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Horror Movies, Anxiety and Completing the Stress Cycle

Here’s a fun bit of surprising science: Horror movies can actually help you manage your anxiety!

It’s the day before Halloween and maybe you have already watched a few spooky films this month. While this does not work for everyone — because this genre can absolutely increase anxiety for some — for others, horror movies provide an outlet for anxiety and stress that we struggle to resolve otherwise.

How? Watching a scary movie can actually help you complete what is known as the stress cycle. Stress can accumulate when we have fears about situations we cannot resolve, also known as anxiety. Because of the very nature of anxiety, it can be difficult to feel relief or a sense of resolution when we are anxious. The object of our stress, if there even is one, is sometimes unsolvable or may not have an immediate “fix” to make it go away. When this happens, we get stuck in the stress cycle. Our brains and bodies have evolved over many thousands of years to respond to direct threats or fears - but in our modern world, many of these stressors do not have the same resolution as they once did, leaving us to struggle with uncertainty, fear and anxiety.

As Shaina Weatherhead writes, “horror movies allow people to experience anxious feelings in a safe and controlled environment.” Instead of a vague or nameless stressor, a horror movie gives you a direct fear to confront. Often, as people watch horror movies, they experience somatic stress reactions just as they would if they were actually being chased by a chainsaw-wielding cannibal or a masked stalker out for revenge. Yet as you experience this, you are safe and in control. You can pause or turn off the movie at any time. This sense of control coupled with the somatic relief we experience when a villain is thwarted — or when the movie ends — helps us to complete our stress cycle, as our bodies tell our brains, Crisis averted. We can relax now.

Behavioral scientist Coltan Scrivner, who specializes in fear, explains another reason for this sense of relief. When you watch a scary movie, “…your perceived threat shifts from whatever thing you’re worrying about to whatever the character in the movie is worrying about. And then when the movie ends, the feelings of anxiety go away because the threat goes away.”

Again, watching horror movies will certainly not help everyone with managing their anxiety. If you are not averse to the horror genre and are curious to see if you feel any sense of relief after watching a scary movie, I’d recommend trying it out. And for my fellow horror aficionados, I am likely confirming what you already knew was true - that horror movies are a fun and exciting outlet for the stress of our daily lives. And if you are curious, some of my favorites are John Carpenter’s The Thing, Host [2020], The Blair Witch Project, and if you’re looking for some comedy with your horror, You’re Next. What’s your favorite scary movie?

Interested in learning more? I recommend the following:

Weatherhead’s full article Do Horror Movies Really Help With Anxiety?

Marnie Vinall’s Healthline article Can Horror Movies Negatively Impact Your Mental Health?

Happy Halloween!


Sam Barklow, LCSW, MSW, is a psychotherapist with a Master of Social Work (MSW) who provides individual and couples counseling. She is a warm and empathetic counselor who believes that all of her clients have the knowledge and abilities to feel more at peace and balanced in their daily lives. She views counseling as an opportunity for both her and clients to explore different perspectives, talk through emotions and practice new skills.

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