Why People Are Drawn to Horror Movies During the Pandemic
Fictional fear can be oddly comforting—and instructional.
Posted Mar 06, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- Many people have gravitated toward horror movies during the pandemic.
- Research suggests that people who watch horror movies feel more prepared and less anxious about the pandemic. They may also be more resilient.
- Horror movies may allow people to process difficult emotions in a safe environment. They may be more prepared to navigate the real world as a result.
In the Spring of 2020, when the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold, many people turned to what might seem on its face to be a surprising activity: watching horror movies. Contagion, a 2011 film about a deadly virus sweeping the globe, became one of the most watched films in the U.S.
As the pandemic has unfolded over the past year, it has played out more and more like a horror movie in real life, adhering to a tee to the genre’s favorite tropes: a claustrophobic setting, a “monster” hidden in plain sight, a race against time to save lives, and a false sense of victory followed by the threat surging right back. Some have compared the vaccine rollout to the dystopian series The Hunger Games, as demand far outpaces supply. For many people, the horror of the pandemic has hit close to home and produced immeasurable losses.
So why do fictionalized accounts of horror seem to draw people in more than ever? Haven’t we had enough of it?
3 Reasons Why People Choose Horror Movies
One group of researchers recently set out to answer this question. In a survey of 310 U.S. adults, they measured participants’ viewing habits, personality traits, and a range of psychological outcomes. Their results showed that while watching scary movies might be unnerving in the moment, it may also have unexpected benefits.
First, they found that fans of horror movies reported feeling lower fear and anxiety related to the pandemic, and that those with an interest in pandemic-related films in particular reported greater resilience—they were better able to find meaning and enjoyment in life despite what was going on around them, and to take the daily onslaughts of bad news in stride.
According to the researchers, experiencing fear and other negative emotions during a movie allows people to cope with these emotions in a controlled and safe environment. Compared to avoiding or suppressing difficult feelings, having space to work through them can help loosen their grip. And although horror movies don’t always have happy endings in the traditional sense, it can be reassuring when the good guys prevail and a sense of order is restored.
The second main finding was that people who watch more pandemic-related films, or anything involving apocalyptic situations, reported feeling more prepared for the pandemic, both mentally and physically (presumably they were the ones who knew to stock up on toilet paper at the first signs of panic buying). Even when a fictional situation is implausible in reality—like a zombie takeover—viewers can extract lessons about human behavior in times of crisis. They learn not to take anything for granted, from full shelves at the grocery store to the normal operation of the institutions they rely on.
Looking at personality traits, the researchers found that morbid curiosity—a desire to learn about dangerous or threatening things, common among horror fans—was also associated with greater resilience, perhaps because it made the pandemic fascinating in some sense, despite the horror of it. “So this is what it’s like to live through a pandemic,” a morbidly curious person might think. It’s not that this is a good feeling, but it might provide some distance and perspective that could otherwise be hard to access when immersed in everyday stress.
In addition to helping people manage emotions, providing information, and indulging curiosity, watching scary movies might serve another important function: making us feel less alone. The physical isolation of the pandemic can magnify personal struggles, especially when social media provides the sense that others are coasting along effortlessly. Horror stories don’t shy away from the dark sides of the human condition and the vulnerability we all experience. Our specific horrors may vary, but when we face them together, they become easier to bear.
Scrivner, C., Johnson, J. A., Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, J., & Clasen, M. (2020). Pandemic practice: Horror fans and morbidly curious individuals are more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic. Personality and Individual Differences, 168, 110397.