When COVID arrived, escapist entertainment exploded in popularity. I expected people to be watching adventure films, reading sci-fi and fantasy books, and listening to mystery podcasts. What I didn’t anticipate was a boom in horror movies.
We were suddenly facing a severe threat from an invisible pathogen. Why would we want to watch Contagion, which featured an even deadlier virus than COVID, or Host, where people in pandemic lockdown hold a séance over Zoom? Didn’t we already have enough terror in our lives?
Our choice of morbid escapism might have served a purpose. Recent research reveals that horror fans have been more resilient throughout the pandemic—they’ve felt less anxious and depressed, and experienced more meaning and hope.
Of course, it’s possible that people who already excel at managing fear are drawn to scary movies, but neuroscientists find that watching horror films activates the amygdala. Watching Get Out, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or A Quiet Place is a version of exposure therapy. You get flooded as you’re transported into a terrifying plot, and you get systematically desensitized by a series of scenes where the threat isn’t real. You get to practice your emotion regulation skills in a low-stakes situation.
The idea of deliberately seeking out unpleasant emotions traces back at least half a millennium. Back in the 16th century, there were self-help books offering a list of reasons to feel disappointed with your life. As historian Tiffany Watt Smith explains, “These self-help authors thought you could cultivate sadness as a skill, since being expert in it would make you more resilient when something bad did happen to you, as invariably it would.”
When Martin Luther King Jr. was training Black civil rights activists in nonviolent resistance, he and his colleagues designed workshops to prepare them for clashes on newly integrated buses. On a simulated bus, people had to endure actors spitting on them, pouring milk on their heads, mushing gum in their hair, squirting ketchup and mustard at them, and flicking cigarette ashes at them. It was a dress rehearsal for staying cool in the heat of the moment.
People who manage emotions professionally do this all the time. In nursing and medical schools, students practice delivering difficult news to patients. When tightrope walkers train on low ropes, they sometimes ask people to try and push them off. Along with testing their physical balance, they’re honing their emotional balance.
Many people see unpleasant emotions as aversive states to avoid. But since we can’t avoid them in everyday life, we might as well practice managing them. The best way to sharpen your skills at regulating your emotions is to do it in moments when you’re not overwhelmed by them.
Horror movies may not be your cup of tea. If you made the mistake of seeing The Ring live in the theater, you probably didn’t sleep well that night. Still, it’s possible that microdosing fear and anxiety in harmless situations can help you build up resistance to the real thing.