The Exact Effect Horror Movies Have On Us—As Told By A Clinical Psychologist

Mallika Jhaveri , 31 Oct 2020
Slate film,clapperboard for horror movie by Thongden Studio |
Slate film,clapperboard for horror movie by Thongden Studio |

When one thinks of Halloween, the gory outfits, bloody makeup, the basic angel and devil costume (ugh), and of course, horror movies come to mind. Halloween is the one day that most of us gather the courage to sit through an entire horror movie. While some dread it,  some do it with actual willingness and excitement. Ever wondered why? Why do some people absolutely love horror movies, while some hate it so much that they feel the need to be exorcised after? This is because horror movies can affect our brains in multiple ways.

We got in touch with Dhara Ghuntla. She is a renowned clinical psychologist with over 8 years of experience in dealing with a spectrum of mental health issues and illnesses including schizophrenia, personality disorders and addiction. Here is what she had to say on the effect horror movies have on our brains, personality and psyche.

The Exact Effect Horror Movies Have On Our Brain

Dhara says that when we watch a horror movie, a ‘flight or fight’ response is evoked. This is our primitive response to fear. The amygdala, which is the emotional centre of the brain, controls this response. Hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released, which give you palpitations and make you breathing faster. Kind of like the feeling you get before the big drop on a roller coaster.

Short Term And Long Term Effects Of Horror Movies

Excitement, dryness of mouth, nausea, fast heartbeats are common when one watches a horror movie. For many, this extends to sleeplessness as well. Dhara points out a very interesting effect as well. She says,

Horror movies cultivate the feeling of the unknown, which can lead to a preoccupation with the unknown. This constant obsession and question of “Is something out there?” can lead to paranoia and anxiety in the long run. And if a person is already predisposed to anxiety, bipolar disorder or depression, this can offset those as well. It can also aggravate violence in someone who is predisposed to it. Hence I tell all my patients with such predispositions to not watch such movies

She further adds that sometimes, our fear response i.e. the ‘fight or flight’ response can be intense enough to affect our bodily functions, like digestion. This can lead to medical issues down the line.

Personality And Horror Movies

Dhara says,

The effect a horror movie has on a person ultimately depends a lot on their personality.

People who are more sensitive and empathetic will be negatively affected by horror movies. But on the flip side, many enjoy watching them as it leads to an emotional cathartic release. No, this does not mean that they are psychopathic murderers. It simply means that watching the movie leads to a release of their pent up emotions and feelings. She further adds that many youngsters today enjoy horror movies as it’s “cool” to have a dark sense of humour. However, it’s the thrill-seeking personalities that are a concern. These ‘daredevils’ are narcissistic and lack empathy. They’re the kind to get addicted to drugs and drive drunk. Basically those people your parents tell you to stay away from. They can react badly to horror movies and it can lead to violence and worse. She adds,

If people are thrill seekers and predisposed to violence, these horror movies can serve as a catalyst for even more violence. It can trigger them to behave badly, because after all fiction is not far from reality.

Some People Genuinely LOVE Being Scared

Dhara says,

Some people just love the adrenaline rush horror movies bring. It’s basically a form of addiction for them. The excitement keeps them hooked at a biological and emotional level. They get a kick out of it.

Horror Movies And Trauma

Dhara says that horror movies can’t lead to trauma but aggravate an existing one. According to the Excitation Transfer Theory by Dolf Zilmann, the excitation experienced from one stimulus can transfer to other similar stimuli. So if the movie ‘IT’ traumatises you, you may develop a trauma towards clowns, red balloons or sewers. This is why a horror movie can lead to people being petrified of the dark, sleeping alone and more. Again, this also depends on the personality of the person.

Horror movies are more than what meets the eye (and even the soul in some cases). They have the power to affect our brains, hormones, nerves and even organs. So if you experience extreme fear during a horror movie, it is best to skip it. And even then, if someone forces you to sit through one, show them this article.

What do you think about horror movies? Like them? Hate them? Love them? Let us know!

Have a Happy Halloween and don’t forget to join Malini’s Girl Tribe on Facebook and Instagram to be a part of more such conversations!

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