Horror movies can help us face our fears
Intrigued by horror’s potential to empower, filmmaker Jonathan Barkan set out to explore the genre’s engagement with mental health in a forthcoming documentary on the subject, aptly titled Mental Health and Horror.
Barkan says he recognised the genre’s cathartic malleability early on while dealing with the real-life tragedy of his sister’s battle with cancer.
“I just knew that there was some faceless, invisible monster that was attacking her,” Barkan said of the experience. “Horror became a way to face that monster and, more importantly, to see that monster, that evil, vanquished.”
Galvanized by the genre’s ability to promote empathy and face down the ineffable monsters of our daily lives, Barkan’s exploration of how others use horror to heal and grow speaks to the wider impact of our engagement with these movies that are so often dismissed as having little moral value.
“I’ve learned that so many people see and use horror in so many different, unique, and beautiful ways to help their mental health,” Barkan said. “The ways that we engage with horror are as diverse and amazing as the genre itself.”
Feeling fear in a safe space can be a big relief
And, as it turns out, turning to horror movies for relief isn’t just for the die-hards (pun intended).
According to Business Insider, in May of 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, horror sales on the digital movie app Movies Anywhere were up 194 percent from the previous May. At a time when the world was facing horrors of its own, audiences still looked to genre material for escape.
Global crisis notwithstanding, Oaklee believes this uptick in the hunger for horror cinema makes perfect sense.
“It’s not unusual for people to be drawn to thrillers or horror movies in times of high stress,” he said. “Horror movies force you to be hyper-focused. The ruminating, anxious mind is no longer spinning out on the stressors of the world. Instead, your body is in fight-or-flight mode, and nothing matters except the terrifying monster on the screen. During a global pandemic, that is very inviting.”
In fact, Oaklee pointed to a 2020 study published in the journal NeuroImage, which found that scary movies can indeed trigger our body’s fear circuit, producing a “fight or flight” response just as a frightening event in real life can.
Because of this, Oaklee noted that horror movies can negatively affect some people, particularly those who are more sensitive to anxiety, as what they’re watching on screen can increase feelings of stress and panic.
But for others, he said the continual building and release of tension that’s a core part of the horror-movie viewing experience, can help relieve stress from their everyday life, leaving them feeling more empowered and resilient when the credits roll.
So, if you’ve ever turned to Dracula, Freddy, or any other manner of phantom for a small measure of comfort after a long day, know that you’re not alone.
Astute pop culture historians have long noted horror’s ability to use the dark lens of the fantastic to confront contemporary issues (ex. Frankenstein tackling the “God vs. science” debate of the day, Godzilla being a direct response to the use of atomic weapons, etc.), and mercifully have also begun to recognise its propensity for healing.
Of course, beyond the allegory and psychology of fright, it’s also just plain fun.
Sometimes, the best thing that we can do for ourselves is to check out of the real world and check into something that brings a smile… and possibly a scare or two along the way.