How horror movies helped my anxiety

Illustration of horror movie characters surrounding a figure tucked into bed
Nishali Naik/File

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My GPS: “Turn left in 20 miles.”

I shift to the left-most lane in case I miss the exit. 

That’s the best way to describe my anxiety: constant worrying that controls my every action. Basically, I’m Pinocchio and this is the annoying version of Jiminy Cricket with access to a megaphone. 

Growing up, my anxiety was much more severe and was somewhat quelled by Zoloft. But I still had this unshakeable feeling of worrying and oncoming panic that followed me. I showed up to events half an hour beforehand to prevent tardiness. I waited at the bus stop for fifteen minutes to ensure that it didn’t pass me. I had ten alarms in the morning because I wanted to make sure I woke up on time.

Don’t even get me started on interactions with other human beings. I’m still a soft-spoken person and hate the idea that people could find me rude. The perception others had of me weighed on my shoulders like a backpack filled with textbooks. Every time I passed a person on the street, I questioned everything I did when we crossed paths. Do I look weird? Are people looking at me? Did I forget to put on deodorant and that’s why people were looking at me?

My anxiety finally met its match, though it was not any form of medication. It came in a series of two-hour moving images with suspenseful soundtracks: horror films.

At first glance, horror movies and anxiety don’t seem like a good pairing. I had the same first impression because the whole point of the genre was to worsen your anxiety. Jump scares are a staple of the genre: dark settings where the audience cannot see anything, whispers of music that slowly build to a crescendo and finally, a figure popping out of nowhere. It could make any anxious person scream their lungs out.

Don’t get me started on the existential dread present in modern, artsy horror movies. A violin hits a high note, whilst the protagonist floats in a swimming pool full of blood. There’ll be complete silence when the main character sees all the bodies of their dead friends and parents. A movie ends with a demonic force starting a fire in a family’s home. 

However, the constant exposure to these themes and jump scares didn’t worsen my everyday anxiety. Within the two-hour span, my stress levels were at an all time high, I could hear my heartbeat ring through my ears, and my hands shook like a wet dog. These feelings and sensations didn’t spill over into my everyday life. It actually helped the anxiety I was actively experiencing. 

My life wasn’t as chaotic and haunted as those in “Friday the 13th” or “Midsommar.” The characters did have a good reason to worry about their surroundings and environment: something or someone was going after them. There might be a few people going after me, but they aren’t as spooky as Freddy Krueger or a cult in an isolated village. I was worrying about turning in my homework on time.

Through these films, the anxiety bank in my brain was drained. All my worrying about different everyday scenarios and events seemed minuscule to the fearful ghosts and serial killers. Horror became a way to channel my anxiety through the lived experiences of these characters. It’s like when you’re sad and listen to a sad song; your feelings are validated and you might cry those emotions out. My anxiety gave me an adrenaline rush during these movies, rather than the usual nausea.

Obviously, I still struggle with anxiety, especially in social situations, but my constant worrying and overthinking was massively minimized. Adrenaline junkies love rollercoasters and bungee jumping, while my anxious self had movie monsters and creatures. As much as I appreciate the genre, I still refuse to look at a mirror three to five business days after watching a horror movie. That is one thing I will forever keep doing.

Nicholas Clark is a deputy blog editor. Contact him at [email protected].