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Psychological Effects of Horror Movies

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Farhia Osman, art editor

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With Halloween comes scary movies such as the cult classics “The Exorcist,” “Saw,” “The Ring,” and “The Shining.” Ghosts and murderers fill our screens and dramatic music rings in our ears. Horror movies are ingrained in our culture; is this healthy?

Let’s first explain what our mind does when watching a horror movie. “What happens for most people is that you have an arousal of your sympathetic nervous system and an activation [to produce] adrenaline,” said AP Psychology teacher Heidi Mathers. She compared watching a horror movie to riding a roller coaster; people’s heart rates and respirations increase.

The reason why some people find horror movies fun, while others find them absolutely terrifying, can be attributed to the Emotion Theory. “The Emotion Theory states that our interpretation of these same physiological cues can be different depending on the individual,” said Mathers. So most people experience the rapid heartbeat and increased breaths. However, those who find horror movies enjoyable would just compare the movie to a roller coaster ride: just an adrenaline rush. And those who find them terrifying would experience distress.

Horror movies can cause a wide variety of side-effects, depending on the individual. One of the most noticeable side-effects is sleeplessness. People may have trouble sleeping or toss fitfully all night due to the residual fear and anxiety from watching a scary movie. “I would assume [watching horror movies] affect sleep, especially if there is something in the movie that could trigger past trauma,” said Edina High School psychologist Samantha Bialozynski. Another noticeable side-effect is anxiety. The severity and longevity of the anxiety entirely depends on the individual. However, according to a research study done at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, children under 14 who watched horror movies end up having increased chances of developing anxiety conditions later in adulthood. This is because fear experienced when watching is stored in the amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for generating emotions. These now-adults cannot conjure up the memory without inciting trauma and fear. Other potentially long-term and dangerous effects include, “paranoia, irrational fears, interest in the paranormal or demonology, things that aren’t psychologically healthy for the mind,” said Mathers. However, the occurrence and intensity of these effects all depend on the individual. For example, if a person was in a serious car accident, a movie such as “Final Destination 2” would be very dangerous for the person’s mental health. “Personal experiences would definitely determine how significant side-effects become,” said Bialozynski.

Horror movies can also create new fears through association.  “Our family doesn’t watch horror movies because we tend to view these events as threatening, and then we start to associate the trigger in horror movies with real life events,” said Mathers. This effect is called classical conditioning. As an example, she remembers not being able to tolerate the sound of footsteps without envisioning Jack Nicholson’s character from “The Shining.” She also remembers being terrified of birds years after watching Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds.”

Yet, there is one side-effect psychologists can agree is not entirely harmful: desensitization. For example, if you were afraid of clowns, then exposure to horror movies about clowns may help ease your fear because you are being continuously exposed to it. “Desensitization to violence and other things that may [occur] when with watching movies,” said Mathers.

Both Mathers and Bialozynski suggest that if a person experiences negative conditions after watching horror movies, then they should stay away. The negative effects could lead to something more significant and dangerous. However, if you do not and “seen as an interest, but is not going to influence them in a negative way, then they could watch them,” said Bialozynski.

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44 Comments

44 Responses to “Psychological Effects of Horror Movies”

  1. Debashis on January 4th, 2016 8:17 pm

    Yesterday I watched the SAW movie and the effects are still experencing today. I am feeling anxiety and mild headache and a unknown feeling which I am feeling so bad. It would be better if I not watched this movie.

  2. Kaitee on July 11th, 2017 4:44 pm

    Same here! I’m 18, and I watched the first one when I was 16. I’ve watched all 7, and I still am affected by them to this day. It’s horrible, I love horror but not the feeling that comes with it :/

  3. Carsa kelly on September 5th, 2016 12:54 pm

    I just have a question I need an answer to.
    I was wondering if a person who watches horror movies are they better at getting out of a dangerous situation than others who don’t watch horror movies as much?

  4. lou on April 21st, 2017 10:26 pm

    I think so. I watch horror and thriller movies and I tend to have a lot of ideas on how to escape from dangerous situations.

  5. Oumayma on October 6th, 2016 3:21 am

    Hi. Please I watched the conjuring part 1 and 2 and after I watched them I find it difficult to sleep and even if I sleep I have nightmares about demons .i have seen a dream that I white clothes flying above me and ask me to marry him. Another day I dreamt of the same white clothes coming to me and someone is telling me that this is my demon. Please is this normal

  6. hola on October 17th, 2016 9:41 am

    dead

  7. callum levy on November 7th, 2016 9:14 am

    rip bro

  8. willem on January 13th, 2017 10:16 am

    Hi. I understand your feelings.
    Wjen you watch things, you open to the spirit behind the movie being portrayed.
    Jesus Christ paid for all sins on the cross of calvary. Ask Jesus to forgive you for watching the movie. Ask him to forgive the contamination on your soul and spirit. Ask him to delete it from your mind. Then reject those demons of the movie verbally and tell them to leave in Jesus name.

  9. Im a Believer on January 22nd, 2017 5:39 pm

    How awesome is that reply bro.

  10. aseph on March 7th, 2017 1:07 pm

    u’re screw’d bud

  11. Shelly on August 4th, 2017 2:21 pm

    Great movies. Loved them all

  12. lilly on April 13th, 2018 2:55 pm

    Oh my too i cant sleep without having the covers over my feet i barely got through the first movie i abslolutly refused to watch part 2. Even to this day i can not sleep that well thinking that there might be someone behind my door or in the mirror under my bed even though there is nothing there i still feel as if there might be something somewhere that could get me in my sleep finally someone who understands!!!!

  13. Dysfiction on March 17th, 2017 4:19 am

    If youre reading this there is a subreddit just for you…. http://www.reddit.com/r/CinematicTrauma
    Maybe you’d feel silly telling your therapist, but come share your film-induced trauma with us!

  14. Zachary Jacobson on July 8th, 2017 6:53 am

    Hi first of all I think the people that made “The Ring” movie should be sued or something for making a movie too scary. I have a lot of trouble sleeping in a room at night if it has a tv or mirror in it as a result. Lots of times now as a result of watching that movie I get images in my mind of a demonic girl coming out of a well and going through a tv. Also I sleep with the lights on in my room because I’m afraid of the dark. Not necessarily a cause of watching The Ring, but still…

  15. Shelly on August 4th, 2017 2:19 pm

    I like the ring movies.

  16. Kathleen on August 13th, 2017 6:44 pm

    I’m sorry for your trauma but there are a lot more scarier things out there than this movie.
    If you can’t handle it don’t watch it!

  17. Steven Emsley on July 8th, 2017 5:46 pm

    Very interesting theory. I have often wondered if horror films affect our minds. I have since stopped watching them & watching films with positivity & I must admit, I am feeling a lot calmer and I feel I can deal with stress a lot better. I used to love everything horror and would frequently watch documentaries about murder and stuff and I found I could not sleep because of the way it made me feel. It definatley does affect our minds.

  18. Shelly on August 4th, 2017 2:20 pm

    I have found they don’t effect me in any way as a adult. But as a teenager I had nightmares

  19. Shelly on August 4th, 2017 2:18 pm

    I love psychological horrors. Love horrors in general but not keen on the hostels.

  20. Shah on August 12th, 2017 2:04 am

    i just want to know impact of horror show on female student.Can you please give me some point about this

  21. Abin on August 30th, 2017 5:16 am

    I’m very excited about watching this kind of thrilling horror movies, but when the night comes sometimes I can’t control my thoughts feeling anxious and alone in a dark room or place around some sort of screaming everywhere..I had a nightmare about valak. I can’t remember that incident but it is terrible..

  22. Suja on September 11th, 2017 11:05 pm

    I used to watch horror movies n read a lot abt it,today I’m 37,a mother bt still afraid to move from one room to the other alone at nights esp when the lights r off

  23. Heaven on October 3rd, 2017 6:26 am

    I recently watched the new movi “it” on Sunday with my best friend and I stepped out of the thether twice but the second time I was completely done. I threw up 5 times in the short hour and 15 left of the movie and some of the staff had to help me, so did my guy bestfreidn who I talked to on the phone.
    When I was in there car I was about to fall asleep but when I got home and went to bed I just couldn’t do it… my heat rate goes up for no reason and because of it I feel like the clown is going to pop up with its red eyes like the bear did in Madagascar escape for Europe (circus one). Even though I saw that movie 4 TIMES! And know what’s going to happen but I was forced to keep telling myself it’s just the bear. I’ve stayed up at night waking up every hour to go use the restroom even if I DON’T actually got to use it it’s just there to walk around since I feel uncomfortable. I’ve be also been having these weird dreams. He first was the clown coming into our school XD then today well last night o dreamt about these people in the jungle running from something that was killing them all. I don’t know why though. My moms having to give me some special water concaution to make my stomach feel better because when u sleep I feel like it should blowing up almsot af if when I’m full and it makes sleeping no fun, I have to sleep on my sides or straight and I cant do that even if I like sleeping on my sides. But sometimes I wanna belly flop and can’t do that,
    How long will this “sleepless” thing last? Because I seriously want a good nights rest, it’s not fair that at night while everyone’s alseep I’m awake thinking how they can sleep while in the morning I feel like nothing happens and actually want to go to sleep while everyone’s starting there day

  24. Little one on October 7th, 2017 7:57 pm

    Hey, try to calm your mind. Put some nice music on, stretch a bit.
    Try to be logical, and fear only has power if you give it power.
    The mind is capable of many things, make peace please and you will feel better

  25. Sandra on October 12th, 2017 12:12 pm

    I’m really concerned about my daughter . She is 12 and 2 weeks ago she spent the day at her friends and it was the first time she has watched a horror film. Chucky!! If I had known I wouldn’t approved of it bec it’s terrifying. Ever since , she sleeps with us and has stomach aches and headaches everynight. She claims she can’t get him out of her mind and scared that the dolls will come to life and kill her. She had migranes in the last year but have lessen due to medication she is on. But ever since she watched this film she has been terrified. Any solutions how I can help her.

  26. Simon Cumiskey on November 5th, 2017 2:03 pm

    Have her watch the opposite of a horror. A love movie, or an inspirational idea. A documentary on hopefulness. Meditate with her, and use positive affirmations. There’s a reversal for everything, including anxiety caused by horrors. I promise you, you’ll both be ok 🙂

  27. Simon Cumiskey on November 5th, 2017 2:00 pm

    I watched wolf creek 2 last night and all day today I’ve felt anxiety. I get that anyway but movies like that make it worse. It seems I’m not the only one which as bad as it sounds kinda makes me feel better.

  28. Syeda on November 15th, 2017 9:03 am

    This was a good website. I’m doing an EPQ on this. Anyone want to help me out? I’d really appreciate it if someone sent me links to other websites like this and possible an experiment that I can write about. If someone has done a similar EPQ and can recommend any books or anything. It would be much appreciated!!! I loooooove horror

  29. Lance Pedrajas on November 18th, 2017 11:07 am

    Lots of horror movies are stuck in my mind. Including “The Ring”, “The Grudge”, “Conjuring”, etc. I think all of the horror movies are scaring me right now. My life is changing because of those extremely scary horror movies. Especially when it says BASED ON A TRUE STORY. They say that they say that just to scare you more. But I heard movies like Conjuring is actually BASED ON A REAL TRAGEDY THAT HAPPENED IN THE 70s. Why are ghosts made? Why do we need to make these type of movies? Why are they made? Does these types of movies do good to people? What are the lessons in horror movies? Please. Please. Please answer. Please.

  30. Helia on August 13th, 2018 1:33 pm

    they aren’t real its just for scaring you,just stop watching horror movies ,see some comedy movies and you will be fine.its just your mind playing with you,conjuring is NOT based on a real tragedy,when i was little whenever i was scared i closed my eyes and said nothings gonna hurt me its stupid But it works calm your self ,if it was real they wouldn’t call it a MOVIE.MOVIES ARE FAKE AND STUPID.they are for the day you are bored ,they say its good watching horror movies cause you can act better in bad situation like robbery

  31. A. H. on January 21st, 2018 9:43 pm

    I used to love watching scary movies. After watching a loved one suffer and pass away, my anxiety heightened. Then I experienced seeing the shadow of a man who I thought was my companion but my companion said it was not him. The image was so real. I had watched an episode of haunted houses prior to this happening. I have stopped watching those haunted shows.

  32. bofa deeznuts on March 6th, 2018 4:56 pm

    i once saw despicable me 3 and ever since my mind keeps tricking me into seeing the minons trying to kill me

  33. Nick on March 17th, 2018 1:54 am

    Horror movies aren’t what they seem (this can be said of other genres as well). I grew up in the mecca of movies and believe me it’s not what you think it is. These movies were created for a purpose and you can see it in your chart. If you don’t believe me, just look at the history of Hollywood and you’ll see what’s happening here. You have to be careful about some of the movies because they’re nothing more than occult ceremonies disguised as a film (this is very true). Most people are blind to this fact and that’s what makes it so easy to enter our living rooms.

  34. Harry on June 18th, 2018 4:38 am

    Hi I have a question that i need to get answer.
    Are horrormovies effective in increasing white corpuscle?

  35. Helia on August 13th, 2018 5:50 am

    I love watching horror movies and shows,I’m 16 years old and i always watch movies and shows alone so yesterday my mom watch a horror show with me and today she don’t let me see,she says you become crazy if you watch horror movies ,she said it will ruin your mind and this kind of things,but i love them and its summer i cant survive without watching movies!what should i do then?so i wanna know is my mother right?should i listen to her?i don’t wanna be crazy but i LOVE WATCHING MOVIES ESPECIALLY HORROR MOVIES.so does horror movies make you psycho?

  36. Danny on September 8th, 2018 4:45 am

    Hi All,

    I love horror movies, I also love positive movies. I have been fascinated with horror since I was a child specifically relating to the concept of desensitization to evil or what most people would consider a scary situation – and for me, it’s totally worked. My advice for anything in life that is scary is simple: anything or anyone that invokes fear is trying to manipulate your mind. If you remain strong and remind yourself that’s what is intended you have the ability to overcome all fear. Darkness is incapable of existing with even the smallest light. Remember most of all that most fear is simply a trick, it tries to scare you so you yourself fulfill a “self fulfilling” prophecy of added negativity to your life. Usually there is no actual danger at all. Believe me when I say that a strong mind and love can defeat any fear. Always stay strong and remember that nothing can affect you if you do not allow yourself to be susceptible to its influence. If you need any more advice feel free to email me.

    – Batman

  37. Christian on September 17th, 2018 5:17 am

    A trick to use if you have seen a horror movie that you can’t get out of your head is to see how that movie was made. Like behind the scenes because it will show you that it’s all made by a director, production crews, and actors and will lesson the traumatic feelings you have about that particular movie that bothers you. It helps me allot.

  38. gibo on September 22nd, 2018 4:42 am

    horror movies are evil and their agenda is promotion of satanism or occult

  39. Abdesselam on October 17th, 2018 5:46 am

    Hi everyone I hope you are all well.Horror movies have a negative impact on the psychology of the viewers.It makes viewers see shadows and fear from everything without any reason.They can not stay alone and they become strange.Most of horror films’fans are isolated and can not integrate in society.They even suffer fromm sleepless nights.I suggest that they should stop watching these films.Moreover,they must be realistic and differentiate between reality and fantasy.Any film is fantasy and imaginary.Viewers should not waste their time watching a films that is not good for their health.Finally,if anyone can not control fear just listen to the Quran.It is a holy book for Muslims and it is a cure for all human being. You just download it and keep play it on in a clean ,tidy place.

  40. Ryan Kelly on October 20th, 2018 6:09 am

    My Mother would never allow me to watch horror films as a child. She was a bartender, and while I was home alone at night I would watch Unsolved Mysteries. One night I called her up balling my eyes out terrified that someone would break into my house. As I caught wind of a burglary down the street. Later in life, ages 18-22 I smoked marijuana like it was going out of style and watched occasional horror movies. I can’t say that my life at that point even slowed down enough for me to know how they were affecting me. But I will say, that my relationship arguments with my girlfriend had resulted in behaviors that were quite violent and fierce. No one can say why exactly, or that the horror films contributed, but mimicking our personal environments is quite prevalent. And an individual can definitely make horror films their personal environment. I truly believe that in every situation, the goal is to divide and conquer an individual to extract goods. The Bible is a book about what happens to a community if certain things are allowed to pass without personal responsibility being taken. This being said, Hollywood is a place of its own commandments and laws. They’ve created their own power structure and stronghold. As has the church. Everything has laws and levels.

    Now, from ages 22-26 I entered the U.S. Marine Corps. I can recall the cold feeling I first felt wash over me when they handed me a M-16 rifle. But upon firing it, realized it was actually quite an experience.

    To wrap up what I was originally saying, Hollywood probably performs a great deal of activities that will keep you from sleeping at night. It’s a very ruthless place. But it can also be very giving. But it’s been known over the years that many in Hollywood have suffered major psychological diseases in which psychologists just cannot fix. So you may want to ask yourself, do I want to invite that into my psychology? And if so, could the fears postpone my own personal management and success in life?

    In the end, life is a battle for your soul and mine. There is never a wrong or right. By any means necessary. But there is a life span, and a city cat will never be as well kept and long lasting as a loyal dog. What you may want to ask yourself is, what are my priorities, what are my options, and will these films hinder my confidence when taking those bigger steps….

    It’s your heart baby. Feed it what you will.

    As The Great Gatsby states before opening, a life lived in fear is a life half lived. Just know these people go both ways and they have no boundaries. And it is through both the light and the dark, that they can offer you such a rich memorable experience. They’ll go any length to tear you apart, and put you back together. Life is full of desperation and praying upon people’s weaknesses. And Ignorance.

    Lastly, as Jay Z states- what you don’t know- will make your home- a permanent urn. So I’d suggest less watchie, watchie, watchie, and more learn, learn, learn. Everything’s eventual, what are you going to carry with you into battle? Words are weapons, so is music, I suggest all you beautiful ones really learn how to use it. So seducive, so illusive, poof.

  41. Joseph Stalin on October 22nd, 2018 11:27 am

    together as robloxians we will team up to defeat our parents in the great effort for total control of the galaxy as we know it. mmmmmmmmmm

  42. Eric on October 29th, 2018 12:48 am

    Hi, i know this might seem weird but im 18 and still afraid of chucky just seeing or hearing his name strikes fear into my heart it irritating I’ve been afraid ever since i was 8 i love horror movies but i cant see that one i even tried seeing one of his films , i sat through the whole thing and i Couldn’t talk or sleep for days i had an anxiety attack and went to a hospital i wish i wasn’t afraid of his ugly face it annoys me

  43. Abby on November 2nd, 2018 8:34 pm

    Dude horror movies give me the worst anxiety like it’s so hard to get to sleep

  44. UND on November 6th, 2018 7:44 pm

    Hello everyone, as I was assigned to review this article, I found some of these comments quite disturbing. Horror movies do create anxiety, but we often forget that in the moment we watch them due to an adrenilane rushes, creating a natural high. Your symptoms are normal. For coping I recommend breathing deeply, reading, not being exposed to blue light (light that comes from a screen) and reading. You could also try drinking warm tea or milk. No coffee! Do not eat close to bed. Hope this helps any of you!

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Psychological Effects of Horror Movies