Screams and Giggles to Beat the Pandemic

Laughter and gasps may help us deal with COVID-19.

Posted Jul 16, 2020

What can you say about a movie where they kill Gwyneth Paltrow in the first few minutes? That’s Contagion, the 2010 movie from Steven Soderbergh that shows, among other things, that we knew exactly how a pandemic would unfold 10 years before the real thing hit. Sadly, it seems some of our leaders skipped the screening. But for the rest of us, that scary movie may have toughened us for the real deal. Can frights really make you more resistant to a pandemic?

The screams

A new study shows that gorehounds may be better prepared for nasty things like the coronavirus pandemic. Like many of the COVID-19 studies today, this one has yet to be peer-reviewed. (In this juiced-up environment, science writers like me are forced to stick a wet finger in the wind to judge the veracity of unreviewed research. It’s a poor indicator; caveat emptor.)

The study looked at 310 people and found that those who were fans of horror, apocalyptic, zombie, or alien-invasion films showed greater resilience to the pandemic. The pandemic can seem unreal to modern humans but raging disease has been a constant in the world for as long as we’ve had viruses. In other words, for as long as life has existed. Nothing is safe; even bacteria get viral infections.

Ironically, much of our discomfort today is actually due to our success in treating epidemics. We have wiped out smallpox and severely limited polio, measles, and many other terrifying diseases. We rarely run from lions, tigers, and bears anymore. We make plush toys of them for children. Basically, compared to our loinclothed past, we have it pretty good.

Perhaps that’s why we ride rollercoasters and attend scary movies in the dark. It’s a jolting reminder of the real life-threatening dangers we left in our prescientific past. With the lions in a zoo, life is calmer. But instead of killer predators, we now endure the incessant low-level stress of a crappy boss. We weren’t really built for the continuous stress of a crappy boss.

Stress causes the release of cortisol, which readies the body for the fight or flight response. It’s unwise to fight your boss, and running away can get you fired, so this is an unfortunate evolutionary hangover. Cortisol puts your immune system on the back burner: the sensible idea is to run from the lion first, then deal with the flu. But that means over time that your gut may let pathogens take hold, which can lead to inflammation, which can affect every organ in your body. Among those organs is your brain, which responds to inflammation with anxiety and depression.

The authors of the study posit that horror movies may be a kind of useful simulation, training us to deal with apocalyptic situations. They speculate that a horror movie allows you to get terrified in a safe setting. That gives you a chance to reflect on your reaction. I think they’re saying it teaches you to be cool when the zombies actually attack. (From what I’ve learned, go for the head.)

So should you start streaming chillers? Well, maybe not if you value untroubled sleep. Horror movies can be rough, especially with today’s CGI perfection of gore. And if you don’t have someone nearby to clutch in terror, you might want to pass. But the study found one other thing. The people who liked horror also seemed better prepared for a social disruption than their more squeamish counterparts. Whether a bit of extra preparedness is worth a few nightmares is your pick. Personally, I think I’ve seen all the zombie movies I need to see.

Still, Contagion is a good movie that is eerily prescient. The screenwriter did his homework and asked scientists how it would go down. They nailed it. If only our politicians could do the same. Which brings us to humor.

The giggles

Humor is another way to fight back against the pandemic. As odd as it seems, with loved ones getting sick and dying around us, a sense of humor can provide real resilience. Humor, boiled to its essence, is a time-honored way to cope with fears and worries. We need laughs, we need comedians. This isn’t new. After the Great Depression and World War II, Hollywood pumped out significantly more comedies than it did prewar. It must have improved the mood; it spawned the baby boomers, the Godzilla of generations.

They say laughter is contagious, as if that’s a good thing. Fortunately, it’s also considered to be the best medicine, so take that, penicillin. Laughter can relax your muscles, shedding tension. It also decreases cortisol and reinvigorates the immune system.

A study by Dr. Robin Dunbar and his colleagues at Oxford determined that laughter was associated with an elevated pain threshold. Feel-good movies and documentaries didn’t do the trick: laugh-out-loud movies were the ticket. They theorize that hearty laughter increases endorphins, making you feel better. However, endorphins make you want to party, which is tricky today. Worse yet, people rarely laugh out loud when alone.

That could be a serious issue in these days of quarantine, but technology has come to the rescue. Today, those in the know are hosting “Netflix parties” where people gather virtually to watch movies while video chatting with friends. The social part is important. Dunbar likens laughing to grooming at a distance, a perfect simile for our times. That also implies that laughter and fright-fests can survive our social distancing, as long as we can connect online to share.

So what’s the take-away here? Perhaps it’s time to schedule a Netflix Party for some funny horror flicks like Shaun of the Dead or Scary Movie? We can gasp and guffaw at the same time. Send me the link, I’ll pop the corn.