Books, Pop Culture

As an anxious child, reading horror stories brought me huge relief

It's counter-intuitive, but scary stories soothe my anxiety immensely.

Like any good bookworm, I spent a great deal of my childhood reading books I wasn’t allowed to. There was a certain rush that came with the knowledge that I was reading contraband. The allure of forbidden information – possibly dangerous information – made me even more curious.

While I loved forbidden books from all sorts of genres, I had a deep and inexplicable love for horror stories. The rush I got from reading ‘inappropriate’ books was one thing; the rush I got from submerging myself into an unsafe world was another.

I first found my love of horror through reading Goosebumps books. Then, I moved onto some child-friendly, illustrated versions of classics like Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Upon finishing the scary stories in the children’s section, I lurked in the adult’s section of the library. I started looking for different sorts of scary stories, including scary crime novels, psychological thrillers, and supernatural horrors. According to the library’s rules, I was too young to borrow adult-level horrors. I sneakily bypassed this rule by reading the books in the library so I wouldn’t have to take them home. I sat in the quietest spot I could find, pouring over Stephen King and John Grisham.

I first found my love of horror through reading Goosebumps books. Click To Tweet

Horrors – especially age-restricted horrors – were exciting. But they also provided something I couldn’t find anywhere else: relief from my almost-chronic anxiety. I was an incredibly anxious child, and I didn’t understand my anxiety or have access to help. One of the few things that provided me with relief? Reading horrors and thrillers.

It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? Horrors and thrillers are, by definition, anxiety-inducing. Theoretically, reading these stories should have made me more anxious, not less anxious.

Or so I thought. It turns out that I’m not alone: a quick Google search led me to believe that many anxious people favour horrors and thrillers, both in book and movie form. In an article for Broadly, writer Abby Moss explains that horror movies help her calm down. “When I first noticed the effectiveness of this unconventional way of coping with anxiety, I pretty much freaked out,” she writes. “What was I, some kind of psychopath who derives comfort from the suffering of others?”

For me, a huge part of the appeal was that my anxiety was easier to control if it was induced by unrealistic situations in a book. As a child, I would nearly always be worried; not worrying was not an option. I couldn’t choose whether or not I’d feel anxious, but I could choose what I’d be anxious about. I decided that I’d rather worry about unrealistic or impossible events – like a clown in the sewers feeding on my fear – than realistic events, like being ostracised by classmates, or doing my homework incorrectly.

My anxiety was easier to control if it was induced by unrealistic situations in a book. Click To Tweet

I might read Goosebumps and feel anxious, but I can always put it down and remind myself it’s unrealistic. Knowing that the fear is both unrealistic and within the pages of a book was a huge relief for me.

There’s another reason why horrors soothe my anxiety: as with all books, they remind me that I’m not alone. Reading provides us with a great deal of insight into how other people think. I related to the thoughts of the characters in the books I read, which made me realize that other, real people sometimes thought the way I did.

Anxiety disorders can be isolating, especially when you’re a young child with a limited understanding of mental illness. I often felt like I was the only person who ever felt debilitating distress because the people around me never expressed their anxiety.

I felt like I was the only person who ever felt debilitating distress because the people around me never expressed their anxiety. Click To Tweet

When I read about the thoughts and feelings of anxious characters – whether they were in Judy Blume novels or in thrillers – I felt understood. Horror books were always guaranteed to provide me with a character who felt the way I felt all the time: scared. We’re supposed to empathize with the characters’ fears, but instead, I felt like the characters were empathizing with mine.

To this day, I have a deep affinity towards horrors and thrillers, both in book and movie form. For me, they’re a source of relaxation and a great form of self-care. While I’ve learnt to manage my anxiety better, there’s nothing that provides instant relief like curling up with a scary story.