How Horror Movies Can Help With Anxiety


Sarah McGinnis

TW: this article discusses mental health and self harm. 

Illustration by Paige Gaskins

The horror genre is well-known for its negative effects on viewers. Most people are aware of the nightmares, insomnia and fear that can result from horror movie-viewing late at night. However for some, horror films can actually help more than they harm. Many who suffer from anxiety enjoy watching scary movies to help alleviate symptoms. 

Why would someone who is naturally nervous want to experience a suspenseful film? The answer is different for everyone. One of the most widely accepted and highly researched explanations is the theory of excitation transference. This theory, introduced by psychologist Dolf Zillmann, explains that viewers enjoy these films, because the feeling of suspense will lead to euphoria when the plot is resolved. The satisfaction at the end of a horror movie creates a release for the audience. 

Another common reason that horror movies can help lessen anxiety is because recreational fear allows viewers to experience something frightening in a controlled environment. An Association for Psychological Science journal article explains that by viewing a horror film, “individuals can have [a] low-cost, risk-free experience with fear and related negative emotions.” This allows anxiety sufferers to simulate the fear usually associated with their mental illness in a safe way. The same method of recreational fear can be used while watching a thriller or true-crime documentary. Being able to experience symptoms in a way that is not dangerous can be beneficial for many people who are learning to cope with anxiety. 

When viewing a terrifying scene, viewers are able to face their fears head on. For those with anxiety, it is difficult to maintain a sense of control over thoughts and feelings. However, when an anxiety sufferer views a horror film, they can take control of their fears no matter how irrational. In fact, suspenseful movies can serve as a form of exposure therapy, which helps treat anxiety and phobias. 

For anyone, watching an immersive film is a good distraction from daily life. However, for people with anxiety disorders, using media to distract themselves from their own worries and fears can improve their life significantly. Horror happens to be one of the most engaging film genres, making it the perfect way for someone with anxiety to redirect their emotions into a fictional story. This is a form of escapism, which is a common coping mechanism for many people suffering from mental health issues.

None of this is to say that horror viewing is the perfect hobby for everyone. Many people have a valid aversion to this genre, because they experience nightmares and temporary insomnia from it. It can also be used as a form of masochism or self harm for those who find themselves disturbed by the content of these films. Like any other coping mechanism, it will not be right for everyone, and it cannot be a substitution for therapy and medication. However, for those who suffer from anxiety, it can be one of the most helpful ways to manage mental health on a day-to-day basis. 

For mental health resources and services, visit the Kent State website here.