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The Healing Power of Horror

Researchers from Denmark’s Aarhus University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Chicago have released a preliminary study which indicates that fans of horror have demonstrated greater psychological resilience during the coronavirus pandemic than the general public. (A major caveat is that this study hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet.) While correlation is not causation, these findings are interesting and remind me of research that has been conducted regarding chronic pain and exposure to very spicy food, which, as it turns out, can help increase your body’s resilience when it comes to physical distress. Could the same principle apply to the “safe” psychological stress produced by horror?

It’s entirely possible that the correlation/causation relationship here is the other way around, of course. It could be that those who are psychologically more resilient are automatically drawn to horror, not that exposure to scares insulates one from the terrors of reality. But additional preliminary research suggests that there may be therapeutic value in survival horror video games, and other research has demonstrated that horror movies can reduce anxiety for some individuals. All in all, the science thus far points to horror fiction as a way to help humans cope with real-life trauma. The stories that we tell – to ourselves, to one another – matter. They provide us with frames of reference that lend (perhaps illusory but no less reassuring) structure to the chaos of life.

Why would horror – which is, by its very nature, intended to provoke fear, dread, anxiety, and disquietude – have exactly the opposite effect on us in a larger sense? The exact mechanism of horror’s healing power remains murky and mysterious (as much in psychology does and probably always will). If I had to guess, however, I’d wager that it’s not dissimilar to the relationship I mentioned earlier between spicy food and pain tolerance. Repeated exposure to the controlled (and delicious!) pain of zesty cuisine inures one to some discomfort and teaches one how to “power through” signals from one’s nerve endings. Exposure to frightening scenarios in horror does not traumatize us the way that real-life horror does because, like spice, it is controlled, and, like our food example, paired with something pleasurable – in this case, a compelling story.

Horror, like high-spice food, should never be used to harm, either one’s self or others. It is almost certain that the therapeutic value of exposure to either stimulus will vary widely from person to person. I have an aunt who can barely stand the spice level of black pepper, let alone hot peppers; it would be cruel of me to force her to eat something that was extremely painful for her. Likewise, I have friends who despise horror and find even controlled scares too stressful to be worthwhile or rewarding. I would similarly never play the malign trick of unwelcome scares on these friends. Would I encourage my aunt to explore the world of spice, or my non-horror friends to check out some mild, possibly-PG-13 scares? I certainly would, but I wouldn’t push the issue. Not every pleasure is for everyone, and not every therapy helps everyone equally.

With those caveats, however, it’s encouraging to see that there is research being conducted in this field. Plague, social unrest, political corruption and an increasingly fractured international environment – 2020 has proven that reality can be more stressful than even the most intense horror movie, and we can all use more and better tools to help us cope. If psychologists develop therapeutic techniques that center around horror, that’s one more weapon in our arsenal, one more human tool that can be used to deal with the chaos and darkness of life in a healthy, productive – and, some would even argue, fun – way.

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