I usually get some weird looks when I suggest that my clients watch scary movies for their mental health. And the benefits aren’t limited to horror. Movies give us the chance to experience a range of emotions, both negative and positive, in a way that is time limited and personally safe. This is useful for people who tend to avoid negative emotions and experiences in their personal lives. You have the chance to be afraid, in suspense, angry, or sad. Scary movies let us feel fear and even terror, but we’re still fully in control.
Research shows the benefits of scary movies for mental health
Horror film is the only fictional genre, which is specifically created to elicit fear consistently and deliberately rather than sporadically or incidentally. Behaviorally, horror film can create shivering, closing of the eyes, startle, shielding of the eyes, trembling, paralysis, piloerection, withdrawal, heaving, and screaming (Harris et al., 2000). It can produce changes in psychophysiology, specifically increasing heart rate and galvanic skin response (see below). Mentally, it can create anxiety, fear, empathy, and thoughts of disgust (Cantor, 2004).G. Neil Martin
Key in the research are markers of resolution. Good scary movies make you feel all sorts of mental and physical emotions. But they also need to resolve the tension at the end. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is neatly wrapped up in terms of the plot and character stories, but it does mean providing the viewer with a sense of resolution on an emotional level.
Like eating spicy foods and enjoying the burn, scary movies let us experience a bit of fear or disgust or anxiety. We enter into the story, and it captivates us for a while. But in terms of our real life situation, we’re safe. Many of us watch scary movies in groups with friends, especially around Halloween. We’re social, comfortable, safe, and scared.
Scary movies help us experience negative emotion
Getting in touch with negative emotion is important. Avoiding negative experience is not good for us. However, many people who come in for therapy state that one of their goals is to feel happy or good most of the time. Here’s a reality check: that’s not possible. It’s normal to feel a full range of emotions, both positive and negative. We don’t usually need a lot of help feeling the positive emotions. We like feeling good and we often choose things that help us feel good or happy.
The problem is that life happens. It’s important for your mental health and emotional resilience to get used to the mental and physical feelings of those negative emotions. It’s also important to learn that resilience in a safe place. You don’t want to try to learn how to experience anxiety in a healthy way by putting yourself in dangerous situations. That’s part of why we have things like scary movies, bungee jumping, and racing cars. Thrill seeking is good for us. It helps us learn how to tolerate anxiety and channel it into excitement. It helps us learn how to manage our fear and work through it.
If scary movies aren’t your thing…
Think about which emotions you tend to avoid. Try to think of ways you can safely experience those emotions. Again, the key is to have time limited and safe exposure. You can always start off easy. Sad or scary movies made for children are often easier to handle. Know what content you can and can’t handle. You can read reviews and check summaries to avoid things like jump scares, gore, and violence. Horror might be easier for you to tolerate in book form. Or you may just prefer to get your thrills from a roller coaster or from jumping out of a plane.
Want to work on your mental health and emotional resilience?
I provide queer Christian therapy online for people in the Monterey Bay Area and across the state of California. Learn more about me here or contact me to schedule a free consultation to see how LGBT affirming therapy can help you improve your mental health and well being.
Learn more about the psychological value of scary movies here:
Straube, T., Preissler, S., Lipka, J., Hewig, J., Mentzel, H.-J. and Miltner, W.H. (2010), Neural representation of anxiety and personality during exposure to anxiety-provoking and neutral scenes from scary movies. Hum. Brain Mapp., 31: 36-47. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.20843