outdo even the most gruesome TWD scenes. (In fact, I’ve been told that I should write them down and turn them into movies.) I assumed watching before bed would only exacerbate the problem.
But this July, I discovered a new zombie show that I couldn’t help but binge all night: Netflix’s Black Summer. Breaking my own old rule, I watched it right before going to sleep, and unintentionally discovered something strange: I slept better. The show made my heart race and filled my mind with scary, violent images — and yet, such images were conspicuously absent from my dreams.
Hopeful, I continued watching zombie shows and movies every night, marking my biggest foray into the genre yet. I watched Kingdom (so, so good), Army of the Dead (meh), I Am Legend, Alive and many more. And I didn’t have a single nightmare.
As a lifelong anxiety sufferer, I hold many calming tools close to my heart: CBD, weighted blankets and Zoloft alike. I just never expected to add zombies to the list. As it turns out, there is a scientific basis for this phenomenon, and I’m not the only one to experience it. Horror movies, from zombies to beyond, can help alleviate anxiety for many people. With anxiety rates through the roof because of COVID-19, a surprising number of people have turned to horror to cope — and it’s working.
Horror and anxiety: An unlikely duo
“You might expect that everyone with anxiety would avoid horror — after all, why would someone who feels anxious want to watch something that is created specifically to induce fear or anxiety?” says Coltan Scrivner, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago who studies horror and morbid curiosity. “However, my research finds that, on average, people with anxiety are more likely to be horror fans.”
To be sure, horror movies don’t feel very relaxing. The brain doesn’t always clearly distinguish between fantasy and reality, so when I watch a zombie movie, parts of my brain react as though it’s me being chased down by the shambling undead, as an August 2020 study in NeuroImage showed. That means that horror movies can trigger your nervous system’s fear response, also known as the “fight or flight” response, in some of the same ways that a real-life scary event can.
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The fear response is the system that our ancestors’ bodies evolved to survive threats, like a bear attack. Your body is flooded with stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, and your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing all start to increase, allowing you to act quickly. When the threat is gone, the fear response is followed by the “rest and digest” response, which prompts your body to calm down and return to its baseline state.
But in people with anxiety or trauma, the fight-or-flight response has a bit of a glitch. Our brains react to normal, everyday occurrences as if they were a major threat to our lives. And because there is no real threat, just a general, vague sense of doom, we rarely get any sense of resolution or relief.
For some viewers who have anxiety or trauma, horror movies only make matters worse. But for others, horror can help provide relief from pent-up tension. They’re a way to practice feeling scared in a safe environment, refocus your brain away from real-life anxieties and enjoy the release that comes after the movie’s over.
Making friends with fear
When my nightmares are especially bad, I start to get nervous around bedtime because I never know what will happen to me in my sleep. Zombie movies, on the other hand, are a nightmare that I have the power to press pause on. That may be part of what makes them so enticing.
“Horror movies have a long history of providing a kind of reassurance,” says Margaret J. King, director of the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis. “Viewers can immerse themselves in a harrowing narrative yet at the same time be perfectly safe, able to control the stimulus by turning it off or shifting attention to the surrounding space.”
Horror movies also teach you that, despite what it feels like sometimes, fear can’t kill you, as Lana Holmes, a clinical psychologist in Decatur, explains on the podcast Therapy for Black Girls. “When you expose yourself to something you’re afraid of, even a horror movie, over time, you realize — oh, I can survive this,” Holmes says.
Not only that, but there’s a joyful “comedown” effect after you’ve finished watching something scary, according to Scrivner. That feels great to someone like me, whose brain often seems to forget about that “rest and digest” bit after panicking.