It’s Halloween season again and, for many of us, it’s time to settle in for a fun scary movie and a night of thrills and chills. Though it might seem strange that watching something that scares you might also reduce some anxiety, there’s some science behind this theory. Here are five ways watching scary movies can also potentially benefit your mental health.
1. Our bodies experience a surge of adrenaline and other stress hormones when we watch scary movies. Over time, our brains then become less susceptible to those sensations. That widens our window of tolerance and helps us better manage stress and unease in our everyday lives. This release has been linked to improved mood regulation and decreased levels of depression and anxiety. There can be something cathartic about watching fright flicks and processing difficult feelings such as anger, sadness, and fear in a healthy, protected space.
2. Some scary movies can be “cinematic exposure therapy” to face phobias or fears that affect us in everyday life. Someone may have a fear of spiders or heights that prevents them from enjoying certain activities or places. Watching scary movies like Arachnophobia or Fall can be a way to confront those fears in a safe and controlled environment... and you can always turn it off if you need to! Watching characters overcome their fears can help us gain a sense of empowerment and feel more confident facing our own fears in real life.
3. Research suggests that horror media can increase sympathy and empathy for others due to its ability to evoke strong emotional responses. Experiencing vicarious stress alongside fictitious characters on screen can deepen our understanding and acceptance of others’ experiences, which in turn can lead to increased compassion (even while grumbling, “Why are you going in the dark basement alone? Turn on the lights!”)
4. Many people enjoy watching scary stuff with friends or family, and sharing the experience with others affords an opportunity to bond and create a sense of shared experience. Laughing at the onscreen mayhem with friends can also help diffuse excess anxiety.
5. Horror movies are popular around the world. The topics and cinematic styles can vary widely depending on the country of origin. Exploring J-Horror from Japan or Italian Giallo, for example, can be a way to connect and engage with a wide range of cultures and backgrounds.
If you have a personal history of trauma and abuse, some movies may have a triggering effect you want to avoid. Streaming services usually provide warnings about a movie’s content, such as language and the types and levels of violence. Always check these warnings before starting a movie to make sure it falls in your comfort zone.
Spooky stuff isn’t for everyone, and that's perfectly okay (as Sheriff Judy says in Scream 5, “I prefer animated films and musicals”). If you do decide to embrace the dark side, set boundaries for yourself and know when to step away if it becomes too overwhelming. In those cases, maybe skip Barbarian and stream Beetlejuice or Hocus Pocus instead. You’ll still experience Halloween thrills and minor health benefits while avoiding triggering topics and excess trauma.
Occasional fright flicks may help manage everyday stressors, but they’re never a substitute for in-person treatment from a professional therapist. Bodhi Counseling has some of the best around!