You’d expect that nerve-wracking situations aren’t exactly helpful in alleviating stress. But with Halloween right around the corner, anxiety-ridden people are finding an unconventional way to calm down — by terrifying themselves with scary movies.
For short-term ways to alleviate stress, it would make sense that a person who experiences anxiety would not want to enter other nerve-wracking situations, especially when choosing a movie.
Psychologists are perplexed by this phenomenon. In an undergraduate psychology honours thesis published last spring, a recent graduate of Brescia University College's psychology program, Sarah Miller-Shreve, studied the link between emotional traits and movie preferences. Her research focused on people who shared three qualities: empathy, trait anxiety and a love of horror movies.
A survey conducted by the Government of Canada found that roughly 3 million Canadians (around 12 per cent of the population) 18 or older deal with an anxiety and/or mood disorder. According to a survey conducted by Telefilm Canada, Canadians rated their preference for horror just under five on a scale of 10.
John Mitchell, her thesis advisor at the time and the associate academic dean and a psychology professor at Brescia, explains that horror movies go against a universal goal to seek out positive stimuli. In daily life, people try to avoid situations that cause distress and pain, and movies should fall into that category. But with box office hits and academy award nominees like A Quiet Place and Get Out, horror movies seem as prevalent as ever.
Mitchell explains that the main finding of Miller-Shreve’s thesis finds people who experience anxiety have a heightened sense of empathy, allowing them to take on the fear of the characters in the movie.
“People who score very low on things like trait anxiety, it’s very difficult to make those people feel anxious; it's sort of that horror movies wouldn’t do anything,” he explains. “The thrill of the horror movies is that you are in a safe environment but you are made to feel anxious.”
In her thesis, Miller-Shreve explains that social fear learning could be a link between anxiety and a penchant for horror movies. Social fear learning is tied closely with trait empathy, in which people can experience the emotion of something they witness without directly having the experience.
“We can watch someone else walking into a room when we know they should not be walking into that room in a horror movie, and the person in the film is becoming anxious and tense and we become anxious and tense,” Mitchell explains. “It’s that kind of empathy that we can identify with the characters in the film and feel some of their emotions.”
Social fear learning is a phenomenon in which people learn through observing other's experiences. Individuals can experience this when watching movies, as it allows people to picture themselves in the situation. Through the manufactured experience of the movie, they can figure out what they would do in that situation. This may calm their anxiety as they feel more prepared if they were to ever experience that situation in real life.
Steven Bruhm, the Robert and Ruth Lumsden Professor of English and former managing editor of the academic journal Horror Studies, a publication that studies the aesthetic, cultural and historical context of horror, looks to classical horror — and Stephen King — to discuss the link between anxiety and horror. He explains that this connection could originate in the conservative values classical horror reinforces.
“Horror is a fundamentally conservative genre in that it usually ends by putting back in place the kind of values we might see eroding culturally,” he explains. “One may find one’s anxieties momentarily alleviated by having so many of the causes of one’s anxiety be wiped away by a monster or eaten by a shark.”
On the other hand, Bruhm explains that horror often attacks institutions. So if you don’t fall into the category of the “‘normal’ world of middle-class heterosexuality,” then you may find relief in watching subversions of this structure.
“[Horror] also gives us the transgressive pleasure of watching, at least for a moment, normal and normalizing institutions being burned to the ground. Think Stephen King’s Carrie,” Bruhm suggests.
Scary movies give a sense of purpose to people’s worrying; instead of being focused on day-to-day annoyances, their worries are focused on a direct threat. Or perhaps horror is simply cathartic because it serves as a distraction from our own anxieties.
As Bruhm says, “Let’s face it: people in horror movies have so much larger problems than we do!”