The Psychological Reason Scary Movies Are Sometimes Oddly Comforting

by Kristine Fellizar
Scared couple watching horror film late at night at home

Scary movies are something you either really love or avoid at all costs. Logically, we should be running away from things that induce fear. But horror movies have a way of drawing a lot of people in. It's a little confusing if you stop and think about it, but horror entertainment is a very popular genre. According to research and experts, there are a few different reasons behind why people like scary movies. Some even find them oddly comforting.

A study published in the Journal of Media Psychology found that people watch scary movies for three main reasons: tension, relevance, and unrealism. For some, watching scary movies can be an entire experience due to the mystery and the shock. Others who are drawn to it due to "relevance," find elements in the movie that they can relate to. Those who like horror due to its "unrealism" enjoy it because they know for a fact that it's all fake anyway. For them, it's just pure entertainment and fun.

"There are different experiences people have while watching horror movies," Dr. Katherine Brownlowe, an assistant professor in the departments of neurology and psychiatry at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, tells Bustle. "Some people enjoy the gore, some people like being startled, and some people love the sheer escapism it offers."

How scary movies make you feel is a big reason why people keep going back for more. According to Dr. Brownlowe, there are several psychological benefits to watching horror films.


People Like The Feeling They Get When They're Scared


Some people react differently to things that are scary. For instance, a 2010 study published in the journal Communication Research found that people who like horror movies tend to enjoy feeling really intense emotions like fear. When you're scared, your brain's immediate response is to go into fight-or-flight mode. When this happens, your entire body can react. For instance, your heart may race and your muscles may tense. It can even cause you to scream or jump. "When we watch a horror movie, it stimulates the brain and the brain responds with the physical and emotional sensations we call fear," Brownlowe says. "Believe it or not, for some people, this is a lot of fun."


It Feels Pleasurable To Get Through A Scary Movie

Horror movies are meant to scare you. But for some people with anxiety, they may find horror movies comforting. According to Brownlowe, there's a good reason why. "The experience of your brain calming itself down after watching a scary movie is actually neuro-chemically very pleasurable," she says. "That’s because the dopamine release related to the 'rest-and-digest' brain response causes an increased sense of well-being."

At the same, it also feels good to go into an experience that seems scary or "risky" and then come out safe and OK. As Brownlowe says, "It challenges our beliefs about risk. In some ways, it can 're-set the thermostat' for people so that things that had seemed intimidating may be easier to deal with in the future." For instance, some people may find that after watching an hours long Halloween scare-fest, it’s not as scary to ask their boss for a raise, face a budget shortfall, or prepare to give a public speech.


Horror Movies Can Help You Feel More Connected To The People Around You


There's a reason why dating coaches will recommend watching a horror movie to get closer to your partner. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Dr. Arthur Aron found that fear arousing situations, like watching a scary movie, can increase the attraction between two people. But aside from increasing attraction, it can even bring you closer together. "Some think that scary movies accesses a deeper part of our collective consciousness as humans," Brownlowe says. "It draws us closer when we have a shared experience of being afraid of the dark, or ghouls, or axe murderers." When you're vulnerable with another person, it creates a sense of intimacy.

Everyone experiences things differently. If you're more sensitive and you feel things very deeply, watching scary movies may be a little too much for you. But if you're not, they can be really fun and sometimes even comforting.