If you’re dealing with anxiety in 2020, could watching a horror movie make you feel better? University of Chicago graduate student Coltan Scrivner says the answer—surprisingly—could be yes.
“This seems odd on its face,” said Scrivner, a PhD student in the Department of Comparative Human Development. “How could that possibly help?”
Scrivner takes a scientific approach to understanding cognitive paradoxes like this one, hoping to figure out why some people enjoy being terrified—even during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“If you talk to horror fans or read horror forums,” he said, “you’ll see hundreds of anecdotal examples of people talking about how they use horror to cope with a variety of things, including anxiety, depression and traumas that they have experienced.”
Evidence suggests that there might be a reason humans find it hard to look away from the grim and ghastly.
“Morbid curiosity is an internal motivation to learn about threatening situations in your environment, such that you might be able to avoid those situations in the future,” Scrivner said. “Currently, one of those situations is COVID-19.”
When the pandemic came to national attention, many people felt a sense of impending doom. But at the same time, the movie Contagion quickly became one of the most-watched movies in the U.S.
Scrivner decided to try to understand this phenomenon better by taking advantage of the opportunity COVID had presented to study morbid curiosity in a natural setting, using surveys to reach out to movie fans.
He found that people who were interested in movies like Contagion and Outbreak reported lower levels of anxiety after the pandemic began.
“We tested something called the ordeal simulation hypothesis with horror fans,” he explained. “This is the idea that because they’ve simulated things like this before, they’re a bit more prepared or better able to cope with the real thing.”
Future work that Scrivner is piloting will go beyond COVID-19 to explore whether viewing horror helps people practice emotion regulation or process trauma that they’ve experienced in real life, as anecdotal evidence seems to suggest.
Cabinet of ‘morbid curiosities’
More broadly, Scrivner’s dissertation work is focused on developing a theory of morbid curiosity as a psychological construct, picking apart the phenomenon’s proximate and ultimate causes, and observing how morbid curiosity varies between people and dictates their behaviors.