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How Horror Movies Can Spook Away Your Stress

Ok, first of all, I know what you’re thinking: Can watching something scary really make you feel less scared? But hear me out: 

To start, I’ll give you a story dating all the way back to 2014 when I attended Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios in Orlando for the very first time. For some background, if you see me at a theme park, you will never see me get on a roller coaster. Everything about them terrifies me for all of the reasons they exhilarate most people. So, when I walked through the gate at Universal, the idea of tackling something like the haunted houses at Halloween Horror Nights made me feel about as much of a daredevil as a fifteen-year-old possibly could. 

Oh, that clown with a chainsaw and skin peeling off its face made you cry? Please, I’m happy to pass it, take a sip of my ICEE and smile straight at it with my cutest death stare. 

You couldn’t make it through the house filled with demons and even more clowns with missing arms and bloody eyes because they jumped to scare you? I saw the jump scares before they were coming and would wait right in front of them to scare them first.

Zero offense to anyone who’s actually scared of haunted houses; the first time I attended, it took me time to get used to seeing living nightmares right in front of me. My point is that it was fun to finally feel like the brave one. Once I got used to going through the motions of the event every year, I started to learn the patterns, like how to tell when a jump scare was coming. As a result, finally having control over something that was meant to scare me was the most thrilling part of it.

And as for horror movies, they have an effect that’s comparable to exposure therapy. Psychologist Dr. Maria Ironside says, “research shows that if people repeatedly see a picture of a fearful face in an experiment, their amygdala reaction decreases over time.” She confirms that this form a treatment is “similar” to the effect of scary movies.

So, what exactly happens in our brains when we watch a scary movie? Sal Raichbach, PsyD, explains that the fear is “something separate” with a “psychological distance” from us.

Of course, if you’re going into a haunted house, the scares are a little different because they’re right in front of you- but the concept remains the same. “The tense scenes build up anxiety and then provide a sense of relief once the scene is over,” Raichbach says. When you get jump scared, “you know it isn’t real, yet you react like it was real.”

Courtesy: Giphy

But this also gives you an excuse to procrastinate (whoops) since it’s both midterm season and spooky season. That’s right, if you’re reading this after studying for some kind of micro-orgo-bio-techno (not in a STEM major) exam, throw away those notes (neatly, in a drawer please), lay back with some kettle corn and turn on Netflix to the horror category.

As an intermission, here are some personal recommendations:

Disclaimer: I am not a T.V. or movie reviewer.

Another disclaimer: Please do not let me sabotage your exams; I’m (kind of) joking about the procrastination part. 

1. Coraline

Courtesy: Indie Wire

IMDb Synopsis: “An adventurous 11-year-old girl finds another world that is a strangely idealized version of her frustrating home, but it has sinister secrets.”

Before you try to ask me why I’m recommending you a kid’s movie, let me say that THIS IS NOT A KIDS MOVIE.

I recently watched this because thought I would feel nostalgic and quickly remembered that it literally gave me nightmares as a ten-year-old just like every other kid. Just think about it: An alternate dimension of spider creatures who appear as humans lure human prey inside and trap them until they can keep them forever by sewing buttons into their eyes.

Not a kid’s movie.

But it is light enough that it can distract you from your current worries, especially since it’s claymation (because imagine the horror fest it would be if it were live-action).

  • IMDb rating: 7.7/10
  • Rotten Tomatoes rating: 91%
  • Scare Factor: 127/10

(Might give you nightmares.)

2. In the Tall Grass

Courtesy: Digital Spy

Synopsis: After hearing a young boy’s cry for help, a sister and brother venture into a vast field of tall grass in Kansas but soon discover there may be no way out…and that something evil lurks within.

This is definitely one where you have to pay attention to enjoy it because if you don’t, all you’ll take away from it is people running around in a field of tall green grass. That is the basic premise of it, but it’s interesting if you put your full attention into it. It’s also a novella by Stephen King, which should be enough of a selling point. Apart from the all-knowing grass (the grass is important, if you don’t already know), it has a creepy kid, cryptic symbols on a big rock and a sense of oblivion to the whole mood in general.  

There’s also a dark shift- the movie starts in a sunny, farming field, but then at night, it turns into an ominous dark maze that will be sure to make you shudder (at least a little).  

  • IMDb rating: 5.5/10
  • Rotten Tomatoes rating: 35%
  • Scare Factor: 4/10

(Cheesy, but the traditional horror experience.)

3. The Haunting of Hill House

Courtesy: Syfy

Synopsis: Flashing between past and present, a fractured family confronts haunting memories of their old home and the terrifying events that drove them from it.

Also based on a novel, this horror-drama starts slow but becomes just as addictive as it is horrifying. It has the storyline of a typical horror movie: A family of seven moves into a house filled with paranormal activity.

But what makes this a Netflix stand out is its focus on the kids, but it’s not merely about kids living in a haunted house. The series alternates between the perspective of the kids as children and them as adults, showing how the trauma of living with so much paranormal activity stays with them, even years later after moving out of the house and growing up. Out of this entire list, The Haunting of Hill House is probably the most unsettling and has the most jump scares.

  • IMDb rating: 8.7/10
  • Rotten Tomatoes rating: 92%
  • Scare Factor: 8/10

(Season 2 is coming in 2020!)

4. Supernatural

Courtesy: TV Insider

IMDb synopsis: Two brothers follow their father’s footsteps as hunters, fighting evil supernatural beings of many kinds, including monsters, demons and gods that roam the earth.

A classic. With fifteen seasons (fourteen on Netflix), this should be your go-to if you have a lot of time because once you start, you’ll be hooked.  

You’ll also enjoy this if you’re into creature features because this show goes through every single possible supernatural being you could ever think of. While the early seasons are mainly about Sam and Dean fighting a new monster every episode, the series develops into a complex storyline about an unearthly battle between Heaven and Hell. It’s funny, scary and its tight-knit lead cast is a winner.

  • IMDb rating: 8.4/10
  • Rotten Tomatoes rating: 88%
  • Scare factor: Varies across episodes

(You will finish a season a week once you start.)

But before you say “Emily, horror movies give me nightmares! They make me more anxious, how is this even a thing?” Remember that not all coping mechanisms are a one-size-fits-all treatment. Horror can relieve anxiety, but it can also trigger it. I’ve noticed that if I watch a movie that’s intense on a day that I’m particularly stressed, the movie can intensify those symptoms. My advice would be to watch them when you’re feeling at least O.K. or if you are feeling anxious before you watch it, to take breaks or turn it off if you feel yourself getting triggered.

As a reminder, horror movies won’t be 100% effective to treat your stress, although they have been proven to provide relief. It’s also essential for mental health to be active, eat right and get enough sleep, but sometimes it’s more fun to get into the spirit of things; so in honor of thee spooky season, Netflix might be the perfect fix.


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Emily Allen is a student at Florida State University studying English editing, writing and media. She's from Orlando, but before you ask, she hasn't been to Disney since middle school. She's passionate about all kinds of writing and hopes to use it to inspire those around her. To find out more, you can follow her on Instagram @emily.allen.19