A recent study found that people who enjoyed horror movies experienced less psychological distress as a result of the pandemic (Scrivner et al., 2021). An earlier study found that horror movie fans tended to be higher on sensation-seeking, a trait associated with risk-taking and enjoyment of danger (Clasen et al., 2020). People who enjoy horror movies might be coping better with living through a pandemic because they have a sense of personal agency that allows them to see difficult circumstances as challenges they can overcome.
The fact that some people enjoy horror movies seems to involve a paradox: Such movies evoke disturbing emotions such as fear and anxiety, yet this genre is highly popular (Clasen et al., 2020). Although some people have thought that watching horror films may have a cathartic effect of cleansing people of negative emotions, this does not seem to be the case, as people actually tend to become more anxious, not less, after watching horror films. An alternative explanation is that horror films provide a simulated experience of threatening and dangerous situations, and in so doing provide people a chance to experience a sense of mastery over negative experiences. This is in line with a theory that fiction generally provides vicarious experiences through which people can safely simulate a wide range of life experiences that may help them prepare to deal with actual life experiences that may arise later.
Based on this simulation theory, a recent study (Scrivner et al., 2021) tested the idea that horror fans may have an advantage in coping with the emotional stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. That is, horror movies vicariously provide viewers with experiences of living in a threatening environment, and viewers might therefore be more emotionally prepared to live with the threat of infection. To test this, the authors developed a questionnaire assessing psychological resilience during the pandemic. The questionnaire asked about two dimensions of resilience: positive resilience, that is, the ability to enjoy positive experiences/emotional states during the pandemic; and psychological distress, that is, the experience of negative emotions during the pandemic, such as depression, anxiety, and trouble sleeping, where people who reported few negative emotions were considered more resilient.
Further, an online survey was conducted in which participants not only completed the psychological resilience measure, but also indicated whether and to what extent they were fans of various genres of TV shows and movies, including horror. Furthermore, they were asked questions about how physically and mentally prepared they were for the pandemic. The study found that horror fans reported significantly less psychological distress than other people, although they did not report any more or less positive resilience or pandemic preparedness than others. The authors suggested that horror films tend to focus on surviving negative events rather than finding positive experiences in them, so perhaps this was why horror fans seemed to have an advantage in coping with negative emotions but were not more likely to report positive experiences.
Another source of the connection between consumption of horror and resilience could be that horror consumption has been linked with the personality trait of sensation-seeking. Sensation-seeking is defined as “seeking of varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experience” (Roberti, 2004). A previous study found that sensation-seeking was positively associated with enjoyment of horror media, frequency of use, and preference for high-intensity horror (i.e., movies and shows that were highly frightening). At the same time, people high in sensation-seeking were less easily scared by watching horror. The authors of this study interpreted the relationship between sensation-seeking and horror consumption in terms of the threat simulation hypothesis. More specifically, they argued that a preference for high-intensity stimuli associated with sensation-seeking is a form of “benign masochism” that enables people to seek out potentially rewarding although dangerous experiences as a way to broaden their experiential repertoire. For example, this has been used to explain why some people are willing to acquire a taste for spicy and pungent foods that may be initially unpleasant to ingest but become more pleasurable with repeated exposure. Overcoming the initial pain and disgust elicited by such foods allows one to broaden one’s taste palate and enjoy the associated nutritional benefits. Similarly, consuming horror may involve having aversive experiences, but one can gain a sense of mastery over such experiences.
In addition to considering threat simulation theory, it is also worth noting that sensation-seeking has been found to have adaptive features in terms of coping with dangerous situations that may promote psychological resilience. Previous research has found that people high in sensation-seeking tend to see the world as less threatening and less likely to produce negative outcomes for them (Franken et al., 1992). This has been found to apply even to situations of extreme danger such as combat. A study of combat veterans found that those who were high in sensation-seeking showed better short- and long-term adjustment to extreme combat stress, and were less likely to report post-traumatic stress symptoms than those who were low in this trait (Neria et al., 2000). Additionally, veterans high in sensation-seeking were more likely to take risks and to engage in heroic actions in the face of danger and were therefore more likely to be decorated for bravery. Neria et al. noted that a previous study on prisoners-of-war found that those who were high in sensation-seeking were more likely to use problem-focused than emotion-focused coping and reported fewer feelings of helplessness and loss of control than those who were low in sensation-seeking.
Hence, it appears that people high in sensation-seeking tend to view risky situations as challenges that they can cope with and are confident that they will have good outcomes. In contrast, people low in sensation-seeking tend to view risks as likely to lead to bad outcomes that they are unable to cope with. Based on this, people high in sensation-seeking might enjoy the horror genre more because they feel a stronger sense of agency in the face of danger, so they can better handle the simulated threat generated by watching a horror movie. Similarly, people high in sensation-seeking may feel more confident in their ability to cope with the threat to health caused by the pandemic, and as a result experience less psychological distress in response to it.
Although sensation-seeking clearly has adaptive features, it is also associated with more willingness to take risks, even when caution is warranted, such as unsafe sex with multiple partners, drug use, excessive drinking, and dangerous driving. Hence, in future research it may be worth examining whether people high in sensation-seeking, as well as those who enjoy the horror genre, are more willing to take risks that expose them to infection during the pandemic.
© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.