Horror Movies: More Than Just Scary

Horror movies are able to captivate viewers with their scary nature through hidden psychological benefits and biological effects, allowing them to top movie charts during the pandemic.

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By Nada Hameed

It is the middle of the pandemic, and you are up binge-watching movies. Scrolling down the list, you look at what is popular. However, you soon make an interesting revelation: it is all horror! You wonder why anyone would want to watch such stressful, scary films. Is the pandemic not worrying enough? Though the horror genre’s foundations seem to go against the natural instinct to seek safety, digging deeper reveals the psychological and biological reasons for its success.

When a person watches a horror film, their body responds as if it were responding to a real threat. Though nothing on the screen is real, being scared triggers the fight-or-flight response. These impulses are processed by the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that detects fear. The effects of this change can make horror movies more exciting, despite the fact that they trigger a response to danger. During such a response, a slew of chemicals is released, including dopamine and endorphins. In particular, adrenaline is the driving force behind this phenomenon, increasing alertness, attentiveness, and cognitive performance. These chemicals provide a pleasing effect that ultimately suppresses stress and pain by triggering opioid receptors. The receptors then carry that signal throughout the body, leading to overall excitement while watching horror.

Psychologically, horror may actually align with human nature. Humans have an inherent instinct to seek stability and safety. The contrast between watching a horror film unfold on screen and the cozy environment of your living room can amplify a sense of protection from danger. Not to mention that your brain actually subconsciously knows that you are safe from the monsters behind the screen, even if you are still afraid. In addition, horror movies may incite confidence and a feeling of accomplishment in viewers. When your body starts to calm down after being startled, your brain feels that it should be rewarded for enduring such a scare. This is mainly enabled by dopamine, which acts as a neurotransmitter reward, but the excitation transfer theory may also play a role in this. This theory mentions that people tend to stay excited even after a horror movie is over, intensifying the feelings of relief and confidence caused by dopamine. Horror also provides mental stimulation in the form of a new experience, as facing frightening realities is not a regular occurrence for most people.

Additionally, horror better equips viewers to handle danger, or at least makes them think they can. Continuous exposure to dopamine and endorphins can increase one’s tolerance for fear, training the body to endure frights better in the future. This is because receiving the dopamine release after the excitement of watching a horror movie causes the brain to associate the two events. If the brain faces another frightening situation in the future, it will expect a reward after the threat has passed, improving the body’s tolerance and endurance for fearsome circumstances.

Interestingly, horror movies peaked in popularity during the pandemic, a time associated with anxiety and stress. In fact, horror reached its highest box share in history in 2020, a trend that continued into 2021 with another broken record. Horror films can distance the viewer from a stress-inducing reality by pulling their attention to a more immediate source of stress: the movie. Placing their anxiety on something within their control that can be stopped with a click of the remote helps people cope with stressful situations, since it is much harder to deal with real “horrors,” such as financial and mental health issues, than fictional ones. Horror films provide people with the ability to express anxiety free from the constraints of social stigmas, as shrieking during a horror film provides a sense of catharsis without deviating from behavioral expectations.

Horror movies have also been experimented with as a form of exposure therapy, the idea that fears must be faced directly in order to be tolerated or overcome. Horror movie exposure therapy is most applicable to people who have common phobias, such as clowns, spiders, or the dark. Learning to endure these horror movie tropes can help people cope with phobias in the future.

Horror is often taken as simply frights and scares, but its hidden layer of complexity is what makes it so enticing. Being able to initiate biological processes and even psychologically tricking your brain are all factors contributing to the horror genre’s success, especially during dire times such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Entertaining and stress-reducing, horror continues to climb the charts, and it comes as no coincidence that something so frightening is able to captivate so many.