From the assortment of indie films like “Gretel & Hansel” to mainstream hits like “It” generating over 700 million at the box office, horror movies have become a staple of entertainment in society . The experience of walking into a dimly lit theater with an oversized bag of popcorn only to leave two hours later, thoroughly frightened, has become commonplace. However, a horror movie’s impact extends beyond the theater, enduring inside the mind for years after the experience. It lives on deep within the brain as fundamental modifications in neural structure. And, new research reveals that these modifications may have helped prepare horror film enthusiasts for the current pandemic.
Graduate student Coltan Scrivner, studying human development and biology at the University of Chicago, worked alongside three research psychologists to determine the relationship between movie-watching trends and response to the pandemic. Three hundred twenty-two participants were asked to rate themselves as fans of various film genres and quantitatively evaluate their behavior and mental state over the COVID-19 pandemic . After passing the survey results through a formula and controlling for personality differences, the researchers found a strong positive correlation between the number of horror movies a participant recently watched and their resilience/preparedness during the pandemic. Furthermore, between the two most extreme groups of participants—those that watched no horror movies and those that watched many—the results indicated over a 10% average difference in preparedness for the pandemic .
An explanation for such variation lies in the desensitization effect of horror movies. Repeated exposure to the fear-inducing images of horror movies dampens emotional reactivity, resulting in lower-than-normal anxiety levels . At the biological level, this process is facilitated by the neuroplasticity of brains—the fear induced by horror movies presents itself as strengthened neural connections in the amygdala, the emotion-processing center of the brain. More time spent watching horror movies stimulates the amygdala with more fear, improving the efficiency of fear processing, which produces emotion-centers that are far less sensitive to fear stimuli . Capitalizing on this process, Dr. Terence M. Keane developed exposure therapy for veterans suffering from PTSD to desensitize triggering stimuli, and it was found to have significant success in over 77,300 veterans . It’s not hard to imagine, then, that for an amygdala bombarded by the apocalyptic nature of movies like “World War Z,” “Containment” and “A Quiet Place,” the current pandemic fails to trigger an intense reaction of anxiety or fear. This lack of strong negative emotion allows for logical thinking to prevail in handling the pandemic, evidencing the elevated preparedness of horror movie enthusiasts.
But, it’s not just horror movies that stimulate and strengthen the emotion-processing center of the brain. Everything from reading thrilling novels to skydiving has the potential to induce fear and anxiety, so do they all have the same effect? Penn State psychology professor John Johnson explains that they do, describing “simulated realities” in the form of books, movies and even video games as a form of “mental rehearsal… help[ing] prepare us for future challenges” . Every experience, no matter how insignificant, creates an impression on the mind. As similar impressions are created, our minds progressively become used to the experience and adapt. Adaptations are not necessarily beneficial, though: having built up a tolerance by adapting to the effects of alcohol, a frequent drinker will be at greater risk for liver damage as they require more alcohol for the same effect. Instead, adaptations serve only to desensitize future perception and, in turn, modify future behavior. So, although binging the entire “Conjuring” franchise now would be too late in preparing for the current pandemic, it may be the key to overcoming the next obstacle you face.
Edited by: Ricky Illindala
Illustrated by: Hannah Davis