2020 was a bad year for just about everything—except horror. Horror films were wildly popular on streaming platforms over the past year, and 2020 saw the horror genre take home its largest share of the box office in modern history.1 In a year where the world was stricken by real horrors, why were many people escaping to worlds full of fictional horrors? As odd as it may sound, the fact that people were more anxious in 2020 may be one reason why horror films were so popular. A look at typical horror fans may provide some clues about the nature of this peculiar phenomenon.
For example, horror fans often mention their own anxiety and how horror helps them deal with it. They may be more of an anxious bunch than a fearless bunch. In a recent study, posted on PsyArXiv, researchers looked at plot keywords from over 800 films and nearly 1 million Facebook likes.2 They found that fans of horror movies were more likely to be high in neuroticism—a personality trait characterized by high anxiety. Across all movies in the dataset, plot keywords such as “mental illness,” “ghost,” “serial killer,” and “insanity” were among the strongest predictors of fans’ neuroticism. Likewise, movie plots with psychological themes of death and anxiety predicted high neuroticism among fans of those movies.
Finally, some empirical evidence for claims that have been buzzing around the horror community for quite some time: Anxious people sometimes like anxiety-inducing movies. But why would someone who is feeling anxious want to watch a movie where the sole purpose is to incite a feeling of dread?
The central theme of a horror movie is usually a monster of some sort. It is the threat of the monster that fulfills the purpose of horror film, namely, to induce fear and anxiety in the audience. Because threat is central to the plot, horror is great at drawing the viewer into the movie. Humans are predisposed to attend to threat, and this bias occurs even at a young age. Threat not only holds a premium on our visual attention, but also in other domains of cognition, including memory, learning, and the social transmission of information. And there’s a good reason why these biases exist—they kept our ancestors alive. Monitoring the environment for a threat and determining the best course of action is part of a suite of neural systems that optimize survival in animals, including humans.3 Because of the attentional premium that is placed on threats and the fact that a threat is central to horror plots, horror films are incredibly good at drawing viewers’ attention.
For those who suffer from anxiety, the visual bias to attend to threat is exaggerated. This is part of the reason why horror “works” for anxious people. Someone who is feeling anxious will be more easily sucked into the plot of a horror film, constantly surveilling the scene for the threat. This increased vigilance, due to the suspense, may in turn increase their immersion in the story.4
One of the most uncomfortable aspects of anxiety is often the feeling that you are not in control of the situation—whether that means control of the source of your anxiety, or in control of your reactions to feeling anxious. Lack of control over a stressor has a well-documented history of negative effects.5 Several studies show that increasing perceived control, even if imaginary, reduces activation of brain regions that respond to threat6 and decreases anxiety.7
Horror films essentially offer a socially-sanctioned outlet for you to express your anxiety.
Horror can provide this sense of control by shifting the source of your anxiety. Once a fictional world of horror has your attention and you escape into the narrative, the source of your anxiety changes. Instead of feeling anxious about a social interaction that went awry, looming deadlines, or any other number of anxiety-inducing events in the real world, your anxiety is now attached to the monster on the screen. Importantly, you are now choosing to feel anxious rather than anxiety being something that just happens to you outside of your control.
While you may still feel just as anxious as before, several aspects of the experience have changed to give you more control. Even in the most immersive narrative, people can distinguish between reality and fiction. The fact that you now feel anxious about something fictional can feel less consequential than feeling anxious about something real. It’s also relatively easy to regulate how scary the experience is. Covering your eyes, watching with the lights on or with a friend, or turning the volume down can all make the experience of a horror film feel less scary (or, for the real thrill-seekers, the opposite can make it feel scarier). While there are several therapeutically effective techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy that help control anxiety, the ability to regulate anxiety with simple techniques like covering your eyes or turning on the lights is unique to anxiety experienced in fiction. The ability to up-regulate or down-regulate arousal during frightening experiences is key to enjoying the experience.
There’s good evidence that people do regulate the amount of fear they feel in order to maximize their enjoyment. For example, some colleagues and I recently published a study about the physiology, behavior, and attitudes of people who go to haunted attractions.8 Using heart-rate monitors, facial expressions, and self-report questionnaires, we found that there tends to be a “sweet spot” of fear or anxiety-induced arousal at which enjoyment is maximized during the haunt. This converges with earlier work showing that haunted-house visitors actively use a range of cognitive and emotional strategies to regulate their fear.9 I suspect many of these findings apply to scary-fun experiences more broadly. By transferring your anxiety to the screen, you have much more control over how much it impacts you.
Once you’re hooked into the plot and feel in control of the situation, a horror movie can be a good place to feel anxious. One problem that people with anxiety face is social acceptability. Expression of high anxiety comes with a stigma in the real world. This can lead to maladaptive coping behaviors, such as blocking the outward expression of emotions, that tend to worsen anxiety. However, in a fictional world of horrors, overt expression of your emotions—even screaming your lungs out—is expected. With horror, it’s okay for you to let your imagination run wild and envision worst-case scenarios for the characters on the screen.
In his treatise on the genre, legendary horror writer Stephen King argued that the horror author is at their most powerful when they achieve what he called “the terror.”10 As opposed to the jump-scare itself or the disgust-inducing aftermath of an encounter with the monster, the terror is the dread that can happen throughout the rest of the film. This is where the director or writer hopes to instill a feeling of unease and suspense—keeping you on your toes as your imagination takes over and tries to predict what will happen before it catches you off-guard.
For people experiencing anxiety, this mindset might come naturally, and can make the experience feel more potent. Though overactivation of this type of thinking in the real world can have negative consequences, it is expected to happen in the fictional world of horror. So, if you’re feeling anxious, horror films essentially offer a socially-sanctioned outlet for you to express your anxiety.
There are a number of reasons why someone who is feeling anxious might find reprieve in horror. It can provide a distraction from anxiety in the real world, clarity when the source of your anxiety is unidentifiable, and control over your anxiety when you feel like you have none. While these factors may help you deal with your anxiety in the moment, does it all go away once the movie or the book ends?
Horror fiction provides a sort of cognitive simulation in which people can engage with frightening phenomena in a safe setting. In the cognitive playground of fictional horror, people can learn what different types of scary situations look and feel like. Through engaging with the fictional world, people can practice emotional and behavioral strategies that might generalize to other kinds of stressful or fearful situations. Though this has not been directly tested, some evidence suggests that it might be occurring.
For example, horror fans seemed to be more psychologically resilient to the horrors of 2020, even after controlling for a variety of personality traits. Similarly, a survey of NOW TV users found that people who were fans of apocalyptic genres reported feeling more prepared for a second wave of COVID-19.11 In other words, people who exposed themselves to fictional horror seem to be able to better deal with anxiety-inducing events in the real world.
Of course, horror isn’t for everyone. Someone who hates horror movies is likely not going to benefit from watching them, and those who love horror may benefit the most. However, horror encompasses a broad range of subgenres, and most people don’t hate horror movies. Whether it’s a psychological thriller, gory slasher, or a zombie flick, it’s likely you’ll be able to find a subgenre that you enjoy. So, if you’re feeling anxious and looking for an escape, try a fictional world of horrors.
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.
1. Box office history for horror. the-numbers.com (2021).
2. Nave, G., Rentfrom, J., & Bhatia, S. We are what we watch: Movie plots predict the personalities of those who “like” them. PsyArXiv (2020). Retrieved from DOI:10.31234/osf.io/wsdu8
3. Mobbs, D. Hagen, C.C., Dalgleish, T., Silston, B., & Prévost, C. The ecology of human fear: Survival optimization and the nervous system. Frontiers in Neuroscience 9, 55 (2015).
4. Ling, Y., Nefs, H.T., Morina, N., Heynderickx, I., Brinkman, W.-P. A meta-analysis on the relationship between self-reported presence and anxiety in virtual reality exposure therapy for anxiety disorders. PLoS One 9, e96144 (2014).
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6. Limbachia, C., et al. Controllability over stressor decreases responses in key threat-related brain areas. Communications Biology 4, 42 (2021).
7. Saloons, T.V., Nusslock, R., Detloff, A., Johnstone, T., & Davidson, R.J. Neural emotion regulation circuitry underlying anxiolytic effects of perceived control over pain. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 27, 222-223 (2015).
8. Anderson, M.M., et al. Playing with fear: A field study in recreational horror. Psychological Science 31, 1497-1510 (2020).
9. Clasen, M., Anderson, M., & Schjoedt, U. Adrenaline junkies and white-knocklers: A quantitative study of fear management in haunted house visitors. Poetics 73, 61-71 (2019).
10. King, S. Danse Macabre Hodder & Stoughton, London (1981).
11. Gifford, B.E. The psychology behind watching post-apocalyptic films during a pandemic. Happiful.com (2020).
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