The Horror Show: On resilience, the pandemic, and the surprising benefits of consuming horror fiction

REC is a found-footage film about a disease outbreak in a Spanish apartment complex

During the first few months of lockdown in 2020, I did something many found counterintuitive. At the height of uncertainty as the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the globe, I sat down for a double feature in my living room. The two movies I watched were Eli Roth’s debut, Cabin Fever, (2002) and Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s found footage chiller, REC (2007).

Cabin Fever is about a group of students who celebrate finishing their exams by taking a retreat to a cabin in the woods (a bad idea for anyone even remotely familiar with horror films). Before long, they encounter a vagrant who has been infected with a highly contagious, lethal virus that resembles Ebola in its effects. As the formerly glib vacationers fall victim to the disease, they begin to turn on each other. The Spanish film REC features a journalist on a ride-along with a group of first responders who are called to an apartment complex because of a disturbance. Once inside, the government seals off the building because it is the epicentre of a disease outbreak; in this case, the virus turns its sufferers into ravenous, zombie-like cannibals.

Many people would find it passing strange to watch two horror films about lethal contagions in the middle of an actual pandemic. Then again, one of the most viewed films on Netflix in the early days of COVID was Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 outbreak thriller literally titled Contagion, so clearly I’m not alone. The horror writer Susie Moloney wrote a guest post for this site last week, in which she talked about using horror movies as a balm for her feelings of isolation and nervousness during COVID. And it would appear that horror has flourished as a genre during the past eighteen months as people continue to process the way parts of the real world appear to have adopted tropes from post-apocalyptic fiction.

Those of us who use horror as a means of metaphorically engaging with the world around us – in all its strangeness, fear, and paranoia – have known all along that the genre has a unique ability to tap into our deepest fears in a way that allows us to wrestle with them and come to a kind of detente with our own psyches and the world around us. Now, thanks to the pandemic making pretty much everyone a horror fan in some way, shape, or form, psychological studies seem to be catching up with us.

Rider Strong in Eli Roth’s contagion horror Cabin Fever

According to a recent piece in Nautilus by PhD student Coltan Scrivner, horror fans are better prepared to cope with the stress of COVID, largely because they have an outlet for their anxieties. Scrivner teamed up with Mathias Clasen to study 310 volunteer participants, “who answered questions that we used to assess their morbid curiosity, how prepared they felt for the pandemic, how they were feeling during the pandemic, and their movie preferences.” What they discovered will not surprise anyone with a history of enjoying horror movies and literature. Although they were no more likely to find positive experiences during the pandemic, horror fans “weren’t feeling as anxious or irritable” as non-horror fans.

“One way that frightening fiction might lead to better resilience during the pandemic is by providing a safe way to learn how to deal with fear and anxiety,” Scrivner writes. “By scaring you in your seat without actually posing a threat, you have the opportunity to practice your emotion regulation skills, particularly with regard to fear.”

In the text of Scrivner and Clasen’s study (co-written with John A. Johnson and Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen), the authors expand upon the potential reasons why horror might provide a psychological buffer during times of extreme stress or uncertainty:

What can we learn from a scary movie? Although most people go into a scary movie with the intention of being entertained rather than learning something, scary stories present ample learning opportunities. Fiction allows the audience to explore an imagined version of the world at very little cost. Through fiction, people can learn how to escape dangerous predators, navigate novel social situations, and practice their mind-reading and emotion regulation skills. In this study, we show that people who engaged more frequently with frightening fictional phenomena, such as horror fans and the morbidly curious, displayed more robust psychological resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, watching films that deal with the social upheaval that might occur during a pandemic was associated with greater reported preparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, perhaps watching that double bill wasn’t so weird after all. Now that things are on their way to reopening, albeit tentatively and with great caution, horror fans can continue to indulge themselves in preparation for whatever the world throws at us next. In the meantime, there are apparently plenty of horror-themed restaurants to patronize when the book is done and the movie ends.

The Horror Show: On resilience, the pandemic, and the surprising benefits of consuming horror fiction
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