Can horror films have psychological effects?

Michael Gennaro

North Bureau Chief


October is the month of Halloween. That means pumpkin spice, candy, pumpkin-carving and–of course–scary movies. 

This October, thousands of thrill-seekers will head to their local theaters to watch horror movies like “Hell Fest” and “Halloween.” Thousands more will watch horror films at home using their Netflix or Hulu accounts.

But are there consequences for watching too many slasher flicks?

How do these movies scare us so effectively, and how do they affect the brain?

Horror movies may make viewers anxious, or cause feelings of dread for the viewer as they watch the macabre proceedings on-screen. 

Viewers may tense up their muscles, mentally and physically bracing themselves for the next scare. 

Feelings of adrenaline permeate their body, and heart rate increases. The body’s fight-or-flight response kicks in.

It’s clear that horror movies have a psychological effect on humans. If they didn’t scare us, they wouldn’t be as wildly popular as they are. 

But why does the body activate the fight-or-flight response when we know the proceedings on-screen are fake? 

Psychologists say that horror movies prey on the subconscious mind. 

When we are scared, it is instinctual for a human to protect themselves and others around them. 

A good horror movie is able to bypass the brain’s rational thought processes. 

Violent scenes and unsettling music put us on alert. We know the scenes aren’t real, but our brain has been conditioned to go into survival mode when we see a beast with huge claws or a man with a weapon, even if the “danger” is only on a screen. 

It’s a survival instinct; a sign that our brains are functioning normally.

The effects of horror movies can even continue long after a viewer has left the theater. 

The adrenaline from viewing the film may leave a viewer in a hyper-vigilant state, and they may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. 

Susceptible individuals may also experience nightmares and anxiety. Even a seasoned horror film fan will sometimes think twice about turning the lights out after a particularly scary film.

Individuals with past trauma are especially susceptible to horror films. These films may open old wounds and trigger traumatic memories. 

Horror films can contain scenes of sexual violence, for example, and these scenes can be triggering to survivors of sexual abuse or sexual violence.

Younger viewers are also very susceptible to horror films. Violent scenes may desensitize them to violence, and they may have even more trouble sleeping than their adult counterparts. 

Some studies have shown increased levels of anxiety in children under the age of 14 that regularly watch horror films, and increased chances of developing anxiety disorders later in life as well.

So why do we willingly subject ourselves to terrifying images for fun? What is so fun about being terrified?

My theory is that we enjoy the terrifying situations because it is a direct opposite to what we normally experience in regular life. Regular life can be tedious and full of routine. Horror films activate our adrenaline, and in turn they make us feel more alive.

There’s also the group effect. Studies have shown that humans connect more strongly with groups of people after they have survived stressful situations with them. This makes going to a horror film with a group of your friends a particularly unique bonding experience.

Horror movies can get a bad rap for all the negative ways they can affect the human brain, but knowing one’s triggers and using moderation renders them pretty harmless.

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