The Surprising Way Horror Movies Can Help Your Anxiety

Genevieve Burton
Nov 3, 2017 · 3 min read

The first horror movie I saw was The Woman in Black when I was in middle school, and when the tense, ominous music began, I would cover my eyes and peek through the gaps in my fingers. For weeks after watching it, I had nightmares about the spooky specters in the film. However, as much as they scared me, I loved creepy things, and continued watching horror movies until I became a little more desensitized to them. I now watch horror movies when I want to relax, and they make my anxiety lessen, because voluntarily exposing myself to fear forces me to get used to the fear response, thereby decreasing the negative response to anxiety.

Fear is a combination of physiological processes. Two branches of the body’s nervous system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, are what produce fear and relaxation responses, respectively. The 9th edition of Pinel’s textbook Biopsychology puts it in simple terms: the sympathetic nervous system’s components “stimulate, organize, and mobilize energy sources in threatening situations, whereas parasympathetic nerves act to conserve energy” (Pinel 53). When we sense danger, the sympathetic nervous system jumps into action, producing the well-known “fight-or-flight” response — our body prepares us to either fight the danger, or run away. So, when a horror movie begins to build up tension, we can anticipate that something scary is about to happen, and our heartrate speeds up, our breathing becomes shallower, and we tense up as we get ready to face the danger. After the scare, the parasympathetic nervous system works to do the opposite job of the sympathetic nervous system, so we can relax. This is because our bodies want to maintain homeostasis, the middle ground between using energy and conserving energy.

Anxiety also employs the sympathetic nervous system. Even when the individual isn’t in danger, anxiety makes the body reacts like it is, which is why panic attacks increase heartrate, change respiration, and give the vague sensation that something awful is about to happen. Like we can do with horror movies, it’s possible to desensitize ourselves to the fear. Controlled and typically voluntary exposure to stimuli that induces fear is called exposure therapy, which eventually reduces fear and anxiety.

Anxiety can be treated with medication and therapy, but even with health insurance, these can be expensive. The cost for private counseling or therapy can range from $50 to $240 for a one-hour session, and Venlafaxine, an anti-anxiety medicine, can cost $118 per month. Anxiety treatments aren’t accessible to people who can’t afford them, and this is where horror movies come in. A Netflix subscription costs only $10 per month, and at any given time, has numerous horror movies to watch. This makes movies far more cost-effective for individuals with anxiety and useful for anyone on a budget, particularly college students like myself.

Granted, watching horror movies isn’t a perfect solution to anxiety — I don’t think binge-watching the Saw franchise will magically make my anxiety disappear, nor anyone else’s. I also don’t recommend that people who hate horror movies force themselves to endure watching them on the off chance that it will help, because the movies could make them feel more anxious and paranoid than when they started. However, for those who can sit through horror movies, this could be a great way to temporarily relieve anxiety without breaking the bank. Sit down with a bag of popcorn and some friends, turn on the television, and acquaint yourself with fear, because it could help you in the long run more than you realize.


“The Challenge of Affording Anxiety Medication.” Discount Drug Network. Discount Drug Network, 16 August 2016, Web. 29 October 2017.

“How Much Does Therapy or Counseling Cost?” Informed Choices About Depression. Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Web. 29 October 2017.

Pinel, John P.J. Biopsychology. 9th ed., Pearson, 2014.

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