For my father, my husband, and myself, the answer is a resounding “yes.” This month was a rough one for many of us in California — devastating winds, uncontrollable fires, earthquakes — and my family also had to deal with additional struggles throughout October 2019 (including the passing of our beloved cat, Dorian Gray).
We took comfort in horror movies. No matter how terrible our reality got, the characters on screen were dealing with much worse.
It was cathartic. It helped us process and release our emotions vicariously. As victims screamed out on film, our internal screaming diminished.
But are horror movies cathartic for everyone? Are they good for you…?
Guess What! You’re Unique.
This may come as a shock to some people, but every human is a unique individual! I know. It’s weird, right?
That makes the answer to the question “Are horror movies good for you?” a complex one to nail down.
In short, the answer is (spoiler alert?!): It depends on the person watching.
Kinda seems like a cop-out, doesn’t it? I love solid answers, so having the answer to my proposed question boil down it “it depends” was somewhat disappointing.
However, the reasons for how and why the answer varies were fascinating. Check this out:
Scary VS. Entertaining
When presented with a horror movie to watch, audiences are typically divided into two groups: those who find horror films “scary” and those who find them “entertaining.”
Depending on which category (or sub-category) you fall into plays a part in how “good” a horror movie is for you.
First, let’s look at the people who find horror movies frightening:
- If you find horror movies “scary,” but you enjoy being scared… horror movies are “good” for you.
- If you find horror movies “scary” and you loathe those feelings of terror… horror movies are “bad” for you.
Next, those who aren’t scared and watch horror films purely for their entertainment value:
- If you find horror movies genuinely entertaining and you enjoyed your viewing experience… horror movies are “good” for you.
- If you watch a horror movie and are bored, dissatisfied, or otherwise not entertained… horror movies are “bad” for you.
Make sense so far?
Your Individual Experiences Play a Major Role
This can also vary on a case-by-case basis due to your personal/life experiences. Even those who find horror entertaining and mostly non-frightening may find themselves getting uneasy/uncomfortable when watching certain films within the genre.
For example, due to the sexual assault in my personal history, I severely dislike horror movies that include graphic rape scenes. Does that mean that all horror movies are “bad” for me just because a few “trigger” me? Of course not.
In fact, rape scenes are not exclusive to the horror genre (despite being one of the most unquestionably horrific acts in life). Many dramas include such scenes (even Gone with the Wind, a film “classic,” has been noted for having a “marital rape” scene included), as do many action and fantasy-themed movies. Kill Bill is categorized as a “martial arts film” inspired by spaghetti Westerns, and it has a truly repulsive rape scene in it that gave audiences just one more reason to fear ever going into a coma!
But, I digress…
Basically, to determine whether the horror genre is “good” for you, in terms of movie-watching, you have to weigh how you feel the majority of the time when you view them.
If you feel good nine times out of ten when you finish watching — whether that’s “good” meaning “entertained” or “good” meaning “scared, but in the best way possible” — then it’s fairly safe to say that horror movies are good… for you.
But what are some of the other determining factors? What helps to draw the lines between entertaining and terrifying? Or enjoyable versus “NOPE!”…?
Reality VS. Fantasy
A common trait among those who find horror movies purely entertaining is that they fully realize that everything on screen is FAKE.
I fall into this category, mainly because I grew up in the horror movie industry. My parents created and painted practical special FX in numerous horror movies throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Even at an incredibly young age, I knew that the “monsters” were rubber puppets or people in costumes — nothing to be legitimately afraid of!
Does that mean you should expose young children to horror movies?
Despite my upbringing, I’d say “no.” I wouldn’t recommend it.
I was fine and had a blast growing up in the horror industry. But I’m a special case. Most children don’t have the advantage of seeing the “behind-the-scenes” of horror films. They don’t get to experience the tangible side, to literally feel the monsters and know that they’re not real.
For most kiddos, if you show ’em a horror film, they’ll accept it “as is” on the screen and poop their diapers in terror. That’s because the human mind can’t distinguish between reality and fantasy until around age five.
If you show a child who hasn’t yet developed the ability to determine “fake” from “real” a horror movie: their brain will process what they’re seeing as 100% no-joke legit and it won’t be fun for them. You’re basically setting them up to hate the genre later in life because that initial experience will create a big ol’ “I DON’T LIKE THIS!!” groove in their brain that will stick with ’em.
Wait until your child’s brain is developed enough to know the difference. Start out with some “light” horror films and gauge their reactions. Remind them that it’s not real. Don’t belittle them for being scared, if they get spooked. If you ease them into it, at an appropriate age (six at the youngest, depending on their personal development), you’ll have a better chance of turning your youngster into a fellow horror fan.
So, why do some adults get scared by horror movies?
For some, their brains never fully developed the ability to distinguish between reality and fiction. But, for most, they’re simply very empathetic individuals.
Even though they know what they’re seeing is fake, they’re able to empathize and “feel” what the characters on screen are feeling.
Or, it can be determined by other factors outside of their control…
Horror movies love to mess with audiences via their soundtracks. The musical scores for films in the horror and suspense genres play a huge part in creating the overall “mood” of the movie.
Music that’s distinctly nonlinear can really jangle your nerves and make you feel on edge. Example: the “REE-REE-REE-REE!!” screeches from the violins in Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Your body’s “fear” or “tension” reaction to certain sounds (or music) is out of your control. The music used in horror films often plays a massive role in what makes them “scary.”
Ambient sounds and low-frequency noises (or music) can cause your body/mind to react with a sense of dread. Many artsy horror films (think David Lynch movies) use this to full effect. If you’re feeling existential terror, ask yourself: is the screenwriting really that good, or am I having a physical reaction to a sound I’m hearing?
Fortunately, no matter how low the sound frequency gets in horror soundtracks, you probably won’t poop yourself. The famous “brown note” has been debunked.
Of course, there’s another factor that comes into play for people who find horror movies “scary,” but enjoy them anyway:
Most horror movies have a “happy” ending.
For those who find horror movies frightening, but love ’em regardless, this plays a key part in their enjoyment.
So long as the thrill and/or joy of the hero/heroine triumphing (or in some cases, merely surviving) outweighs the fear of whatever terrors occurred on screen: the viewer will walk away with a sense of enjoyment.
For me, this is part of what makes (most) horror films “cathartic” as well. There’s the release of the negative emotions when the “scary” stuff is happening, and then the comfort and “healing” that comes with the happy ending. Ahhhh… so nice.
But what about the folks who just plain hate horror movies? What’s their deal?
Cursed by Genetics?
If the joy of the “happy” ending does not outweigh the terror you felt when viewing a horror movie (and you don’t like being scared), then there’s a good chance you don’t enjoy the horror genre.
Genetics may be to blame.
Research is still being done, but studies thus far have noted that serotonin is likely determined, in part, by our genetics. Therefore, you may be genetically predisposed to not enjoy horror movies.
Basically, if horror movies scare you and you’re unable to counteract the fear with the necessary influx of serotonin (usually triggered to be pumped into your brain when the “happy” ending occurs), you may be suffering from a serotonin deficiency.
If your deficiency is mild, you can try getting in a workout or eat a good meal (high-protein foods and complex carbs are often high in serotonin) before watching a horror movie — it may drastically improve your overall experience!
If that doesn’t do the trick, but you’re still determined to “like” horror films: continued exposure can help, to an extent.
Research has shown that we can build up our “distress tolerance” if we endure the same type of “stress” (or “fear”) often enough. However, your success when using this method will be limited — and may not work at all! — depending on your brain’s unique/personal wiring.
If, for whatever reason — genetics or personal preference — you simply don’t like or enjoy horror films: that’s okay!! You don’t have to like horror movies.
Just don’t bag on the people who do.
But Don’t Horror Movies Make People Violent?!
No. They don’t. Neither do video games. Are people really still having this argument?
While horror movies can be “good” or “bad” for people (in terms of overall enjoyment) depending on who they are as individuals, there’s zero grounds to believe horror films (or any other form of media) can force someone to become violent.
In 2014, an in-depth study was done on whether violent films could inspire viewers to become violent themselves. The results?
“Watching violent movies really does make people more aggressive — but only if they have an abrasive personality to start with.”
Basically, if you’re already a giant a-hole with violent tendencies, horror movies (or action movies or anime or whatever) can “inspire” your methods of violence — but they do not “create” violent people from scratch.
If you’ve seen the movie Scream (1996), these scientific findings probably aren’t a surprise to you. After all, Billy Loomis said it best:
“Don’t you blame the movies. Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!”
This argument is an old one, and its persistence always astounds me. It seems so silly! But people have been blaming horror movies for bad behavior for decades.
In the 1950s, concerned citizens had moral outrage over the likes of I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Blood of Dracula, and other horror flicks… They saw them as possible causes of “juvenile delinquency” in 50’s youth.
I mean… seriously? People were afraid I Was a Teenage Werewolf would encourage poor behavior? Angrily throwing a carton of milk or grumpily stating “people bug me” is rude, sure; but it’s hardly anything to be truly alarmed over!
But those were different times. Maybe I’m jaded due to living in this “modern” era?
Ah. Nope. Even way back in 1957, researchers were dismissing the “horror movies are bad for people” argument as a bunch of hooey.
In the case of the clipping above, Dr. Martin Grotjahn, a professor at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, agreed with my initial statement: horror movies are cathartic.
Plus, many of the horror movies that were “scary” — or deemed “bad influences” — decades ago are laughably tame by today’s standards.
Several movies that “shocked” audiences back in the day later found themselves being mocked by Elvira, Joe Bob Briggs, or the Mystery Science Theater 3000 gang.
Many people wouldn’t even consider those movies “horror” films anymore!
But that opens yet another can of worms, doesn’t it…?
What IS “Horror” Anyway?
This is yet another reason the answer to “are horror movies good for you?” is so hard to pin down…
A lot of people can’t even agree on what qualifies a movie as a “horror” movie!
For example, The Wizard of Oz is classified as “a musical fantasy film.” But have you met any old-timers who found it frightening? I have. The witch, the flying monkeys, the talking trees, the Cowardly Lion… Those things really spooked a lotta lil Boomers (and Silent Gen folks)!
So does The Wizard of Oz count as a “horror” movie? Why not? It legit scared people! Is being “scary” what defines the genre…?
How about a series of films that has a ton of supernatural monsters, a relentlessly evil murderer bent on genocide, and a character death count in the high seventies? The stakes are high, the fear is real, and the environment is drenched in occult wonders…
That’s my dad’s argument for categorizing the Harry Potter movies as “horror” films in his DVDs collection. And, although I laugh, I can’t really say that he’s “wrong.”
If people can’t even decide what classifies a movie as a horror film, how on earth can we really — definitively — determine if they’re “good” for us or not?!
It’s a puzzler.
In the end, as I said in the beginning, it all depends on who YOU are and how YOU feel after viewing.
If YOU feel “good” after watching horror movies, then horror movies are “good” for you. If not… they aren’t.
But, if you’re a HorrorFam.com reader, I’m guessing you fall into the former category. 🙂
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Lauren Spear (née Tharp) is the owner of LittleZotz Writing, a super-respectable multiple award-winning website for freelance writers. She’s also the HorrorFam.com founder! Lauren grew up in the horror industry (her parents did practical special FX work for many of the horror movies you love from the ’80s and ’90s) and basically created this site so she could freely gas on about creepy stuff and stop having to pretend to be normal.