Horror Films Give Us a Safe Space to Be Anxious

If horror movies make us anxious, why do we even watch them?. Alexander Penyushkin/Shutterstock

Horror has been a popular theme for movies since the advent of filmmaking, with many of the earliest dating back to the late 1890s. Today, films like "Hereditary," "The Nun" and "A Quiet Place" invoke anxiety, fear and a general sense of unease, and audiences are happy to pay for the experience.

Which is a little odd when you stop and think about it since we make such an effort in life to avoid becoming uneasy, let alone afraid or anxious. So why do many of us shell out $12 to get ourselves good and scared?

Probably because it's the safest possible way to experience being scared.

Anxious for frights

An undergraduate honors thesis project conducted by Sarah Miller-Shreve at Ontario's Brescia University College attempted to figure out why people who demonstrated certain trait emotions, including anxiety and empathy, enjoy horror films. Trait emotions generally refer to a consistent sensation of the feeling, regardless of the context. These differ from state emotions, which are typically associated with a particular event and then fade away after the event is complete.

Miller-Shreve's project had 43 psychology undergraduate students complete questionnaires about their film preferences, ranking seven different genres in an effort to determine how much they liked or disliked horror films. Those who placed it in their top three were considered to have a "high" preference for scares while those who placed horror in their bottom three were categorized as having a "low" preference. Students also completed multiple personality inventories to determine their levels of trait anxiety, empathy, emotional regulation and sensation-seeking behavior.

What the small sample study found was that people with high levels of state anxiety, meaning they generally felt some degree of anxiety regardless of the situation, tended to watch horror movies more often than those with low levels of state anxiety. This surprised Miller-Shreve, whose hypothesis for the project was that it would be reversed: People with lower levels of state anxiety would be more likely to seek out horror films.

Miller-Shreve suggested that these people with high state anxiety levels may watch horror movies as a sort of release valve, a way to express their anxiety in an situation in which such emotions are actively encouraged by the film itself. Horror movies are designed to, in part, scare people, after all. Given that some (not all, of course) horror movies also end with a sense of positive resolution, the relief at the end may also play a part in why these anxious people like watching horror films.

Safe scares

The idea that horror films provide a way to be scared in a safe setting is probably on the money, at least according to the work conducted by Danish horror scholar Mathias Clasen.

Clasen, who discusses some of his work in the TEDx Talk in the video above, says we seek out horror films because they allow us to experience negative emotions like fear and anxiety in a safe space. In an article for ScienceNordic, Clasen suggests "horror exploits our defense mechanisms" and allows us to develop coping techniques.

When told by Vice that anxious people seem to enjoy horror movies, Clasen was "not surprised to learn that some anxious individuals find horror films therapeutic," he said. "The genre allows us to voluntarily — and under controlled circumstances — get experience with negative emotion."

As Clasen notes in that ScienceNordic article, the price for getting that exposure can also be nightmares and sleepless nights. There are trade-offs in everything it seems, including providing a safe release for anxiety.