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Into the Dark: What is the physical and mental impact of binge-watching horror movies?

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Oct 22, 2018

Now that we are late into October, many of you are midway through a month-long horror binge. Even if 31 days of fright aren't your personal cup of tea, it's likely you're consuming more horror media this month than is typical. According to a recent survey of more than 16,000 people, by Branded Research, 51 percent of U.S. consumers are watching horror media this month. That number is higher among viewers aged 22 to 50.

Coupled with the rise of habitual binge-watching that came along with streaming services, many of us are consuming a lot of horror media right now, more than would have been possible or practical even a decade ago.

So what happens to the body and the mind when we're exposed to graphic imagery and shocking situations? And can it possibly be good for us?

With services like Netflix and Hulu creating their own original content, much of which comes out all at once, it isn't unusual for viewers to consume weeks worth of content in one or two sittings. And then websites like SYFY WIRE also ask people to watch 10 Halloween movies in a row, because we are sick.

All of that TV time, it turns out, has the potential to have severely negative consequences for your sleep patterns. One study carried out by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Leuven in Belgium found a common practice of binge-watching during nighttime hours. Of the participants in the study, more than 80 percent self-identified as binge-watchers and a significant portion experienced difficulty sleeping associated with their watching habits.

While watching a favorite show might feel like a good way to relax after a long day at work, the glow of the screen and the excitement of the content keeps you engaged and awake, rather than relaxed.

SYFY WIRE spoke with Chris Brantner, founder of StreamingObserver.com and certified Sleep Coach, about this issue. "Binge-watching shows strong links to sleep disruption," he told us in an email. "In general, staring at devices at night, especially in a dark room, can inhibit melatonin production, making it more difficult to fall asleep. Not only that, binge-watching can lead to heightened activity in the brain, excitement, and even anxiety, especially with a show that leaves you on a cliffhanger. Furthermore, series' are designed to keep us wanting more, making it likely that you'll forego sleep to get in just one more episode."

Television is intentionally built this way. It's the digital entertainment equivalent of salty potato chips. Once you pop…

Binge watching television has the effect of pushing your bedtime beyond what you'd planned for, adding to sleep debt and leaving you tired in the morning. Not that it will stop you from picking up with the next episode of The Haunting of Hill House the next night.

Aside from a restless night, sleep deprivation can have myriad effects on your waking life, impacting your mood, decreasing reaction times, and interrupting your ability to think clearly.

What's more, according to research from the University of Toledo's Department of Health and Recreation, binge-watching can have effects counter to our desires. Rather than relaxing and winding us down, binge-watching was correlated to increased instances of anxiety and depression. The study found that those who watched two hours or more of television per night, were more depressed than those with shorter viewing durations. Those viewers with the most need of a little digital detox might be doing themselves a disservice by choosing a screen over some other activity.

Horror, specifically, engages your brain and body in ways other forms of media don't. Researchers at the University of Westminster in the UK had study participants watch horror movies and monitored their heart rate, oxygen intake, and carbon dioxide output.

Richard Mackenzie, author of the study told Time that "a stressful stimulus, in this case a scary movie, causes the release of the hormone adrenaline, which cranks up the nervous system's flight or fight response."

Considering the effects of binge-watching on sleep patterns, a surge of adrenaline can only exacerbate the problem. But it isn't all bad, engaging in these sorts of responses can have positive effects on both the body and the mind, so long as you're conscious about your viewing habits.

Exposing yourself to horror media can give you a jolt which results in increased burning of calories and, according to some research, offers an afterglow effect that increases your ability to experience emotions after the movie is over.

This is called the Excitation Transfer Process and, according to Glenn Sparks, professor and associate head of the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, the increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration that comes along with watching horror may have an interesting side effect. These feelings of psychological excitation can linger once the credits roll, whether you're aware of it or not. Your mind remains in a state of arousal such that subsequent experiences are more deeply felt.

Viewers just leaving a horror film may retain fonder memories of time spent with friends than they would have had they seen a movie from another genre, rather than any negative feelings associated with the film itself. Though, if the intervening experiences are negative, those are also more deeply felt.

Plan your horror excursions accordingly.

"Physiologically, our brains are not that skilled at distinguishing the difference between fantasy and reality," says Dr. Allison Forti, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University. "So when we watch horror films our brains, even though we're watching it for fun, could interpret it as a potential threat. It has the potential to activate a fear response or an anxiety response. People may experience, while watching these movies, an increase in their sweat, in their heart rate, in feelings of anxiety. They may have tight muscles. This is the brain's way of saying it sees something dangerous.

"If you watch a lot of horror movies, you can become desensitized to fear and anxiety," she adds. "The more you watch these movies you may have less of a fear or anxiety response. People are at risk of becoming desensitized in a negative way, losing their ability to connect with other people, losing their empathy, making it harder to feel compassion for other events in life."

Dr. Forti went on to say that the impact of consuming horror is dependent on the personality type of the person involved.

"People who are drawn to horror movies tend to have lower levels of baseline anxiety than other people and they may have a personality sub-type that is more inclined toward sensation seeking," she says. "They may have hypo-activation in parts of the brain which means it takes something like a horror movie to get the the thrill they're looking for. I do think people are drawn to these sorts of movies for a sense of coping, for a lack of control in their lives, especially in today's political and social structure. Watching a horror movie that channels any type of aggression can be a way to project some of that or dissipate some of that anger."

Moreover, some people seem to paradoxically find emotional comfort in horror movies. Media of any kind can serve as a temporary reprieve from anxiety, real or imagined, and horror movies can allow us to take abstract feelings and give them an identity, one we can punch.

If you're one of the millions of people who suffer from an anxiety disorder, you may not be able to identify the cause of your mental discomfort and watching horror puts a face on an otherwise intangible feeling.

S.A. Bradley, host of the podcast Hellbent for Horror and author of the upcoming book Screaming for Pleasure: How Horror Makes you Happy and Healthy, outlined the ways horror can be good for the body and the mind.

"Things that work on a visceral level, like music, are doing things for us that we don't even know they're doing," Bradley said. "I could go to a psychiatrist and he may ask what's wrong with me and I may not know, we can't articulate what kinds of tension we're having all the time. So we go to concerts, we listen to loud music, we try to alter our feelings, our emotions. I think horror allows us to do the same thing. We're altering how we feel to get to a different place. People aren't afraid of zombies but they may be afraid of an apocalypse of some kind and horror lets you release that."

There may also be something innately pleasurable in feeling fear, according to a 2007 study from the University of Chicago. The study found that some people simply enjoy being scared when that fear is framed within a protected space like those that fiction offers. The study's authors stated that sufficient psychological detachment resulted in positive feelings in tandem with fearfulness. In short, some people simply enjoy being scared, so long as it was in a protected setting.

"We love to feel a sense of control about [fear] and that's why we love horror," Bradley said. "Because the world is kind of crazy. With horror, you can turn it off at any given time. You can get up and walk away or you can take a look at it. Horror is a stand-in Boogeyman for the things we can't control. Horror is a pressure cooker that relieves the tension."

What we find when looking at the various ways exposure to horror media can impact individuals is as varied a spectrum as you might expect when dealing with the minds of more than seven billion people.

Some people can watch horror without any measurable ill effects while others fall into a rapid state of anxiety. Some people derive intense pleasure from horror while others hyperventilate before the end of the opening sequence.

Even for those who enjoy a good scare, there can be too much of a terrifying thing. Despite S.A. Bradley's penchant for all things spooky, he did have a warning for viewers during the Halloween season, "The words binge and healthy don't go well together for anything. Whether you're eating or drinking or bowling. It's an indulgence, a temporary indulgence. You don't binge forever, it's not a diet plan."

What's important is to be aware of your own threshold and the way exposure to horror, or any kind of media, may be impacting you and to take appropriate measure to mediate any ill effects.

"Any media, even horror media, can be a really nice way to have an escape or live in a fantasy world for a while, or to relax from every-day stressors," Forti noted. "If it's not monitored it can also be a way to increase isolation and disconnection from people. The first thing people need to do is become aware of their habits related to consumption of any media and be mindful of how they feel. If they answer is they feel extra anxious, or lethargic, or aggressive, set some strict boundaries and focus on wellness activities like fresh air, exercise, and getting enough sleep."

All things considered, feel free to enjoy the creepy and macabre. Even indulge a little during the horror holiday season, as long as you're aware of your own limits and take care to reconnect with reality every now and again. Scare responsibly and Happy Halloween!


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