I've always loved horror films, even when I was too young to watch them. Older cousins and friends' teen brothers were often purveyors of the scariest, goriest of cinema, and I would feel very grown up after braving the worst of what the genre had to offer. But that feeling changed when I was in my early 20s. I started to experience panic disorder, a hereditary anxiety condition that would bring on panic attacks based on perceived danger, even if there wasn't any. The first attack happened when I was on a packed subway train stuck underground for several minutes. Someone in my car fainted, causing another to have a seizure. The experience was so paralyzing I started fearing similar attacks in almost every plausible situation.
So when I went to go see the 2007 Halloween remake in theaters for a friend's birthday, I was already fearing the worst. Before the film started, I felt my skin get clammy, my pulse quicken, and a disorienting out-of-my-body sensation that was gearing me up to freak out. I couldn't even make it past the first 20 minutes of the film — the first hint of a bloody, murderous moment. I had to leave the theater, texting my friends I was sorry as I shamefully took a cab home.
The experience was one of several that helped me understand I had to get my anxiety under control, but it also had me wondering about the effects of horror films, and how I could have such adverse reactions to them at different points of my life. Revisiting that very same Rob Zombie film years later, I was able to watch it, no problem (although it's not one of the better parts of the franchise, IMO).
For some people, this process of being pulled in, scared or frightened and then exiting the situation is exhilarating, exciting and 'fun' — for others it is highly aversive.
Still, there's a reason why Jaws and The Exorcist are two of the top-grossing films of all time, and why Us is already killing it at the box office: People love to be terrified. Horror films are the most ideal way of experiencing actual terror, engaging the kind of fight or flight response that might otherwise pop up as panic attacks in inopportune moments. Researchers have found that watching something scary or visiting a horror attraction like a haunted house can provide us with a therapeutic opportunity of sorts, the chance to experience a safe, controlled adrenaline rush that can help viewers relieve anxiety and feel more prepared to handle difficult situations in real life.
But for some people, like pre-anxiety-meds me, watching horror films or scary TV shows can be truly difficult — even if the viewer wants to see the content, they might have a physiological response that causes an extremely uncomfortable reaction, making a trip to the theater not just unpleasant, but unsafe. Because horror films are designed to trigger similar responses to an actual anxiety attack, the experience can be very difficult for some to endure, even if they're aware it's based in fiction.
"The enjoyment that many people get is the feel of excitement, the rush of adrenaline, the anticipation of the response and the ability to be 'in the presence' of situations that we are hard wired to fear and avoid," says Joshua Klapow, Ph.D Clinical Psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, over email. "Thus watching a thriller or a horror film is like playing with our primitive self. We are hardwired to have aversive responses to death, injury, the unknown the supernatural, anything that poses a potential threat to our existence."
Dr. Klapow says this thrill is similar to why we gawk at accidents or peer over edges of tall buildings.
"It is how we learn at a primitive level that these things are dangerous," he says. "Horror and thriller films act the same way. We are compelled to watch because we are wired to learn that these situations are dangerous. For some people, this process of being pulled in, scared or frightened and then exiting the situation is exhilarating, exciting and 'fun' — for others it is highly aversive. It is anxiety provoking, frightening and exhausting. They don’t enjoy the sensation of the fear and thus it is not an enjoyable experience."
Seeing a horror film or thriller late at night and then trying to go to sleep is basically an invitation for your brain to replay the movie scenes over and over.
Sometimes this reaction can even extend to an emotional response after the film is over, Dr. Klapow says.
"Letting go of the thoughts, the images, the feelings can be very difficult for some," he tells Bustle. "Basically for these individuals the scare/fear response doesn’t end at the end of the film. It continues to play out for minutes, hours, days after. We are all wired differently — if your wiring doesn’t let you let it go — you are not likely to enjoy the fear 'hangover' that can come with watching a horror film."
So while some people can find comfort in meditation, talking with friends, or watching a comedy to help move past the horror, others will continue to struggle even if they try these strategies.
But what if, like me, you want to enjoy the experience but have had difficulty in the past — is there a way to train yourself to handle horror entertainment? Dr. Klapow says that the simplest strategy for those who are upset by these films is to avoid them. But should you still want to go despite potential effects and after effects (which can include having nightmares, difficulty sleeping, and replaying disturbing images), there are a few approaches he suggests.
The first, he says, is to actively reinterpret what is on the screen. "When you feel the anxiety and fear come on, begin to step back out of the context of the film and objectify it," Dr. Klapow offers. "Asking yourself questions that help to keep you grounded: 'How did they do that makeup?' 'What computers were used for those special effects?' 'It must have been hard for the actors to do this with a straight face' ... This pulls you out psychologically from the movie experience and lets your brain process the experience more so for what it actually is — a movie that is not real."
So in Us, for example, focusing on the fact that Lupita Nyong'o and Winston Duke are playing two completely different characters might be a good distraction that simultaneously allows for you to take in the story. Appreciating how Nyong'o was able to expertly play both parts (and one with that wild, raspy voice) can help you to disassociate in a way that might prove helpful.
Another suggestion is to avoid looking long and hard at the more difficult scenes. "If you can divert your eyes as a scene is occurring, if you can do that and plug your ears, the information that can cause distress simply wont be encoded," Dr. Klapow says. "While this is not always possible for every scene, it will decrease the amount of aversive images and sounds that are processed by your brain, thus decreasing the impact after the movie."
Something else that could help: Going to a matinee.
"Seeing a horror film or thriller late at night and then trying to go to sleep is basically an invitation for your brain to replay the movie scenes over and over," Dr. Klapow says. "Seeing a movie early allows you to have other non-movie information be brought in over the day and processed to compete with the aversive scenes and decrease the chance of having them stick with you."
Dr. Melanie Shapiro, a psychotherapist, writes in an email that grounding can also be helpful in a moment of anxiety either before or during a horror film.
"This looks like noticing your present surroundings, instead of being overtaken by the fear," she says, adding that she often guides her clients to feel their feet on the ground and to notice their breathing. "Another helpful technique to help grounding is to have someone notice concrete items around the room," she says. "I will have clients point out five things they notice in my office (i.e. the clock, my coffee mug, the window, etc)."
Inside the movie theater, that could be a little difficult, but focusing on something like an exit sign, a bag of popcorn, or someone sitting nearby could help ground you in the moment. When I saw Us on opening night, it was strangely soothing that others around me would audibly react, whether it was laughing at some of the funnier quips Jordan Peele comes up with for his characters, or screaming at jump-scares. It helped remind me I'm not experiencing the fear alone. Also the fact the theater was packed had me thinking about how successful the film was already (it broke some box office records, bringing in $70 million on opening weekend), and how incredible that is for a black-led film from a black writer and director.
But if you can't show up to the theater at all, perhaps watching the film at home might be be more comforting. If you can stand to wait until its streaming or on DVD.
"You can help yourself feel safer by having your own comforts around you," Dr. Shapiro says. "And, make sure you watch [the movie] with others who make you feel safe and can comfort you if you start to feel anxious."
Should these tactics not help, or should you have real-life trauma that you might easily associate with that which happening on screen, it might be best for you to just avoid horror films, even if they are the fodder of this week's water-cooler conversation. Dr. Klapow says if you're connecting your past trauma to something you're viewing, it could prove difficult to separate the responses. If you're able, though, it's something to try and reconcile.
"Recognize that your emotional response could be more driven by memories of an assault, an accident, and a death that you may have witnessed in real life that is coming back in the form of a memory as you see the movie," he says.
While movies can be a great way to escape reality, we ultimately want entertainment to be enjoyable, not cause us more stress.
"Be aware that you may get triggered before watching it and have your plan in place, or even take a break," Dr. Shapiro adds. You can shut the movie off if it becomes too much or take a walk outside."
Should these methods not prove helpful, and watching horror films is still too scary in the realest of ways, it might be best to avoid them. The perceived thrill might just be too much if you're trading it in for anxious days and sleepless nights.
"While movies can be a great way to escape reality, we ultimately want entertainment to be enjoyable, not cause us more stress," Dr. Shapiro says.
"Bottom line: There is no shame in saying you don’t do horror films," Dr. Klapow says. "Better to be honest and enjoy your movie experience than try over and over to tolerate the movie. We are all wired differently, the impact of a movie is going to differ across individuals — you may simply not be a scary movie person."
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.