Happy Halloween!! I for one love Halloween, ever since I was a child; dressing up, trick-or-treating, chocolate covered apples and barmbrack. I also loved the excitement of scary movies, sitting around the TV with family and friends, wondering who’d jump first, but going to bed alone was never easy.
Although scary movies can entertain us, bring us together and cause bursts of laughter when your friends jump and scream, they also keep us up at night, terrify us and instil a certain anxiety and uneasiness. Basically, they can stress us out, but why do we love them so much?
I decided to look into the actual effects of scary movies on our brains, our minds and our bodies. Dare you to find out! Some things might surprise you.
Scary movies can actually burn calories
In a 2012 study, researchers from the University of Westminster in the UK got 10 people to watch 10 different scary movies, as they monitored heart rates, oxygen intake and carbon dioxide output. The 1980’s movie “The Shining” burned most calories of all, with one person losing 184 calories from jumping and screaming during the movie, the number of calories burned after a 40-minute long walk. The “Exorcist” and “Jaws” came in at second place.
The author of the study; Richard Mackenzie says that a stressful stimulus like a horror movie causes the body to release adrenaline which triggers our flight-or-fight response. Our body starts to draw calories from its energy reserves to prepare to run or fight the perceived threat, so we burn calories!
Scary movies can put you in a good mood Shocker!
Margee Kerr, sociologist, fear expert and author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear says that things that scare us can uplift our mood. Her research has discovered that following a scary experience, people feel more relaxed and happier. However, her research only included subjects who wanted to take part in a scary experience, so results could prove to be very different for those who don’t want to be scared.
An associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, Greg J. Siegle tracked physiological responses to a haunted house and found that 90% of those who participated loved the experience. People were able to shut down their thoughts about the outside world and their worries to be fully present, even up to an hour after. In other words, the scary experience caused people to let go of their worries to be engaged and present, much like a mind that meditates. Still, it wouldn’t convince me to enter a haunted house under any circumstances. I’d rather stick to my yoga.
Clinical psychologist Steve Orma says that “fear makes us feel alive and know we are stepping outside our comfort zones”. Watching scary movies is exciting, and can help those with depression, because it releases adrenaline, increasing excitement and giving us more energy. It’s like a roller coaster ride, you stop thinking about what’s worrying you when fear and adrenaline kicks in.
Scary movies cause “good stress”
Isn’t all stress bad you might say?! Having stress over a prolonged period of time causes everything from high blood pressure to heart attacks, short periods of brief stress can actually improve the immune system, according to Firdus Dhabhar, professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences in Miami. So it’s a sort of good stress.
Scary movies can bring people closer together
This is why people on dates like to watch scary movies together. It’s an excuse to be closer to the other person. When we’re scared, our bodies release oxytocin, which encourages people to become closer to other people. Our survival instinct tells us that we have to pair with another person or other people to increase our chances of survival.
Scary movies can help you to overcome your fears
What scares you? Heights? Spiders? “The Haunting of Hill House”? Deliberately facing something that you fear can help you to overcome that fear. It’s called exposure therapy, something regularly used by psychologists. So if you have a fear of social settings or cramped spaces, engaging in those situations can help you to take control of the thing that terrifies you.
Doctor Siegle argues that horror movies can also help people with PTSD, anxiety disorders and social phobia to own their feelings of fear and face them while knowing they are in a safe environment. Although facing our fears can be stressful, we often feel better having confronted them.
What about negative side effects?
Watching a horror film does increase the heart rate and blood pressure, so a scary movie at night might not be the best idea for the faint-hearted. The heart rate of young people watching a horror film increased by 14 beats per minute. Horror movies also make us sweat a lot and cause our muscles to tense, but if you don’t mind that, then it’s ok to give yourself a good spook every once in a while.
Scary movies and mental health
One controversial thing that comes to mind when looking at certain horror movies is their portrayal of mental illness. US psychologist Dr Danny Wedding sees several problems with movies like “Psycho” that confuses the relationship between schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. Michael Myers from “Halloween” depicts a patient with mental illness escaping hospital to go on a killing spree, while “A Nightmare on Elm Street” reinforces the misconception that people who leave psychiatrist hospitals are crazy, evil and dangerous.
Or take the new “Joker” blockbuster starring Joaquin Phoenix, which cleverly portrays the influence that society and a person’s environment has on an individual’s mental health. While it sadly portrays the stereotype surrounding people with mental health, we must remember that not all those diagnosed with a mental illness will go on to become mass murderers.
Scary movies and nightmares
If you’re someone who has trouble sleeping, watching scary movies too late at night isn’t advisable. Fear creates physiological arousal, which keeps your mind awake and alert, not an ideal state to be in if you’re trying to nod off to sleep.
However, other than increasing your heart rate, making you sweat and some possible sleeping difficulties, there seems to be a lot of health benefits to actually watching a scary movie and getting a little spooked out! Just remember to differentiate what you see on the big screen with real life and don’t assume that all bad guys are those who have a mental illness.
It seems that scary movies can boost our mood, even our immune system and bring us closer to other people. Doctor Steve Orma says that fear is good for us, “it’s an emotion that’s part of our biology” and “it serves a purpose that’s crucial to our ability to survive”.