Horror movies: cathartic through the gore?

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by Paul Hyatt, Feature Editor

With eerie moonlight leaking through the blinds of ten-year-old Paul’s living room, I had two things to cure my boredom: the TV remote and no adult supervision. 

It didn’t take me long to stumble upon a movie title that I had heard before, but only in hushed whispers by my father with a clear tone of, “Don’t ask. Curiosity got the best of me. I started watching “The Exorcist.”  

With horrified curiosity, I made it to the part where Linda Blair did her best owl impersonation, and immediately turned the television off. I proceeded to have nightmares for a week. 

When I finally admitted to my mother what I had watched, she gave me a harsh speech about how horror movies are filth and shouldn’t be watched. For a while, that was that, yet I continued to have scattered nightmares about a demon-possessed girl with a spinning head. 

When I was a couple of years older, I stumbled upon the movie again. I watched it, and this time, made it to the end. After my heart had settled to a steady thud and my jaw unclenched itself, I felt something very different than horror: catharsis. I had made it through, something that had seemed so impossible and frightening for ten-year-old me, and that feeling was exhilarating.  

Proud of myself, I continued to explore various horror movies. This caused me to learn my first valuable lesson about anxiety and fear, something that I had been dealing with untreated for as long as I could remember. That lesson being, no matter how frightening the movie seemed and how many times I wanted to look away from the grotesque and gory images that splashed the screen, my anxiety and fear would always come down. 

I began to apply this to other aspects of my life. No matter how high my anxiety reached I knew that, just like the horror movies, my anxiety would eventually come back down and I would be fine. While it did not always keep me calm in panic attack situations, it always came true, my anxiety always lowered and I survived.  

Of course, I am not the only one who has experienced this phenomenon. Horror movies have been known to give people a way of learning and studying their own fear responses. This allows those people to better manage their emotions when they are in a situation of true fear, rather than simulated fear.  

While horror movies are in no way a go-to tool that you will find therapists using, they can act very similar to exposure therapy, a useful therapy for those with debilitating phobias and anxiety. The effect is simple — the more a person is exposed to a stimulus that makes them afraid and anxious, the less power that fear will have over them until that power is completely taken away.  

A recent study of more than 300 individuals concluded that those who regularly watch horror movies are better prepared to handle the stressful months of the COVID-19 pandemic than those who don’t. 

Again, I am not trying to tell you that horror movies are a healthy way of self-treating any mental illness. However, instead of viewing them as trashy movies only to be viewed by the depraved, I recommend giving them a chance. You might be surprised by the results.