A study found that fans of horror films “exhibit less psychological distress during COVID-19.” The hypothesis is those films simulate actual experiences which help with coping skills." I invited mental health experts and movie buffs to weigh in on whether this makes sense or is a stretch.
Film Critic Ryan Lambert believes people over prepare for stressful situations in the real world when they watch horror movies. “These movies are designed to trigger a fight-or-flight response in the viewer,” said Lambert. “They put you in the shoes of characters dealing with extraordinary problems, from vampires to serial killers to ghosts and more. Compared to the laundry list of terror available at your local video store, a pandemic seems like a walk in the park.”
Hrvoje, founder of Fiction Horizon agrees that horror movie lovers see worse things in movies than COVID-19 is currently showing us. “Maybe it is somewhere in the back of our heads that things could be worse. You can compare all the things that are going on with some situations from those movies. When I heard they will first vaccinate people in the United Kingdom, the '28 Days Later' movie came to mind. And I was glad I wasn't on the island,” said Hrvoje. “Without consciously thinking about it, we compare real events to those from the movies.”
It could be that watching horror movies builds resilience to stressful events in general. Creative Director Scott Swenson thinks that horror fans have a higher tolerance for fear since they crave the adrenaline rush associated with it. “They are comfortable with being afraid, so they don’t become incapacitated by it,” said Swenson.
Eugene Bel, Ph.D, The Progressive Therapist, agrees with Swenson that people who watch horror films are likely desensitized and less psychologically disturbed by it. He explains, “This phenomenon is seen when therapists use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) (specifically the concept of exposure) with their clients to help them overcome fears. This concept translates to people who watch lots of horror films being less psychologically disturbed by the COVID-19 situation. “
Diane Vukovic, writer for Primal Survivor, also thinks some level of exposure is beneficial for coping with stressful situations. She said going over disaster scenarios in your head is one of the best ways to mentally prepare for emergencies. “Since we’ve already been through the scenario, then it isn’t as stressful when we actually do experience that scenario or something similar,” said Vukovic. She explains, “The technical term for this is ‘emergency conditioning’ and it’s the reason we do fire drills and why self-defense courses simulate attacks. Simply put, we are less likely to panic when we’ve done a physical or mental drill. “
And even though these movies are not based on real events, “those who choose to entertain themselves by watching scary movies have a higher fear threshold than those who don't enjoy the genre,” adds Gaurav Dhir, co-creator of FitnessAbout. “Yes, one is fiction, while the pandemic is all too real, but I'd posit that horror movie fans are predisposed to being more capable of coping with scary situations, based on their enjoyment of horror movies.”
But it could be about more than the scare factor. Jonathan Frey, CMO of Urban Bikes Direct is a lifelong horror fan. “Horror fans like to be rattled and disturbed, but they're just as likely to throw on a scary movie or three when they're looking for comfort. Movies and TV let us experience, process, and sometimes even confront nightmare scenarios and terrifying concepts from the safety of our own homes. To me, watching horror movies shares coziness DNA with that feeling you get from being warm and indoors during a raging thunderstorm.”
Lambert added that movie fans “lose themselves in fictional worlds instead of torturing themselves with consuming minute-to-minute updates about global issues that are largely out of their control.” “There's a reason older movies like Outbreak and Contagion suddenly became big streaming hits in early 2020,” noted Frey. “I think it's human nature to try to understand real life through the lens of fiction and popular entertainment. It just so happens horror movie fans tend to have already done a lot of homework.”
“The reality is still better than the movies. That is probably why we are coping better with the pandemic. Also, we have movies to go to and watch while in the lockdown, and to many of us, that is what we love,” concluded Hrvoje.
Tina Arnoldi, MA is a marketing consultant and freelance writer in Charleston SC. Learn more about her and connect at TinaArnoldi.com