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New study on the psychology of horror fans finds they have more mental resilience than average

A new study on the psychology of horror fans has found that they have more mental resilience than average.

A new study on the psychology of horror fans has found that they have more mental resilience than average.

Likewise, fans of “prepper” genres (including alien invasion, apocalyptic, and zombie movies) also showed greater preparedness.

These results support the idea that exposure to scary fiction helps audiences to practice “coping strategies” that can be beneficial in real-world situations.

“Through fiction,” the authors write, “people can learn how to escape dangerous predators, navigate novel social situations, and practice their mind-reading and emotion regulation skills.”

Fiction prepares us for the real world

The study, whose lead author was Coltan Scrivner at the University of Chicago, was published on September 15 in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

For the study, Scrivner and his colleagues recruited 310 participants in April 2020.

They asked the participants a number of questions about their viewing habits.

Examples included their experience with movie and TV genres such as horror, zombie, psychological thriller, supernatural, apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic, science fiction, and more.

In addition, participants indicated how much they enjoy watching TV and movies in general, and pandemic movies in particular.

The psychology of horror fans: resilience

The researchers also measured the participants’ psychological resilience. Psychologists define resilience as the ability to adapt to adversity.

It refers to a kind of ongoing improvement that occurs after a stressful or traumatic event.

Some good synonyms for resilience might include a mix of flexibility, sturdiness, buoyancy, and grit.

To measure resilience in this study, participants responded to statements such as “Compared to how I usually feel, I have been more nervous and anxious during the pandemic.”

Likewise, participants responded to statements about their preparedness for the pandemic. An example statement was “I knew early on which items I should buy in preparation for a pandemic.”

Also assessed was the psychological trait of “morbid curiosity,” which describes a person’s interest in dangerous or threatening phenomena.

Finally, the participants underwent a standard “Big Five” personality questionnaire.

Horror fans had less psychological distress

The authors found that fans of the horror genre were significantly less likely to experience psychological distress during the pandemic.

And fans of the “prepper” genre were significantly more prepared for the pandemic. The “prepper” genre included zombie, apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic, and alien-invasion movies.

Prepper fans also reported fewer negative disruptions in their life during the pandemic.

In terms of preparedness, participants who had never seen a pandemic film felt significantly less prepared for the pandemic.

Likewise, participants who reported being interested in pandemic films had more resilience during the pandemic than those who had no interest.

The authors hypothesize that watching a prepper or horror movie allows people to model what these experiences might actually be like.

In that sense, watching these films resembles children’s play.

For example, “rough-and-tumble play” allows kids (and animals) to develop the mental and physical skills they will need if and when they encounter actual dangerous situations as adults.

Fiction trains our emotional coping skills

In the case of horror movies, the authors suggest, fans might have developed improved emotional coping skills by watching so many scary scenes.

Indeed, examples of resilience are easy to find in horror movies, where developing resilience is crucial for survival.

So a resilient person uses effective coping mechanisms as tools to deal with challenging life events.

As a result, building resilience might make them better able to deal with fear in the real world.

Past research has also associated similar “emotion regulation” skills with increased mental resilience.

“Experiencing negative emotions in a safe setting, such as during a horror film,” the authors write, “might help individuals hone strategies for dealing with fear and more calmly deal with fear-eliciting situations in real life.”


Study: “Pandemic practice: Horror fans and morbidly curious individuals are more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic
Authors: Coltan Scrivner, John A. Johnson, Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, and Mathias Clasen
Published in: Personality and Individual Differences
Publication date: September 15, 2020
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110397
Photo: by Sammy-Williams via Pixabay 

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Douglas Heingartner

Douglas Heingartner

Douglas Heingartner, the editor of PsychNewsDaily, is a journalist based in Amsterdam. He has written about science, technology, and more for publications including The New York Times, The Economist, Wired, the BBC, The Washington Post, New Scientist, The Associated Press, IEEE Spectrum, Quartz, The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times, Frieze, and others. His Google Scholar profile is here, his LinkedIn profile is here, and his Muck Rack profile is here.