“We have four basic emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, and fear,” explains Mary Poffenroth, a San Jose State University biology lecturer and fear scientist. “Fear is there to keep us alive, and it’s something that is so inherently part of just being human, but we have this really kind of dysfunctional relationship with fear. In our society, what is the big messaging? ‘Be fearless!’”
If fear is such an important emotion, how do we go about exploring the things that frighten us without feeling embarrassed or ashamed? That, says Poffenroth, is where scary movies come in. “The horror genre gives us a safe space to express our fears, to talk about our fears, to say that ‘I was scared!’ without having the kind of personal obligation to say that you are a fearful person,” she says.
And this exploration can have a myriad of mental and emotional benefits beyond those obvious evolutionary ones. Yep, that’s right—a date with Michael Myers could actually help relieve anxiety and boost your mood, among other things.
Check out three ways scary movies can benefit your health.
1. Believe it or not, they're confidence boosters
An awareness of how your body reacts to fear while watching a horror flick (the racing heart beat, the sweaty palms) can help you better manage fear IRL—like when you’re, say, prepping for a meeting with your boss, says Margee Kerr, sociologist and author of SCREAM: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.
“Going all the way up to that heightened state of fear and coming back down can serve as a source of support in the future when we get scared. We’ll have a knowledge of, ‘Okay, I’ve felt like this before. I know I won’t feel like this all the time.’" —Margee Kerr, sociologist and fear expert
“Having the experience of going all the way up to that heightened state of fear and coming back down teaches us about ourselves and can serve as a source of support in the future when we get scared. This way, we’re not afraid of the fear,” she says. “We’ll have a knowledge of, ‘Okay, I’ve felt like this before. I know I won’t feel like this all the time.’ It can really increase our confidence and our resilience.”
2. They put you in a good mood (once the fear dissipates)
When your body senses it’s in danger and enters fight-or-flight mode, it releases powerful chemicals and hormones—like adrenaline, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin—that put you in an elevated state Kerr playfully calls “beast mode.” And, it makes sense: Being afraid is exciting in the basic sense that the state of mind isn't dull. What's novel about Kerr's findings is that the tone of this excitement actually lends itself to a positive effect.
To test this theory, she and other scientists monitored visitors at an extreme haunted house, and found that this elevated state actually made attendees happier. “People’s mood improved significantly, both as a group and within individuals,” she reports. So if you’re feeling down, maybe give a Friday the 13th marathon a try.
3. Shockingly, they soothe anxiety
Another slightly counterintuitive finding from Kerr’s research is that indulging in horror can actually lessen your anxiety. “Being a horror fan myself, this was a finding that made me think, of course! That had been my personal experience,” says Kerr. “I think it’s because of that recalibration of what's registering as stressful. There’s a lot of stress before encountering something scary, but once it’s been encountered, you reset the bar at a higher set point. Now nothing else seems like a big deal.”
“[Scary movies] allow your brain to experience a traumatic event close enough that you get some sensations from it. But it's not so close that you feel like you’re actually in danger.” —Mary Poffenroth, fear scientist
Of course, it also helps that the real horror isn’t happening to you personally. “It allows your brain to experience a traumatic event close enough that you get some sensations from it. But it's not so close that you feel like you’re actually in danger,” Poffenroth says. “It can release some of that pent-up anxiety that we have throughout our day.” Lady Gaga, for one, agrees, since she's said watching horror movies are her favorite way to unwind.
But before you slink into a slasher-flick binge, do keep in mind that both Poffenroth and Kerr stress the importance of watching content that you actually feel comfortable with. If scary movies just aren’t for you (hello, nightmares!), seek another way to safely elicit a fear response and reap the benefits. “We can surprise ourselves,” says Kerr. “What about riding a bike or trying a scooter or something that pushes you a little bit and pushes the sympathetic nervous system arousal? See how it feels.”
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