To calm our nerves after a long day, some of us turn on a television show to make us laugh. But as performer Lady Gaga recently pointed out, for some of us, the most calming activity we can do is watch a horror movie designed to frighten us. In a video with Vogue, she shared that she watches horror movies to relax.
This sounds counterintuitive to me, a lifelong scaredy cat. When I recently watched the 1978 film “Halloween,” even the scenes where Jamie Lee Curtis is not actively hiding from a deranged man had my heart racing. I finished the movie feeling unsettled and wanting to check the rooms in my apartment for strangers. But for people like Lady Gaga, these films can be soothing. Here’s the psychology behind why:
How horror on screens can relax us
When you are dealing with anxiety, it helps to remember that there are worlds outside of your own anxious brain, even if these worlds are fictional.
Psychologists say horror films can provide a perspective into another world where anxiety happens under known formats. “For some anxious people, escaping into a compelling story is a way to better manage real-life anxiety. Whether they use the content as a distraction or as a way to gain ideas about mastery, these viewers purposefully seek out anxiety-provoking content,” Dr. Janet Scarborough Civitelli, who holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology, said. Horror films filled with terrifying monsters can provide a structured environment for viewers to confront personal fears.
For horror fans, it can also be a way to release pent-up feelings in a controlled environment. In one Reddit thread on the subject, a horror film fan shared that it can be a way to put their own problems in perspective. “There is something relaxing about forgetting your own daily fears and being fully emerged in other people’s fears and horrors,” the redditor wrote. “Seeing someone stalked by a psycho killer makes your daily fears seem doable. It also is exhausting for your body to be so heightened and on edge for a long time so it wouldn’t surprise me that you would be exhausted afterwords.”
Mathias Clasen, a researcher who has studied the biological effects of horror films, told Broadly that we can find pleasure in knowing that a movie’s anxiety is controllable. “Exposure to horror films can be gratifying when the negative emotions caused by the film are manageable,” Clasen explained. “Moreover, there’s psychological distance when we watch a horror film. We know it’s not real—or at least, some parts of our brain know it isn’t real.”
Your day may have been awful, but hey, at least, you are not running for your life from a bloodthirsty monster. Once you see someone living out a worst-case scenario, it can help you better understand how you can survive through your own.