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Facing your fear: How horror films benefit health

The intricate mechanisms of the human body come into play in unique ways when we expose ourselves to fear or suspense, particularly through the medium of film

One prominent response is the escalation in production of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, which effectively mobilize the body’s reserves of energy. This hormonal surge is in tandem with an increase in heart rate and a state of heightened attention, all of which converge to create a physiological state of readiness.

Engaging with fear

When individuals engage with horror films, they are subjecting themselves to controlled doses of fear and suspense, and the body’s response can be quite exhilarating. This exhilaration is particularly pronounced when the film reaches its climax and the built-up tension is finally released. 

Engaging with fear in a safe and controlled environment, such as when watching a film, can induce feelings of thrill and euphoria. This is comparable to engaging in extreme sports like skydiving, where the element of fear is palpable, yet the activity is pursued for the exhilaration it provides.

Pain tolerance 

Endorphins, the body’s natural chemicals associated with pleasure and reward, play a crucial role in these experiences. The brain produces endorphins in various scenarios, including while eating, exercising, and also when the body is under stress or experiencing pain. This latter category includes the intense moments often found in jump-scare horror movies. 

“Researchers have found that watching horror can improve pain tolerance due to endorphin production,” said Kristen Knowles, a neuropsychiatrist at the Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh.

Emotional training

“The body’s response to fear or suspense is to ramp up production of stress hormones, such as adrenalin, which mobilize your body’s energy resources. This is paired with increased heart rate and focused attention.” 

“This can all feel rather exhilarating when that tension is released at the end of the film. Doing this safely can feel good simply because it is thrilling – consider skydiving as a similar activity which is frightening but also euphoric.”

Dr. Knowles further explained that this safe exploration of fear through film allows individuals to “learn to cope with negative emotions and develop resilience to fear and stress.” It is a form of emotional training, where the stakes are low but the emotional engagement is high. 

Physical responses 

This perspective has previously been bolstered by empirical research, such as in a study conducted in 2012 by the University of Westminster in London. 

The study highlighted the physical impacts of engaging with horror films, showing that watching a 90-minute horror movie could burn a number of calories equivalent to what one might burn during a brisk walk. Thus, such fascinating insights draw a direct line between the emotional and psychological engagement of watching horror movies and tangible physical responses.

In sum, horror films provide a unique and multifaceted experience, intertwining physiological responses, emotional engagement, and psychological exploration. The thrill of fear, experienced in a safe and controlled environment, offers both an exhilarating experience and an opportunity for emotional growth and resilience building.

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