It seems counterintuitive why so many individuals would voluntarily immerse themselves in almost two hours of terror, disgust, and fear while watching horror movies. Two theories explain why. The first is that they are not afraid but are excited by the movie and second is that they are willing to endure the terror to enjoy the euphoric sense of relief at the end. A 2007 study by the University of Chicago Press Journals further unveils that when there is a sufficient psychological detachment or disengagement, people can experience positive feelings while experiencing fearfulness. “Horror movie viewers are happy to be unhappy,” the authors wrote.
Horror movie fans coping with COVID-19 pandemic better
A new study conducted by the University of Chicago, Aarhus University, and Pennsylvania State University found that horror movie fans may be coping with the Covid-19 pandemic better compared to those who don’t enjoy horror movies.
Conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic, the study involved 310 subjects. Authors Coltan Scrivner from the University of Chicago’s Department of Comparative Human Development and team tested whether past and current engagement with media fictions relevant to a pandemic, such as horror and pandemic film itself, was linked with psychological resilience and greater preparedness toward the pandemic.
Fans of zombie and apocalyptic films exhibited greater resilience
Scrivner and colleagues found that fans of horror films exhibited greater resilience during the Covid-19 pandemic. Furthermore, fans of movies genres such as apocalyptic, zombie, and alien invasion films exhibit both greater preparedness and resilience in the pandemic. They said that exposure to frightening fiction enables the audiences to practice coping strategies that are beneficial in real-world situations.
They also mentioned in their study that when people engage in frightening fictional experiences, these experiences serve as simulations of actual experiences where people can gather model possible worlds and information. In such simulated experience in a film or novel, a person explores possible phenomena and futures. They can gather information about what the real version would be like and learn the relative success of certain attitudes and actions. In the imagined worlds, they explore dangerous situations but are safer alternatives than exploring the situations in the actual world. Although imagined, the simulated environment allows people to prepare and learn for the same situations.
A movie about the pandemic, for instance, provides viewers low-cost access to data that is dangerous and difficult to come across in the real environment. They can view how other people act in the face of a pandemic and what acts likely prompt selfish or cooperative behavior in others. They can also view the kinds of social conflicts that may happen and how they could navigate in the imagined social landscape. The study reads that even if the situation in the story is not the same as in real-life scenarios, the meaning from the movie can be extracted and applied to real-world situations. Audiences can likewise learn what it’s like to navigate a chaotic environment in terms of the social aspects.
Honing emotion regulation skills while watching horror fiction
Horror fiction moreover enables people to experience some emotions, such as fear, more safely. They are not in the actual dangerous situation but viewers can hone their emotion regulation skills.
People feel emotions, both positive and negative, daily. Most typically learn how to express, manage, and cope with emotions healthily while they are kids. But for some people, emotion regulation is difficult due to abuse, trauma, painful childhood experiences, or because it is taught or shown low. Emotion regulation skills promote stability. It helps a person control their emotions instead of it controlling them. The most useful emotional regulation skills for adults are self-awareness, cognitive reappraisal, which includes altering the way we think, mindful awareness, adaptability, emotional support, and self-compassion.
The participants recruited in the study were asked to what extent they agreed which each statement given by the researchers. Their answers were based on a 7-point scale, from strongly disagree to strongly agree. The statements helped determine the kind of movies the respondent likes. They were also asked about pandemic-specific questions. In determining the participants’ psychological resilience, they used the Pandemic Psychological Resilience Scale (PPRS). They also consider resilience as the ability to have subjectively positive experiences during a difficult time.
The psychology behind why people hate scary movies
Sociologist Margee Kerr, who studies fear and is the author of the book "Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear," told HuffPost that there’s a science behind why some people hate scary movies and it is not just a personal preference. People who are more sensation-seeking may enjoy scary movies because of how they interpret their body’s reaction to stress. A movie that induces fear will induce a person’s heart rate, especially during the scary parts. It allows their body to feel that it needs to use energy and some may make positive meaning out of that experience. On the other hand, some may interpret the experience as a panic attack as they feel a sense of loss of control of what their body is doing.
Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are those who can be easily overstimulated by their environment. They have a more intense or different physiological reaction to scary or violent movies and they are more empathetic than the average person. Childhood experiences also matter as to how an individual feels about being scared.
Most popular movie genres among US adults
According to database company Statista, horror films were considered the least favorable movie genre among US adults in 2018. Among 2,200 respondents, only 47% female and 57% male consider horror as the most popular movie genres. Comedy (91% female, 90% male), drama (89%,80%), adventure (89%, 90%), and action (86%, 90%) movie genres are the most popular among adults in the United States as of December 2018.
Meanwhile, movie industry data site The Numbers shared the top-grossing horror movies. It includes I am Legend with total gross of $256,393,010 followed by It ($328,828,874), Hannibal ($165,092,266), The Blair Witch Project ($140,539,099), and It: Chapter Two ($211,593,228).
Scrivner and the team’s study shows how those with more experience engaging in fictional scenes involving dangerous and scary phenomena may be more likely to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic in a more resilient way.