October in America means one thing: the spooky season is upon us.
This translates to pumpkin spice everything, creative costumes full of pop culture references and fake blood, and of course, horror movies teeming with bone-chilling suspense and gore.
Yet, when seeking a good scare from our screens, it’s important to keep our mental health in mind too.
Movies like “Jennifer’s Body,” “The Shining,” “The Invisible Man,” and “Get Out” are great for suspense and thrill, but sometimes the scare can become a tad too real.
Taking care of our mental health is important, so it pays to know your limits and how to watch in a healthy manner.
Horror movies contain psychological tricks that create illusions of suspense and danger through the manipulation of images, sound, and story.
Although your brain is aware that the threats aren’t real, your body simultaneously registers them as if they are.
Sally Winston, licensed psychologist and executive director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland, explains, “[When watching horror films], your heart pumps and the adrenaline flows, and your attention narrows in, even as you know you are at home or in the theatre and there is no real danger.”
This is similar to being on an amusement park ride, where you can feel terrified while at the same time knowing you’re safe.
Winston says that generally speaking, there’s no harm in watching for those who can process the illusion for what it is. She describes the ability to have an experience and simultaneously observe it as “defusion” or “disentanglement.”
It’s a “prerequisite for enjoying horror movies,” she says.
That said, there are some things to be mindful of.
Horror films are designed to elicit certain emotions such as tension, fear, stress, and shock. These can cause the release of the hormones in the body such as norepinephrine, cortisol, and adrenaline from the autonomic nervous system.
You may notice a physiological response from these hormones by way of pupil dilation, increased heart rate, and muscle tension.
Although adrenaline contributes to the overall experience of the movie, the elevated states can make it harder to sleep.
“Even the post-horror euphoria some feel is activating, not relaxing. Thus, even for those who enjoy the emotional roller coaster, horror and suspense films can make it harder to sleep,” says Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center.
Getting a good night’s sleep is incredibly important for both physical and mental health.
Poor sleep has also been linked to mental health issues. It’s estimated that
Rutledge notes that “for sensitive individuals, sleep can also be impaired by internalizing the images [from movies] into dreams.”
If horror movies are keeping you up at night, it may be worth reconsidering your viewing choice.
People who suffer from anxiety are more likely to be negatively impacted by horror films.
As Rutledge explains, “Chronic anxiety increases the sensitivity to startle-eliciting stimuli, thus making people who are already stressed and anxious more likely to respond negatively.”
Winston explains this as “the fear of fear — an aversion to, and fear of, the body’s arousal response through sensations and feelings.”
Those that suffer from anxiety sensitivity are more likely to experience a negative impact from watching horror films. The tendency to fear intrusive thoughts and images may be triggered and increase levels of anxiety or panic.
Winston notes that watching horror images could lead to unwanted thoughts and feelings, so there’s usually a major urge in those who experience anxiety sensitivity to avoid such experiences.
Despite being full of guts and gore, horror films can have positive effects on viewers too.
Rutledge says, “Generally, people who watch horror films tend to enjoy them for a variety of reasons, so for most viewers, it is a positive impact.”
Watching horror films can also be an opportunity to confront one’s fears as the viewer withstands the horror and gets to enjoy the payoff of resolution.
This can be especially true for viewers with certain mental health disorders.
“If someone is being treated for an anxiety disorder or OCD, horror movies can provide useful opportunities to face one’s fears and develop the confidence that you can, in fact, endure unpleasant distress, and that it’s not dangerous to you,” Winston explains.
However, it’s important to talk to your doctor or a licensed psychologist about whether this would work for you personally.
There are also ways to lessen the impact of a scary movie while still enjoying the thrill.
Find out what subgenre suits you
An important tip to watching horror films is to find what level you can handle and what subgenre suits your preferences.
As Rutledge says, “Know your own taste and tolerance.”
For example, not everyone is going to enjoy gore or mind games. If bloodshed is more likely to haunt you long after viewing, try something more supernatural, like “Paranormal Activity” or “The Conjuring.”
Alternatively, if ghosts are more likely to keep you up at night, try opting for a psychological thriller such as “Black Swan,” “The Boy Next Door,” or “Look Away.”
If gore is your cup of tea, try “Human Centipede” or the “Saw” series.
Set boundaries for yourself
The most important thing to keep in mind when watching horror films is your own comfort.
“There’s no harm in avoiding horror movies, whether it’s in response to a moral value eschewing violence or a psychological desire to avoid unwanted images and sensations,” says Winston.
Rutledge agrees with this sentiment of putting your needs first.
“Be prepared to set boundaries and stick up for yourself when negotiating shared programming. Don’t subject yourself to discomfort because others want to watch something you may find upsetting,” she says.
It’s important to assess your current emotions and how you’ll be impacted by what’s on-screen, especially if you have a tendency toward fear or anxiety.
As Rutledge notes, “If you’re finding yourself short-tempered and anxious… forego a horror film and watch something that lets you escape into another world.”
Remember, you can always leave the room and pick up a relaxing book instead. All narratives have conflict, but it’s about picking the level that feels right for you at the time.
Beware of the binge
It’s also important to monitor not just what’s on the screen but how much of it you’re consuming. Although it may be tempting to marathon horror movies all month, this can come with some risks.
A 2017 study by the University of Toledo’s Department of Health and Recreation found that binge-watching TV or movies can increase symptoms of anxiety and disrupt sleep, even when they aren’t horror movies.
The study also found that participants who watched more than 2 hours of TV each night displayed higher levels of depression than those who had shorter viewing times.
Binge-watching horror movies also increases the regularity of adrenaline in the body, worsening issues with sleep.
It’s key to monitor how many movies you’re watching a week and notice if it’s affecting your routine behavior.
As with any film or TV show, it’s all about moderation.
Take a break
If parts of a movie are making you feel uncomfortable, you can always close your eyes or leave for a quick bathroom break.
There’s no shame in turning away from a particular scene that’s chilling your spine in an unenjoyable manner.
Keep the lights on
Watch with the lights on or during the daytime. This can especially help if you experience nyctophobia, or extreme fear of the dark.
Another tip is to watch scary films with others, as they can help you feel tethered to reality. Then there’s the option for cuddling, which can help you feel safe.
“Horror films increase ‘snuggling’ in theatres to manage fear, and group viewing amplifies enjoyment because people feel safer feeling scared,” says Rutledge.
Know what’s coming
If you’re scared of not knowing the ending, you can always look up spoilers ahead of time and just keep them to yourself. This can help ease feelings of suspense.
As with all genres of movies and TV shows, it comes down to individual preference and circumstance.
To watch safely, monitor how horror movies are making you feel. Notice how you feel the following day and whether your sleep is impacted.
Remember, you can always leave a viewing if you’re uncomfortable or not enjoying the physiological responses in your body.
Getting in the Halloween spirit is fun, but taking care of your mental health is far more important.
Marnie Vinall is a freelance writer living in Melbourne, Australia. She’s written extensively for a range of publications covering everything from politics and mental health to nostalgic sandwiches and the state of her own vagina. You can reach Marnie via Twitter, Instagram, or her website.