I have something I must confess – I am a horror movie fanatic. You might not know it from being in session with me, but my favorite movies all consist of horror films. I have three shirts devoted to horror movies (two of which are from the 1996 film Scream), a welcome mat from the movie Trick ‘r Treat, and a collection of the TV children’s horror series Goosebumps (and all the books if I am being honest). Yes, I am a horror movie person. Now, if you are an astute reader, you might be thinking about my bio on our website, and how I mentioned I have had anxiety for most of my life (if not, go check it out – I’ll be here when you get back), and thinking, “Well no wonder you have anxiety Taylor, you have pumping your head full of anxiety producing material since you were 6!”  Here’s the thing though – I think horror movies have helped my anxiety. Sounds too good (or out-there) to be true? Maybe, but I think after reading this blog, you might feel a bit differently about horror movies.

First, some disclaimers

Before I start singing the praises of horror movies, I do want to take a moment to recognize that horror movies are not for everyone, and not all horror movies are suitable for all folks. First, if you do not like horror movies, don’t force yourself to watch them because they might help your anxiety in some way. Enjoy the content you enjoy! This article might be for those who enjoy horror movies and feel a bit guilty for watching them, or are looking to dip their toe into the horror movie world. Second, some horror movies have immensely graphic elements. These elements can be too much for most people to handle, and push you out of the anxiety comfort zone we are about to discuss. Last, but not least, even if a movie isn’t known for its graphic elements, it can have elements that are troubling especially for you. These can be reminders of past trauma or things you are just particularly sensitive to. Don’t push yourself to watch these movies either: again, that is pushing you outside of that anxiety sweet spot. To find the horror movie for you, I would recommend the website and app, “Does the Dog Die,” (https://www.doesthedogdie.com/). This website is free to use, each movie has a list of the potential triggers it may contain, spanning from a dog dying, to puking imagery and noises, to a head being squashed. Personally, I adore this website and use it all the time! Alright, enough with the disclaimers – now for the good stuff!

Understanding the Zone of Proximal Development

The basis as to why horror movies can be good for your anxiety and mental health has its roots in the concept of, “Zone of Proximal Development.” The Zone of Proximal Development was developed by Vygotsky and, surprisingly, has nothing to do with horror movies. Instead, it was developed for schools and child development. Vygotsky believed that in order for children to excel and grow in school, they had to be appropriately challenged with the appropriate support. In his work, Vygotsky discusses a sweet spot where children are asked to do something that is slightly above their level. He believed that if given too easy of a task, children have nothing to strive for and, if given too hard of a task, children will become discouraged and quit before having the chance to grow. Along with the appropriately challenging skill, adult support is key. Those adults are called, “scaffolding,” and they provide the skills to help a child achieve and move to the next level. I know – this feels like it has nothing to do with horror movies, and you are here to find a reason to get your partner to watch horror movies with you. All in good time, I promise.

Fight or Flight

The next thing which must be understood in this journey to the benefits of horror movies is what happens to our body when we watch horror movies. When we watch a scary movie, one that gives us a good fright, our body utilizes the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is an automatic response our body goes through when it senses it is in danger and is preparing us to fight or flight.  This response has served us since the beginning of time – when we saw a predator, our body had to be able to get us up and moving! When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, our pupils dilate, our heart rate increases, and our bronchi relax to allow more oxygen in. Our digestion may also slow, our salivation response may be inhibited, and the production of adrenaline increases. Even though we are in no actual danger from the scary movie, our bodies don’t recognize that, and still send us into this fight or flight response. When the horror movie is over, or the scary scene is over, our bodies begin to calm down again – our heart rates slow, our digestion system begins again, and lungs return to normal. This is the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, and it acts to slow our bodies down, and help us work to achieve equilibrium again. In short, when something startles us, the sympathetic nervous system turns on and gets us ready to run. Once the danger is over, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, and helps us return to baseline.

Horror Movies and Mental Health

Now finally the moment you are waiting for – how does this all relate to horror movies, and how does this help my mental health? To have horror movies that can benefit your mental health, we first have to find your sweet spot movie  – back to the Zone of Proximal Development! Much like in this theory, where a child needs to be appropriately challenged, you need to find a movie that appropriately challenges you! This movie should cause that fight or flight response we discussed, but not at such a level that you cannot ground yourself – somewhere between a movie you are bored through and one where you are sobbing and shaking afterwards. Now, remember what happened in the Zone of Proximal Development when the child was appropriately challenged? They grew! And that’s what can happen with the appropriate level of horror movie.

First, horror movies give our bodies a chance to practice that transition from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system. We often assume our bodies are a machine that simply knows what to do when, in all actuality, our bodies need to be trained. The more our body engages in a process, the smoother and more skilled at that process it becomes. The more you watch horror movies, and the more you practice calming down after being elevated from a scary scene, the better your body will become at it. Your body will then do this cool thing – it will generalize this calm down process to other scenarios. You might find yourself being able to calm down quicker when you are angry in traffic, or anxious leading up to a test.

Second (your counselor will love you for this), horror movies provide you a safe, risk free environment to practice your coping skills! For pretty much every client I have ever worked with, I provide homework of practicing coping skills, as it’s something we all can work on. However, sometimes you might not experience anxiety between sessions and get the chance to practice it. Other times, you do experience anxiety, however in that heightened state it is SO hard to slow down and remember to practice coping skills. Just like the body though, our brain gets better at skills the more we practice them. Therefore, you can use horror movies to raise your anxiety to a healthy level that you can then practice coping skills to help ground yourself. The more you do this, the more your brain will learn the association that when you feel anxious, this coping strategy should be engaged.

There is some anxiety horror movies can’t solve…

Horror movies can be a fun, seasonal way to practice coping skills and train our body to be more comfortable transitioning out of a state of fight or flight. However, this might not be enough. If you are experiencing consistent and excessive anxiety and worry, having consistent difficulties sleeping, or living in a constant state of panic or impending doom, seeing a professional counselor skilled in treating anxiety may be beneficial to you.

If you were to come into my office reporting concerns related to anxiety, there are a few approaches we would take. First and foremost, I want to help you reach a point where you are able to function in your day to day life. To do this, we will spend many of our early sessions learning and practicing mindfulness techniques, relaxation techniques, and emotional regulation techniques – maybe things you can practice while watching horror movies! Many of these skills that I teach come from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and focus on the ability to tolerate difficult emotions and stay regulated even when entering a stressful situation. Once we have learned and practiced these techniques, and have a firm understanding of them, we might learn how to challenge anxious thoughts. Then, we are going to dive into the messaging behind the anxious thoughts. To do this, I utilize theories like Internal Family Systems (IFS). In IFS, there is a belief that our thoughts exist to protect us and developed as adaptive coping mechanisms to difficult situations. However, as we grow, these thoughts become less adaptive, and can lead to dysfunction in our life. Together, we will explore where these anxious thoughts come from, and what purpose they serve. Then, together, we will thank these anxious thoughts for their service, and give them a chance to find a new, more adaptive role.