This Is Why You Can’t Stop Watching Horror Movies, According to Science
It's not just a coincidence that you're suddenly drawn to freakier fare.
With political, economic, and health concerns looming large across the country, countless individuals are turning to TV and movies for some much-needed distraction. However, it’s not just feel-good comedies and romances that folks are enjoying as a means of escapism—instead, it’s suspense and horror movies that have been providing surprising catharsis to viewers amid coronavirus. Horror movie Invisible Man topped iTunes’ rentals list as of Jun. 1 and Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller Contagion suddenly climbed the charts, too.
So, why is it that you’re suddenly drawn to frightening fare during a period of time that’s scary enough on its own? According to psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD, an associate professor at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, people who enjoy horror movies may seek them out now because they “find comfort in repeating and reworking traumatic feelings.” Called “repetition compulsion,” this behavior involves replaying and reframing trauma "to, over time, come to grips with it and even desensitize yourself to it,” explains Saltz. She notes that getting to experience fear in the absence of actual danger can give some people a safe thrill while simultaneously providing them comfort.
Licensed clinical psychologist Bruce L. Thiessen, PhD, adds that watching a horror movie can provide a satisfying sense of closure to an emotionally heightened situation—a type of catharsis many people aren’t seeing play out in their real lives. “By watching horror movies, we get to find out how events unfold and get to find out the ending within a relatively short [amount] of time," explains Thiessen. "This brings a sense of control to the chaos we experience with anxiety-provoking real-life events.”
And while the pandemic itself may make you feel like curling up into the fetal position, tuning in for some guts and gore might actually make you feel better equipped to face the day’s challenges head-on. In fact, according to a 1993 study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy, researchers found that stressful situations can trigger an endorphin rush, which doesn’t necessarily reduce a person’s feelings of fear, but does make them feel more courageous. So don’t push yourself to sit through a screening of Silence of the Lambs if it’ll keep you up at night—but don’t feel obligated to choke down another season of Friends if it’s not helping, either. And if you're looking for more ways to take care of yourself amid coronavirus, check out these 15 Effective Self-Care Tips That Are Made for Quarantine.