Movies, Science, Now + Beyond

This is what happens to your body when you watch scary movies

Turns out there are benefits to being scared of of your wits.

Heart pounding. Fixed gaze. Tense body. A smile on my face.

This is my state any time I watch a good scary movie. I think they’re an excellent choice for group activities and I’m notorious for forcing friends to join in for two hours of mindless roasting and jump scares.

Though, it turns out that watching horror movies isn’t that much of a waste of time. In fact, along with staving off sleep and instigating a temporary fear of murderers and demons lurking around every dark corner, scary movies actually have health benefits to them.

1. Calorie Burn

A blonde woman in a black dress runs crying through a panicked crowd.
[Image description: A blonde woman in a black dress runs crying through a panicked crowd.] Via GIPHY
For starters, a 2012 study conducted at the University of Westminster found that a 90-minute adrenaline-pumping flick can burn over 100 calories. The Shining was in first place with the average viewer burning 184 calories per viewing. Jaws came in second at 161 calories and The Exorcist landed in at third place with 158 calories burned. 

Dr. Richard Mackenzie, senior lecturer and specialist in cell metabolism and physiology at the University of Westminster, credited this burn to the adrenaline rush.

“As the pulse quickens and blood pumps around the body faster, the body experiences a surge in adrenaline. It is this release of fast acting adrenaline, produced during short bursts of intense stress which is known to lower the appetite, increase the Basal Metabolic Rate and ultimately burn a higher level of calories,”.

We all know what this means… more nachos, please!

2. “Good stress”

A curly, dark-haired woman in a white shirt says "Got me all stressed out", as she backs away.
[Image description: A curly, dark-haired woman in a white shirt says “Got me all stressed out”, as she backs away.] Via GIPHY
Surprisingly, not all stress is bad.

A study at the University of California, Berkeley, found that acute stress is great for improving cognitive and behavioral performance. Through animal testing, researchers found that such stress actually plays a hand in preparing for future stress too. A kind of exposure therapy so your body becomes more alert and you’ll respond quickly to such stresses down the line.

“In the natural environment, where acute stress happens on a regular basis, it will keep the animal more alert, more attuned to the environment and to what actually is a threat or not a threat,” said Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley.

3. Bones up the immune system

A yellow sponge character sits in front of a TV, smiling and munching on popcorn.
[Image description: A yellow sponge character sits in front of a TV, smiling and munching on popcorn.] Via GIPHY
Published in The International Journal on the Biology of Stress, a study found a temporary increase in the production of white blood cells which usually happens in response to battle infection. 

This kind of response has been developed over years of evolution, to promote survival, and watching a scary movie flicks on a person’s fight-or-flight response, said Natalie Riddell, an immunologist at University College London. According to her, this response leads to adrenaline which in turn mobilizes the immune system.

Best to fill up your Netflix list with scary movies instead of FRIENDS the next time you fall ill. Or perhaps by employing a steady diet of scary movies under preventive care, we can avoid the flu altogether.

4. Staves off anxiety 

A dark-haired girl in glasses and a black tank grabs a can of chips, pulls one in her hand and leans into a red beanbag in preparation for a story.
[Image description: A dark-haired girl in glasses and a black tank grabs a can of chips, pulls one in her hand and leans into a red beanbag in preparation for a story.] Via GIPHY
There are plenty of ways to cope with anxiety, and apparently, horror is one of them. Theoretically, a horror movie provides a different kind of anxiety, one that stands apart from you and thus, distracts you.

Patricia Grisafi, a freelance writer, published an essay on the topic in Luna Luna Magazine about her own experience of coping through horror films.

“This disconnect makes perfect sense. After all, coping with real-world situations is sometimes intolerable for people with sensitive nervous systems. Dulling our senses with inexplicable horror and violence just might help a disordered nervous system become more amenable to the everyday crises of life,” she wrote. 

The bottom line is that it’s gratifying, but only when emotions can be managed warns Dr. Mathia Clasen who’s been studying the psychological effects of scary movies for near two decades.

“There’s psychological distance when we watch a horror film. We know it’s not real—or at least, some parts of our brain know it isn’t real. Other parts—ancient structures located in the limbic system—respond as though it were real,” he said.

These are all excellent reasons to plan a horror marathon. However, if you’re someone who detests scary movies, the aforementioned health benefits won’t apply to you. The chronic stress would outweigh the benefits. 

But hey, the next time someone scoffs at your pick of a horror title, hit them with these facts.