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Horror Film 101: The Psychology of Terror


What makes scary movies keep us awake at night? Maybe it is the fear of the unknown, maybe it is the subtle Shepard’s tone, which gives us unconscious goosebumps, or maybe it is the theme music of the dreaded monster. There is no one answer to explain why people are drawn to horror, but if it were not for the sound, or lack of it, the mise-en-scène, the male gaze, or the infamous antagonist, we would not lie awake in the dark thinking something might be lurking outside our windows. This series examines the psychology behind what makes horror films so successful in terrifying people and the benefits of watching these anxiety-driven films. Plus, why do these films stick with us, especially when we are alone?

Horror Film 101: What Makes Horror Movies So Scary is divided into the following chapters of content:

6. Horror Film 101: The Psychology of Terror

Horror Film 101: The Psychology of Terror

Horror movies can change people. Like most films, horror movies impact people mentally and physically. But, contrary to popular belief, it is not always in a negative way. Horror movies can burn calories, cause temporary relief from repressed tension and anxiety, and even make the viewers braver than when they first sat down for the film. Horror movies teach people about survival in real-life situations and, if applicable, in supernatural ones. When watching a horror film, some of the most common tropes help people discern danger. Never go in the basement if somebody hears a strange noise; block all calls from unknown IDs; do not invite creepy strangers into the house; do not camp alone in an unfamiliar part of the woods; and if someone feels they are being watched, they probably are. The last article of this series highlighted the drawbacks of consuming horror films with an insatiable appetite; however, this article aims to bring light to some of the psychological and physical benefits of horror films. Through processing negative emotions, exposure therapy, exercise, and learning new survival techniques, the genre of horror can be considered one of the best genres through which people can grow.

The Psychical Benefits

When watching a horror movie, the expectation is to become scared. Most people who are addicted to adrenaline gain an energy boost and instant gratification after watching one of these films (Scrivner, 2023, p. 95). These recreational horror films can be beneficial for people who seek thrills in life. Not only can these films boost your energy, but they also have the same effect as working out. Horror films can raise the "heart rate [and] [burn] calories of [...] persons significantly. [...] Watching a horror movie for 1.5 hours activates your adrenaline pump and it consumes close to 113 calories typically. It is the same as walking for 30 minutes" (Qadir, 2019, p. 43). Certain movies, such as Jigsaw (Spierig & Spierig, 2017), have been measured to burn over 161 calories (Qadir, 2019, p. 43). And while scary films can cause anxiety within the body to a certain extent, they can help alleviate stress as well, "[with] neurotransmitters that uplift people's brain actions and make [people] alert for a little time. [...] [H]orror movies [make people] secrete [...] chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. These are the hormones [that are] also release[d] when we fall in love with someone" (Qadir, 2019, p. 43). Horror movies can give people energy boosts and help them become healthier and happier. People also gain a lot of pleasure from the unknown by provoking a "release of endogenous morphine-like substances produced in the brain" (Clasen, 2017, pp. 53-54). Horror movies give a thrill like no other to people seeking out these adrenaline highs and can also help them lose weight.

Figure 1: Billy the Puppet in "Saw" (Wan, 2004).

The Psychological Benefits

One of the most attractive aspects of films is how they make people feel less alone and occasionally less sad about their own lives. Horror movies can be cathartic by releasing unresolved emotions, and they cause people to become more resilient in life. Viewers watching a horror movie gain the same knowledge and fear the characters within the film must undergo, but from the safety of their couches. The audience also becomes transfixed by the stories within the film. People watch movies to be transported into another world, and that is one of the biggest appeals of the horror genre (Clasen, 2017, pp. 53-54). Sometimes this causes viewers to have deep emotional reactions as if they were living in the story world, as the brain cannot distinguish the visual stimuli in the film from reality (Clasen, 2017, p. 29). The benefit of this practice is that people gain "deepening and widening [...] emotional experiences" as "[f]iction allows [people] to vicariously lead countless lives, it frees [them] from the phenomenological present and throws [them] into possible and impossible futures, pasts, and parallel universes. Horror fiction can do all of those things and is particularly well-equipped to allow readers and viewers to vicariously live through the worst, to model threatening scenarios, and to get imaginatively compelling experience with extreme situations and intense negative emotion" (Clasen, 2017, pp. 55-56). Myths, legends, and stories serve purposes other than entertaining people; they also "contain profound moral or existential or psychological truths. [...] [M]ade-up stories can contain true factual information; readers learn about chaos theory and paleoarchaeology from Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park (1990)" (Clasen, 2017, pp. 56-57). Plus, people's memories are more effectively stored deep within their memory when they are attached to an emotion; "[p]eople evolved to be curious about danger, and fictional stories about danger prime, satisfy, and even exploit that curiosity" (Clasen, 2017, pp. 56-57). Horror can not only help people's memory, but also aid in resolving suppressed grief.

Movies like Hereditary (Aster, 2018) involve trauma and tragedy. The movie follows a family, the Grahams, who are grieving over the loss of their grandmother; shortly after the funeral, unsettling events begin to take place. Along with supernatural occurrences, the young daughter, Charlie, is accidentally killed by her brother, Peter. Although the specifics of the film and its supernatural aspects may be hard to relate to, the subject of loss is universal to everyone. There is an automatic emotional transfer that happens between the viewer and the characters when watching a film (Nummenmaa, 2021, p. 8). Humans do this every day, like when people see someone yawn, they mimic it, and that is also true for emotions like sadness (Nummenmaa, 2021, p. 8). This emotional contagion can be cathartic because, while the viewer may be crying due to something emotional happening onscreen, they are expressing their emotions in a healthy way in a safe place (Nummenmaa, 2021, p. 9). The loss in Hereditary (Aster, 2018) is devastating and shocking, but it causes people to experience negative emotions and allows them to be more resilient in life when tragedy strikes (Nummenmaa, 2021, pp. 20-21). When watching horror movies, people exercise their coping skills, and by experiencing emotions such as fear in a safe environment, people are better equipped to handle stressful situations and anxiety (Scrivner, 2023, pp. 87-88). People also have morbid curiosities, and horror films allow them to "engage with or otherwise gather information about many of the themes that are central to horror fiction, such as body disgust, the paranormal, violence, and minds of dangerous people" without being in real peril (Scrivner, 2023, pp. 87-88). Films like Hereditary (Aster 2018) also remind people of how horrific life can be and make them feel at ease with their own problems (Scrivner, 2023, p. 89). It is "[t]he best works of horror [that] have the capacity to change [people] for life — to sensitize [them] to danger, to let [them] develop crucial coping skills, to enhance [their] capacity for empathy, to qualify [their] understanding of evil, to enrich [...] emotional repertoire, to calibrate [...] moral sense, and to expand [people's] imaginations into realms of the dark and disturbing" (Clasen, 2017, p. 147). Horror movies, therefore, offer escape, memory enhancement, and emotional management.

Figure 2: Toni Collette as Annie Graham in "Hereditary" (Aster, 2018).

Besides the negative aspects of emotions that come with horror films, there are also positive ones, like strength. Even children can benefit from mild-horror films. Psychologists Berry, Gray, and Donnerstein concluded that horror movies cause psychological catharsis and that children learn that they can get out of stressful situations with willpower and courage (Sultana, 2021, p. 5). Children may have a harder time mastering their emotions and reactions, but horror movies allow them to overcome their fear in a safe way (Clasen, 2017, p. 62). Some horror films can affect children negatively and even traumatize them, but psychologists suggest it depends on "how they perceive and interpret it; and upon the social contexts in which they watch and subsequently talk about it with others" (Lester, 2016, pp. 23-24). This grants them the capacity to deal with negative emotions. Children's horror movies are different from graphic films like Hereditary (Aster, 2018). The MPAA guideline states that "G-rated films may contain only 'minimal violence,' [while] PG-rated films may contain 'some violence' that is not intense, and a PG-13 may contain violence that is not 'realistic and extreme or persistent'" (Lester, 2016, p. 26). Ratings for horror films are important, as scary movies may be intense and distressing to some viewers (Lester, 2016, p. 24). Child-friendly horror movies might involve some scary aspects but contain outlandish animations and humour to alleviate fear, like in ParaNorman (Butler & Fell, 2012).

Horror movies are therapeutic for the human brain and can even be used for therapy. As mentioned in the previous article of this series, when it comes to treating people with real-life phobias, such as arachnophobia, "[e]xposure therapy is the first-line treatment for [it] and usually involves graded exposure to spiders. Although this treatment commonly incorporates live spiders, it may also be conducted with the aid of virtual reality. There is evidence that [arachnophobia] can be eliminated in as little as one extended exposure therapy session" (Milosevic, 2015, p. 35). This includes using horror movies as a form of therapy to allow people to cope with their fears and become adaptable. Plus, horror films create greater empathy in individuals. Empathy is recognized in two parts: "the capacity to recognize another person's emotion (cognitive empathy) while the second part involves experiencing that emotion or something like it (affective empathy). Cognitive empathy is related to [the] theory of mind and perspective taking, which afford humans the ability to mentally represent the minds of others. Affective empathy involves the ability to feel or experience the emotions of others, which may be based in part upon the ability to mentally represent the mind of others" (Scrivner, 2022, p. 3). People gain empathy from watching characters onscreen endure dreadful events. This compassion benefits each individual who watches horror movies, as it is the root of kindness, which we all could benefit from in the world.

Figure 3: The protagonist Norman in "ParaNorman" (Butler & Fell, 2012).

Survival 101

Through the centuries, humans have learned how to avoid danger. People are educated through stories, the news, and even movies. And with horror films involving a plethora of dangerous scenarios — from chainsaw-wielding maniacs to bloodthirsty sharks to crazy cults — there are some ways to learn how to avoid these threats. Horror films trigger people's "danger-detection circuits" deeply rooted in their brains, which allowed humankind's ancestors to stay alive (Clasen, 2017, pp. 4-5). These scary movies are intended to make people afraid, but what people also gain is coping skills from experiencing the negative emotions the characters in the film endure (Clasen, 2017, p. 59). While humans would like to believe they are at the pinnacle of the food chain, they are still vulnerable to their imaginations and the dangers that only live inside their heads, which cause real stress on the body (Clasen, 2017, p. 23). Horror films address the fear of the unknown, "[they] can offer practical advice that could, conceivably, be useful in the real world" (Clasen, 2017, pp. 57-58). Horror films instill advice with emotionally charged memories, and the authors who write horror fiction, like Stephen King, think of the ways people might actually act in terrible scenarios, which makes them all the more plausible and educational (Clasen, 2017, pp. 57-58). But this "mental play behaviour", in which people imagine the worst kinds of scenarios to avoid, exists outside of humans (Clasen, 2017, pp. 58-59). This biological behaviour has been studied by "[p]lay researchers [who] have suggested that mammalian play functions as 'training for the unexpected'. When kittens playfight, they gain skills and capacities at low cost and relatively little risk, skills and capacities that may become critically useful later in life when they face a hostile opponent" (Clasen, 2017, pp. 58-59).

While horror movies can cause fear, they also allow for entertainment and preparedness in life. Another real-life example of how horror films can better prepare people for threats is during COVID-19. A study was conducted during the pandemic to see if people who watched horror movies were better prepared and more resilient in the face of COVID-19. What researchers found was that "fans of horror films exhibited greater resilience during the pandemic and that fans of 'prepper' genres (alien-invasion, apocalyptic, and zombie films) exhibited both greater resilience and preparedness. [They] also found that trait morbid curiosity was associated with positive resilience and interest in pandemic films during the pandemic. Taken together, these results are consistent with the hypothesis that exposure to frightening fictions allows audiences to practice effective coping strategies that can be beneficial in real-world situations" (Scrivner, 2021). In the early days of the pandemic, the thriller Contagion (Soderbergh, 2011) was very popular as it was realistic in the ways in which a viral pandemic can overtake the world (Scrivner, 2021). Movies such as Contagion (Soderbergh, 2011) may help people through distressing times in real life as they build upon one's resilience. Watching horror movies and feeling scared does not make people weak; in fact, it may be the antithesis of fear, as it makes people braver, more prepared, and more resilient in times of despair.

Figure 4: Still from "Contagion" (Soderbergh, 2011).


The stories in horror films may be fictional, but they serve a purpose in real life. They strengthen people physically and mentally. Horror movies promote mood boosts, burn calories, process negative emotions, enhance survival skills, and make people resilient in fearful situations. While this series comes to an end, horror movies will continue to prosper as long as there is someone afraid of the vivid, macabre imagination of a filmmaker.

Bibliographical References

Bordwell, D., et al. (2017). Film Art: An Introduction. (11th Edition). McGraw-Hill Education.

Clasen, M. (2017). Why Horror Seduces. New York: Oxford University Press, Oxford Scholarship Online.

Lester, C. (2016). The Children’s Horror Film: Characterizing an “Impossible” Subgenre. The Velvet Light Trap, 78 (78), 22–37.

Millar, B. & Lee J. (July 2021). Horror Films and Grief. Emotion Review, vol. 13, No. 3.

Milosevic, I., & McCabe, R. E. (2015). Phobias: The Psychology of Irrational Fear. [eBook edition]. ABC-CLIO, LLC.

Nummenmaa, L. (March 4, 2021). Psychology and neurobiology of horror movies. PsyArXiv. Web.

Sultana, I., et al. (2021). Effects of Horror Movies on Psychological Health of Youth. Global Mass Communication Review, vol. VI, No. 1. Accessed 13 April 2023.

Scrivner, C. (2021). Pandemic practice: Horror fans and morbidly curious individuals are more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic. Science Direct, vol. 168.

Scrivner, C. (2022). Bleeding-heart horror fans: Enjoyment of horror media is not related to lower empathy or compassion.

Scrivner, C., et al. (2023). The psychological benefits of scary play in three types of horror fans. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 35 (2), 87-98.

Qadir, M. I. & Asif M. (2019). Is normal blood glucose level influenced by watching horror movies? MedCrave, vol. 8. No.19.

Waldrop, S. (2022). The Enemy is Fear: The Psychological Benefits of the Horror Genre through Resilience and Coping. Texas State University.

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Melanie Rose Gazvoda

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