People running through the streets in terror, stores being looted for supplies, and, of course, people eating other people. In World War Z, the film adaptation of Max Brooks’ successful zombie apocalyptic horror novel, things start off calm but quickly escalate to all-out mayhem. The zombies in World War Z are fast, almost superhuman in their athleticism. The speed of the zombies and the quickness with which a person who is bitten turns into a zombie leads the world to be quickly overrun by the flesh-eating creatures.
The high-octane horror film is anything but short on entertainment value, and this is undoubtedly why it rose to the number-one spot in the list of highest grossing zombie films of all time. Part of the entertainment value comes from the film documenting how a world, much like our own, can quickly melt into chaos. However, could horror films like World War Z offer audiences something more than mere entertainment?
Those who had seen a lot of pandemic films reported feeling more prepared when the real thing happened.
In April, Penny Sarchet, the news editor for New Scientist, asked my colleague Mathias Clasen if he thought that horror fans would be more resilient to the psychological distress that comes with living during a pandemic. The hypothesis she was presenting is that scary stories can offer us something more than mere entertainment. Thanks to their frightening nature, scary stories might help the audience build resilience to frightening situations and be prepared to better grapple with frightening or uncertain situations in real life. Mathias and I thought this was a great question. So great, in fact, that we teamed up with two other colleagues and set out to find the answer.
While the initial question centered around horror fans, I soon became interested in how a related personality trait factored into resilience during the pandemic. In particular, I wondered whether or not people who are morbidly curious would also exhibit greater psychological resilience during the pandemic. This interest stemmed from a related study I published a few months ago showing that a subset of the population, those who are morbidly curious, were expressing more interest than usual in pandemic films like Contagion. If they were watching a movie about a pandemic during a pandemic, then surely they must be dealing with the pandemic in a way that is different from the average person.
For this new study, we recruited 310 participants who answered questions that we used to assess their morbid curiosity, how prepared they felt for the pandemic, how they were feeling during the pandemic, and their movie preferences. Because other factors can influence movie preferences, we also had participants answer questions about their age, sex, and general personality profile—the Big Five Inventory of personality.
Controlling for participants’ age, sex, income, general interest in movies, and Big 5 personality profile, we found that Penny’s intuition was right—horror fans in our study did experience better resilience during the pandemic. However, there was a catch. The resilience measure we used splits resilience into two types: positive resilience and psychological distress. Positive resilience taps into whether or not someone is able to have positive experiences and emotional states during the pandemic. For example, one item that loaded onto this type of resilience stated, “I have been able to find things to enjoy during the pandemic.”
The second kind of resilience, psychological distress, taps into psychological disruptions like feelings of depression, anxiety, irritability, and loss of sleep. For example, one item in this factor stated, “I haven’t been sleeping well since the pandemic started.” We found that horror fans only fared better on the latter. That is, they weren’t feeling as anxious or irritable during the pandemic as others. What about those who were big fans of the prepper genres? They also experienced the lower psychological distress associated with horror more broadly, but also reported feeling more prepared for the pandemic. Likewise, those who had seen a lot of pandemic films like Contagion reported feeling more prepared when the real thing happened.
Frightening fiction provides a safe way to learn how to deal with fear and anxiety.
So, was anyone experiencing positive resilience in the face of the pandemic? In our sample, the morbidly curious participants scored much higher in positive resilience than those were less morbidly curious. While they did not report feeling more or less prepared or anxious, morbidly curious participants said they were having positive experiences despite everything that was happening. In other words, people who find fun in the darker side of life seem to do this during the pandemic as well.
We were of course excited at the results of the study, but the story is far from complete. Our study wasn’t designed to test causation. We can’t say for sure that binge-watching The Walking Dead will help you cope during the next pandemic. Still, our results do align nicely with the idea that fiction is used to simulate possible worlds, and that these simulations can serve us well in real life.
One way that frightening fiction might lead to better resilience during the pandemic is by providing a safe way to learn how to deal with fear and anxiety. By scaring you in your seat without actually posing a threat, you have the opportunity to practice your emotion regulation skills, particularly with regard to fear. This may be one reason why horror users in our study experienced less psychological distress during the pandemic. While horror fiction may not lead you to find ways to enjoy life during a pandemic, it might help you learn how to deal with the fear and anxiety that stems from something like a pandemic.
Of course, the closer the simulation is to a real-world situation, the better it should be at teaching people how to deal with specific situations. Our data also reflect this idea. Those who were fans of horror movies broadly did not feel more prepared for the pandemic. However, participants who were fans of films that present a world that is fraught with chaos from aliens, zombies, or viruses reported feeling more prepared for the pandemic. In other words, audiences may vicariously learn useful information from “playing” with scenarios in fiction much like a tiger cub learns useful skills from rough and tumble play.
So yes, horror fans, you’ve been vindicated. Watching all those zombie flicks might serve you well after all.
Coltan Scrivner is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago and a Fellow at the Institute for Mind and Biology in the Behavioral Biology Lab. Follow him on Twitter @MorbidPsych.
Lead image: Tithi Luadthong