Some crazy people out there, including me, love to watch teenagers being chased by an already-dead serial killer or a priest in a crisis of faith trying to exorcize a demon from a young girl. Others seem to be more rational – they don’t really get why we consciously choose to scare ourselves to death. Even worse: Some people who suffer from anxiety actively seek out those terrifying experiences to soothe themselves!
It’s true. And it’s not some random weirdos who do it. This article by Vartika Puranik on syfy.com and this one by Emily Madriga on thoughtcatalog.com prove it. Also, the Bloggess herself has confessed to loving the macabre despite, or maybe because of her constant battle with mental illness.
Did you just say “because of”? – Yep.
You see, if you suffer from anxiety, exposing yourself to “artistic” sources of stress and paranoia might just help you get along a little bit better.
To understand this, you must first know the only way there is to beat anxiety: To face the fear and do your thing anyway.
In behavioral psychotherapy, anxiety disorders like phobias are treated with exposition. The patients are exposed to what terrifies them, may it be dogs or speaking in front of other people. Gradually, they learn that they are not going to die (literally, because this is what our minds make us believe when we are panicking) and that the worst case scenario is very unlikely to happen (like being bitten by a well-trained dog or being overtly ridiculed in a professional setting). Avoidance, however, is what feeds anxiety in the long run. By avoiding a situation that scares us, we never learn to overcome our fear. Even worse, we internalize that running away, metaphorically, is the best way to go. Anxiety can turn into a free-floating state of tension and seemingly lose the connection to its emotional origin.
But why, then, do some people increase their anxiety by exposing themselves to horror media?
Because … it helps them feel better.
From a psychological standpoint, it is actually pretty logical. Watching a terrifying movie trains us to bear our anxious state until the tension decreases. This is made easier by the fact that it is just a movie, after all. On a deeper level, our brains learn the following: We might feel like we are in danger, but we will survive it. This, exactly, is what we are trying to teach our brains in behavioral therapy.
How Horror heals
The fact that we are merely consuming media instead of being exposed to a fear-inducing situation has the advantage that we consciously know we are safe. For this reason, we can withstand the urge to avoid the situation. Of course, a decent narrative and solid acting also help with that.
Let’s go a bit deeper into the matter. There is also always a moral that we can learn from a good horror story. I think that the kind of story we prefer says something about our own story.
There is always a hero who survives the battle against the monster. This means that there is the chance to survive even a worst-case scenario. Also, I strongly believe in “The devil you see is the devil you know”. I think that looking at dark, ghostly figures in a movie and learning how to fight them resonates with our psyches on our deep, subconscious level.
Our subconscious is irrational and does not operate on logic. In order to communicate with it, we need to use pictures and metaphors. A monster, in this sense, is something within ourselves that we are inherently afraid of. Everyone has something they cannot accept within themselves, something they could not bear to accept as part of their personality or their personal history. C.G.Jung called this “the Shadow”. Monsters and ghosts are shadow figures that we use in stories to confront ourselves with everything that is threatening us from within. Self-hatred that stems from bad parenting, intense rage as a reaction to being bullied, a tendency for depression or anxiety, the fear of being abandoned or isolated, the changes we go through in puberty… the list goes on and on.
When a horror story resonates with us, it tells our subconscious the following:
- We are not the only ones who feel this way
- This monster we are afraid of has a name and a face
- This monster can be defeated
- This, too, shall pass.
Your own subconscious will know who or what your personal “monster” is. Your conscious doesn’t, at least not without a lot of self-knowledge and psychotherapy. However, for the healing effect of horror media, you don’t have to be aware of that.