Horror Fans Cope Better with the Pandemic, Study Finds

People who watch horror movies show fewer symptoms of psychological distress.

Posted Sep 30, 2020

Thinking of popping on a horror flick to get into the Halloween spirit as October draws near? If watching scary movies or reading scary books is something you do regularly, a recent study from the University of Chicago suggests that you’re probably coping better with this year’s pandemic than the average person.

The study was conducted in April, when there was still a great deal of uncertainty about the disease and what the future had in store. Researchers recruited 322 subjects and questioned them about their media preferences: Did they consider themselves horror fans? Romance fans? Comedy fans? 

To assess their emotional and psychological state during the pandemic, subjects were then asked how much they agreed with statements like these:

  • “I am more irritable than usual.”
  • “I haven't been sleeping well since the pandemic started.”
  • “I have been taking the news about the pandemic in stride.”
  • “I believe in my ability to get through these difficult times.”

The results showed that horror fans were significantly less psychologically distressed than people who preferred other genres, even when researchers controlled for individual differences like sex, age, personality, and general enjoyment of films and TV shows.

 Freestock
A woman in black sits on the ground surrounded by pumpkins and candles, holding an animal skull in her hands.
Source: Freestock

“People who were horror fans…were experiencing fewer symptoms of anxiety or depression or sleeplessness,” explained Coltan Scrivner, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago and the study’s lead author. 

There are a few theories about why some people enjoy a good scare and what it is about watching horror that might prepare them to manage a stressful situation.

One possible explanation for horror’s appeal is benign masochism, also referred to as hedonic reversal. This theory holds that when we know we’re safe we can enjoy feelings that would otherwise seem negative. Pain, fear, exhaustion, bitter tastes — although we normally avoid these experiences, the physical sensations they create, like a racing heartbeat, chills, and lightheadedness, can be pleasurable when we’re confident we’re in no real danger.

Emre Kuzu/Pexels
An imposing silhouette stands at the end of a dirty, abandoned train carriage.
Source: Emre Kuzu/Pexels

Another possibility, called the ordeal simulation hypothesis, is that we enjoy frightening fiction because it allows us to imagine high-stakes scenarios and prepare ourselves for how we might handle similar situations in real life.

Now that we find ourselves in the middle of a global disease outbreak, these skills are coming in handy.

“If you do watch a lot of these scary movies or read scary books, you are learning how to overcome feelings of fear and feelings of anxiety, and that might translate into real-world situations like the uncertainty that comes with the pandemic,” Scrivner says.

Because horror fans are used to intentionally subjecting themselves to scary imagery, they’ve had lots of practice at regulating their negative emotions, and they’re able to face down this frightening situation with fewer ill effects.