Why psychological horror movies can help soothe anxiety and increase mental health

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Oct 17, 2017, 3:00 PM EDT

A study released by WHO earlier this year revealed that over 250 million people in the world suffer from a range of anxiety disorders, with the United States and India dealing most heavily with anxiety and depression.

I have had anxiety since I was five years old; at the time, I was too small to comprehend what that meant, and still cannot understand the stratagems my anxious mind plays with me. My anxiety was severe since I was in second grade, and I remember trembling head to toe every time the teacher would call out my name. I used to play outdoor games and indulged in activities that in some way included a sense of fear, thrills, and suspense. We would tell each other ghost stories, play games like Hide and Seek and its more extreme variation, Cop and Murderer.

Growing up, I began binge-watching movies. Over time, I gravitated toward psychological horror movies, in which I found not only thrills but also solace. The suspense that these movies create has my mind working with the characters through every scene.

I found myself binge-watching these psychological horror movies all day and night, and it's become my favorite genre. But when I wanted to talk about these movies with other people, either they were not interested or watched the particular movie in question and found it boring. I couldn't figure out why I was the only person who found these movies so compelling. It struck my mind that my anxiety could be the reason, as I was depressed and my anxiety was at its peak. I have anxiety disorder, and I can now recognize that when it is out of control, these movies are my way out.

This realization startled me and made me wonder whether I was the only one who had this coping mechanism. After speaking to some friends and doctors, I realized that I am very much not alone.


Jessica, 31, was diagnosed at the age of 21 as type 1 bipolar, though she's been dealing with anxiety since she was about 11. "I actively sought out watching psychological horror films to help with depression and anxiety,"  she told me. Her anxiety comes in waves, and psychological horror movies are at their most comforting when her anxiety is at its peak.

"It's sort of like having a friend who never gets overwhelmed by your depression and anxiety because it's going though the same thing too," she said. "That makes you feel a little less alone." She relates to these characters going through a similar experience and enjoys watching someone survival a brutal encounter. "You did a thing, you didn't die, well done! Let watch another one," she said.

Another friend of mine, Caroline, a writer from Georgia, also observed this case. She has had anxiety since she was in fourth grade, and has also gotten into spine-chilling psychological movies and media in the last few years. She is a pretty avid Walking Dead fan, and these movies and TV shows bring a sense of comfort and give her something other than her own problems. True crime podcasts help her sleep.

"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," said Dr. Janet Scarborough Civitelli, who holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology and M.Ed. in Counsellor Education from the University of Texas at Austin.


I was watching Triangle and could relate to the protagonist from the start, which was weird and amazing at the same time. The tired look on her face was more than just a sign of physical weakness, and maybe I could relate because I knew she was mostly mentally tired. It was actually fun to have known that her unstable psychological state and the tension were helping me to relate to the situation and I could establish my own state. We receive comfort from these movies because they give us perspective and amplify our psychopathology, and that somehow normalizes the experience.

"I remember feeling especially connected to The Sixth Sense," Dr. Rachel Annunziato, an associate professor in Fordham University's psychology department, told me about her her own experience.

"It is believed that nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive thoughts are the body's attempt to process the memory," said Kimberly Jung, a licensed clinical social worker, who has a 13 years of experience at the VA and specializes in treating traumas. "They are not there to simply torment the person. They are trying to establish the link to the dysfunctional memory so that it can be processed."

When I watched Coherence, it gripped from the minute it started. As the characters detailed out every possible sequence of events and fell into stability, it created an intense suspense and another space for me to work out my own feelings, and it aroused my anxious mind to the point that the apprehension made sense.

I feel quite light and alleviated after watching these movies. The feelings I've been withholding for so long can be understood and can help my mind to function smoothly. The pumped-up adrenaline makes me aware, preparing me for the worst as I work on my own anxiety, which really makes me feel fulfilled.