Scream Therapy

When I was 11, I sat down with my older neighbors and watched “The Haunting” – you know, that horror film with Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones? Not the greatest horror film – low budget, the storyline itself is questionable – but my little 11-year-old self hadn’t been exposed to anything remotely scary…ever. I was a child who grew up on Disney and PG rated movies.  I hadn’t realized there were any other genre of films outside of my little Disney princess bubble, let alone any other content that was as atmospheric and intense as this film. To say I was changed, is an understatement. My heart rate increased, my palms got clammy, my eyes dilated in anticipation – but I was transformed. I relished in the fact that I had watched this horror film and survived to tell the tale. I wanted more.

I was 15 when a best friend of mine passed away from cancer. For months I wandered through life confused, upset, anxious, and afraid. I couldn’t sleep at night. I even started to feel afraid of the dark. The truth was, I was afraid of death. My stress was through the roof and there was no release.

Age 16 and I went over to a neighbor’s house to play video games and eat pizza. We ended up watching one of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies. I hadn’t watched many horror films since “The Haunting” and I certainly didn’t think to try after last year and losing my best friend, but here I was, sitting and eating pizza watching a chainsaw-wielding psycho chase young teenagers to their death. You’re thinking, “This is probably a terrible idea, April… You are stressed out; you’re clearly still grieving. Not smart.”  And yet, there I was enjoying myself more than I had in the last year. There was a certain degree of comfort nestled in with those chills and horror. The surprising thing, and this is not for everyone obviously, the continual building and release of tension that is a core part of the horror-movie viewing experience, actually helped relieve my stress.

In a 2018 study researchers found that horror fans may enjoy being scared because it helps them gain a sense of mastery or control over their fears from the safety of living room couches or darkened movie theatres. “We often have a pleasurable feeling after a horror film based on the subsequent sense of relief,” says Zlatin Ivanov, a double-board certified psychiatrist. After watching a scary movie, the brain’s ability to calm itself down can be pleasurable neuro-chemically speaking, Ivanov says, “because the dopamine release related to the ‘rest and digest’ brain response causes an increased sense of well-being.”

Fast forward to 2020, a global pandemic hits. When the pandemic came to national attention, many people felt a sense of impending doom. But at the same time, the horror movies quickly became some of the most-watched movies in the U.S.  Horror films, researchers say, provide a simulated experience of threatening and dangerous situations. As a result, this provides “people a chance to experience a sense of mastery over negative experiences.” This then leads to being prepared for danger and the unexpected. Preparation for such events helps alleviate psychological distress should a negative, unexpected real-life situation arise.

In addition to helping me manage my stress levels, and indulging my curiosity, horror films also provide me with a certain sense of control over my emotions; they allow me to provide some distance and perspective that could otherwise be hard to access when I’m immersed in the everyday stress of life.

-April

1 thought on “Scream Therapy

  1. Hi April, interesting take on horror movies. I think the last horror movie I saw was Paranormal Activity; some of it scared me and some of it made me laugh, though maybe that was a nervous laugh. I haven’t watched very many horror movies so I have no experience on if a horror movie would help me “experience a sense of mastery over negative experiences.” It’s awesome that you found an avenue to help you get through your stress. All I can imagine is the extra stress that it would give me while i was watching it. I’m not sure if I would even be able to get though a horror movie and i would probably have nightmares. Great post.

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