Do you like horror movies?  Turns out they might be good for your mental health

Do you like horror movies? Turns out they might be good for your mental health

Fear gets a bad press. It’s a so-called negative emotion, the one that supposedly stands between us and our dreams. But fear also drives a whole range of pleasurable activities and behaviors – which inspire what we can call recreational fear.

Once you start looking for it, you’ll find recreational fear everywhere. From an early age, humans love being scared by caregivers (hello!). Young humans are drawn to scary stories, perform daredevil tricks, ride roller coasters, and play horror video games. Indeed, most of us never quite lose our special attraction to recreational fear – even if we avoid slasher movies.

How come?

A hypothesis: recreational fear is a play behavior, widespread in the animal kingdom and ubiquitous in humans. When an organism plays, it learns skills and develops survival strategies. Playfighting kittens train their ability to defend themselves in a hostile encounter, but with little risk and low cost, compared to reality. Same with humans. When we engage in recreational fear activities in particular, from peekaboo to watching horror movies, we challenge our limits and learn our own physiological and psychological responses to stress. In other words, recreational fear might actually be good for us.

To investigate all of this, my colleagues and I created the Recreational Fear Lab, a research center at Aarhus University in Denmark. We carry out laboratory work, surveys and empirical studies to understand this widespread but scientifically understudied psychological phenomenon.

In an ambitious research project, led by my colleague Marc Malmdorf Andersen, we investigated the experiences of guests in a very scary haunted house – Dystopia Haunted House in Denmark. We installed surveillance cameras in the spookiest rooms of the house, strapped attendees with heart rate monitors, and handed out questionnaires to understand how guests reacted to, say, a chainsaw-wielding pigman chasing them. in a dark hallway.

We wanted to deepen the relationship between fear and pleasure. You might think the relationship is linear – the more fear the better. But when we plotted the actual relationship between fear and pleasure, it looked like an upside-down U. In other words, when people go to a haunted attraction, they don’t want too little (boring) fear, and they don’t want to want too much (unpleasant) fear. Instead, they want to hit the “sweet spot of fear.”

This doesn’t just apply to high-intensity haunted attractions. When you launch a child into the air, you don’t want them to be too tame or too wild; When teens ride bikes, they need the right amount of belly-tickling excitement.

What are the benefits of tickling the sweet spot of fear? In several studies of the psychological and social effects of engaging with recreational fear, people have shown an ability to cope with stress and anxiety. A study – led by my colleague Coltan Scrivner – found that people who watch lots of horror movies showed better psychological resilience during the first COVID-19 lockdown than people who stay away from horror films. Presumably, horror dogs trained their ability to regulate their own fear by playing with it.

We know from another Dystopia Haunted House study that people actively use a range of coping strategies to regulate their level of fear in pursuit of the sweet spot, and it makes sense that we enhance the use of these strategies by practice.

You can think of recreational fear as a kind of mental gym in the jungle where you prepare for the real thing or as a kind of fear inoculation. A small dose of fear galvanizes the body for the big dose that life inflicts on it sooner or later. So while fear itself can be unpleasant, recreational fear isn’t just fun – it can be good for us.

My colleagues and I even have preliminary results suggesting that some people with mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders and depression, have relief from recreational horror. Maybe it’s about momentarily escaping anhedonia – emotional stagnation – and maybe it’s about playing with bothersome emotions in a controllable context. For fear to be fun, you need to feel not only that the levels are fair, but that you are relatively in control of the experience.

With research findings like these in mind, perhaps we should think twice about protecting children and young people too zealously from playful forms of fear. They’ll find fear sooner or later, and they’ll be better equipped if they’ve at least pretended to be there before.

Mathias Clasen is Associate Professor of Literature and Media and Director of the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University, Denmark. He is the author of “Why Horror Seduces” and “A Very Nervous Person’s Guide to Horror Movies.” This article was written for the public square Zócalo.

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