Ah, Halloween. The time of year when you can paint your face green, throw on some horns, and traipse around the neighborhood begging for candy without ending up in an intervention. The only thing scarier than the ghouls and goblins is the calorie count.
The emotion du jour? Fear. If fear were a person, I wouldn’t invite it to my birthday party. Outside of Halloween, we generally prefer not to be afraid in life. And that’s fear’s purpose: to keep us safe. It’s like the world’s most irritating bodyguard.
Nervousness in moderation is a good thing; it keeps you alive. We tend to forget it’s value because we only see the downside of irrational fear – ending up in therapy. We don’t usually think of the negatives of having too little fear. Those people are in jail or in the morgue.
That said, too much fear can make you view the world as if it’s full of landmines and you’re wearing clown shoes. Fear about losing your job can reduce your happiness more than actual unemployment. In another study, people were willing to pay more to avoid fear than to be happy. They were willing to pay $79.06 for happiness, $83.27 to avoid fear. Crazy, huh?
So how do we deal with fear? I figured we’d mix it up a bit for Halloween – we’re gonna watch scary movies. And that’s going to reduce your fear.
You heard me: scary movies are the cure. Yup, those films where a group of overly attractive, under-brained teenagers decides to go on a vacation in the most remote, cell-service-devoid location possible. There’s always some old guy at the beginning warning them not to go, but do they listen? No. Because then we wouldn’t have a movie, we’d have common sense.
Scary movies hold the secrets to beating fear. We’re gonna discuss the science through the lens of horror films and learn firsthand how it works and how we can beat it.
Are you prepared to enter the haunted blog of doom? Let’s get to it…
Many people might be thinking, “Why on earth would anyone want to watch a scary movie? Isn’t life terrifying enough?” Why do we seek out entertainment designed to make us feel bad?
But we do. Between 1995 and 2015 horror movies grossed about 8 billion dollars in the US alone. (And that doesn’t even include thrillers and suspense movies which made another 15 billion.) Roughly 25% of the highest grossing movies (think “Jaws” and “Insidious”) are horror.
So, psychologically, scary movies are a socially acceptable form of masochism? No. They’re threat simulation. It’s why we love roller coasters, spicy food, and voting third party. Scary movies are a structured experience akin to mental play behavior. They simulate threats and allow us to learn from them in a safe way. They’re sparring bouts before the big boxing match of life.
It’s the same reason children (and other mammals) play – to learn to deal with threats safely. What’s one of the most common ways you play with a child? I’m going to chase you. (Unlike academics, we don’t refer to it as “predator avoidance training”, because that’s weird.) Playing in mammals typically covers hunting behavior, evasion, strategy, hiding, and navigating the social threats of interpersonal exchanges. (Can you think of many kids’ games that don’t fall into one or more of those categories?)
Similarly, horror films can help us build coping skills. In a stimulating way we safely deal with threat, wrestle with negative emotions and witness the coping behavior of fictional characters. It’s like a flight simulator. Scary movies can help us develop the cognitive tools to deal with threats and negative emotions. Through this evolutionary lens it’s not too surprising that horror appeals most to young people; that time when we’re challenging boundaries and preparing for the nonstop, decades-long horror show of adulthood.
Sure, sounds nice but does watching horror movies actually help us deal better with fear? Yup. Research shows horror fans experienced lower psychological distress and better resilience during the pandemic. Michael Myers had been fine-tuning their emotion regulation skills for years. (After you’ve watched the world end in a dozen different ways, what’s a little social isolation and a run on toilet paper?) Yes, scary movies are your unlikely therapist in a hockey mask.
Some people think horror films reduce empathy or cause violence. Wrong. When violent movies go blockbuster at the box office, violent crime declines. The researchers wrote “in the short run, violent movies deter almost 1,000 assaults on an average weekend.” Scary experiences actually bond us. Another study shows suspenseful films increase affiliative behavior after audiences leave the theater.
Now I’m not recommending you try to treat legitimate anxiety disorders with horror. That can backfire. That said, there are only seven documented cases of movies causing PTSD-style problems — and all of those people had pre-existing conditions. So scary movies harming you is unlikely in the extreme.
Nightmares and a little lingering fear are common – but not serious. And we’ll address all of that a little later. Point here is not to traumatize yourself. We’re aiming for a nice, manageable level of terror. Think “surprise party,” not “unplanned colonoscopy.” So pick your poison carefully. Ease into it. You can start with something light like “Gremlins,” then work your way up to “The Exorcist.”
Maybe you’re still a little nervous about messing with the macabre. But psychology knows a lot about fear. (It may not surprise you that William Peter Blatty, writer of “The Exorcist”, had previously been the head of the policy branch of the US Air Force’s Psychological Warfare Division.) We’re going to break down the best way to reduce your discomfort, maximize your enjoyment and get that big resilience boost we’re all looking for…
A lot of people like horror movies but nobody likes nightmares. Why?
Control. You can turn off the TV whenever you want. Studies show merely knowing you can pause the movie reduces fear. You’re not trapped in the haunted house; you’re just visiting.
And speaking of control, there’s the issue of cognitive control. You don’t have as much of it when you’re exhausted. You’re going to react to negative stuff more strongly. And sleep deprivation also means you’re going to have trouble regaining control of that flailing amygdala. So if you’re already a little concerned about sitting down to watch someone with a chainsaw, don’t do it when you’re tired.
Oh, and your intuition is correct: studies show you’ll be more scared if you watch alone. So for more thrills, brave it on your own. To reduce the screaming, have someone else on the couch.
What else can help you become more fearless if you’re no fan of creepy cinema?
Having a little bit of mental buffer between you and the forces of evil can help you regulate your emotions.
So watching that scary movie at home is “easy” mode and going to the cineplex is “advanced.” Theaters are designed for maximal immersion and minimal distraction. If you dig scary, it’s perfect. If you’re only watching to build those resilience muscles, it may be overwhelming. Choose the 50-inch screen over the 50-foot one. And kill the surround sound. Audio is a surprisingly big part of fear and the haunting music from “Rosemary’s Baby” can do a number on your nerves.
Anything else that reduces immersion will reduce the willies. It’s legal in most states to watch horror movies in the afternoon and you’ll startle less when you’re not surrounded by darkness. By the same token, older movies increase psychological distance because they aren’t quite as relatable. So pick an old black and white film if you want to take it light.
But here’s the issue: while reducing immersion decreases fear it also decreases enjoyment. It’s a trade-off. The solution? Keep the film immersive but remind yourself it’s just a movie. Go to the theater with the huge screen and the incredible audio but work on strengthening the psychological distance inside yourself. You might be white-knuckling it a bit but it’s like taking your emotions to the gym.
You have to remember it’s just a movie. It’s not real. The axe murderer isn’t going to climb out of the screen…
And if you don’t like things that go bump in the night, you’re really not going to like this next tip…
To beat fear, you must face it. Yes, the last thing on earth that you want to do is what you must do. Watch scary movies over and over. That’s how those horror fans became bulletproof to pandemic anxiety.
Some people are imagining a level of pain that could only be likened to childbirth or watching an episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” But you’ve heard of this principle before: “exposure therapy.”
Famed behaviorist John B. Watson took kids who were scared of animals and put them in a room with, yes, animals. No, this was not child abuse. And the kids would have to sit there in the same room with what scared them. After some time he’d move the animal closer to them. As time passed, he’d move the animal even closer. And closer. You know what happened?
Soon the kids were petting the animals. Yes, they usually lost their fear in one session. Often in twenty minutes. And that’s what you want to do.
If you avoid triggers, that just keeps anxieties alive. It proves them right. But when you see your concerns were silly, over time, this produces what is called “extinction.” The worries stop. But if you keep avoiding, you’re teaching yourself that these really are things to be afraid of. That’s not the path to “extinction”, that’s “reinforcement.” So worries get stronger.
If it scares you, then watch it repeatedly. Study it. Become bored by it. It’s like listening to your favorite song until you hate it, only with more axe murderers.
Things become less scary when we break them down and can see the parts moving beneath the surface. Notice how the shots are framed. Pay attention to the music. Critique the special effects. Become a connoisseur of cinematography. How is the filmmaking creating the emotional response inside you?
Analyze the film and your fear will plummet. It’s like pulling back the curtain on a magic trick. Once you see how it’s done, it’s not so scary anymore. Dissect it: Thinking about what scares you can help reduce fear.
Just don’t literally dissect anything. That’s how you get horror movie sequels.
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up and find out how not to have nightmares…
This is how to overcome fear:
Horror movies cause nightmares but, interestingly, sometimes nightmares cause horror movies. The original 1984 film “Nightmare on Elm Street” was inspired by the true story of Laotian refugees who were plagued by nightmares and died in their sleep.
No, that is not going to happen to you because you have the magic solution:
Play Tetris after you watch horror films.
No, I haven’t been sipping grandpa’s cough medicine. Researchers did a study where they had people watch a grisly short film with scenes of actual injury and death. Then half of them played Tetris for 10 minutes, the other group did nothing. The ones who played the game had significantly fewer flashbacks or PTSD-like symptoms over the next week. The researchers speculated that Tetris prevented traumatic memory consolidation. (Just make sure your block-aligning happens within six hours after the credits roll on “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” for maximal effect.)
And there you have it. If you’re looking to reduce fear and build resilience, don’t bother with self-help books or mindfulness apps. Just throw on a horror film, grab a bucket of popcorn, and prepare for a night of terror-induced personal growth.
And next time you find yourself quaking in your boots at the prospect of life’s many uncertainties, just remember: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
And maybe spiders. Seriously, those things are terrifying.