Watching horror movies can alleviate the symptoms of stress and anxiety

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Monsters under the bed, zombies rising from the grave, and maniacs holding a chainsaw aren’t exactly the first things that come to mind when you’re trying to calm your mind. Yet for many horror movie lovers, part of the appeal of “fear cinema” is finding a certain degree of comfort and peace located in the thrills.

In an interview for the documentary “Fear in the Dark” (1991), acclaimed director Wes Craven stated that “horror films do not create fear, but release it.” Although Craven’s message was concise, it spoke of a layered truth: dealing with things that frighten us can be our own form of catharsis.

More than just the embodiment of a “coping with your fears” model, the adrenaline-fueled horror film could actually be good for the brain of the average viewer.

In the 1930s, there was a great deal of concern about what people were consuming and whether it was changing them – especially in children,Andrew Scahill, an assistant professor in the English language department at the University of Colorado, told Healthline.

But as the film continued to influence popular culture, scholars began to change their minds about how it was accepted.

Today we have what we would call the ‘surrogacy theory’, which basically says that horror movies allow us, in a way, to control our fear of death by giving us that experience that is not really real,” Scahill said.

He explained that our body tells us that we are in danger, but we know that we are safe in the cinema seats or in our living rooms. Allowing yourself to deal with fear in a safe environment can actually be a form of therapy,” Scahill added.

According to Kurt Oaklee, founder of Oaklee Psychotherapy in San Francisco, the “surrogate experience” with horror movies is similar to the practice of exposure therapy, where the patient is presented with stressors in a controlled environment to reduce their impact.

Horror can actually teach us how to better deal with stress in the real world. During a stressful movie, we intentionally expose ourselves to stimuli that cause anxiety. We don’t usually indulge in the same unhealthy coping mechanisms we use in real life. We learn how to deal with stress in real life. This practice can be used to help manage everyday stresses and fears,” Oaklee explained.

Oaklee also pointed to a 2020 study published in NeuroImage magazine that found that horror movies can indeed trigger a cycle of fear in our bodies, creating a “fight or run” reaction just as a frightening real-life event can.

This is why horror movies can also negatively affect some people, especially those who are more sensitive because what they watch on screen can increase the feeling of stress and panic.

But for others, constantly releasing the tension that is at the core of watching horror movies can help relieve the stress of everyday life, leaving them stronger and more resilient.

By: Helen B.

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