Health & Wellbeing

Horror film fans are dealing with COVID-19 better than most, study finds

Horror film fans are dealing w...
Researchers suggest fans of horror or pandemic films may score highly in a trait called morbid curiosity
Researchers suggest fans of horror or pandemic films may score highly in a trait called morbid curiosity
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Researchers suggest fans of horror or pandemic films may score highly in a trait called morbid curiosity
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Researchers suggest fans of horror or pandemic films may score highly in a trait called morbid curiosity

A new study, conducted over the past few months in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, has found fans of apocalyptic and horror media are reporting less distress and greater resilience during this real pandemic compared to those who don’t consume those kinds of genre fiction.

Why some people enjoy frightening horror films is a question many researchers have long puzzled over. While the answer is undoubtedly multi-faceted, one hypothesis has suggested traumatic fictional narratives allow people to simulate challenging scenarios in safe settings.

“If it’s a good movie, it pulls you in and you take the perspective of the characters, so you are unintentionally rehearsing the scenarios,” Coltan Scrivner, one of the authors of the new study, tells The Guardian. “We think people are learning vicariously.”

So, if that hypothesis were somewhat true, then people who watch and enjoy apocalyptic pandemic movies should be coping with COVID-19 traumas a little better than people who avoid those kinds of movies and television shows. Scrivner and a team of psychologists set out to explore that very possibility by interviewing 310 subjects.

The questions covered what kinds of media the subjects prefer to consume, including specific queries regarding how much they enjoyed pandemic, apocalypse and alien-invasion films. The cohort were also questioned as to how prepared they felt they were for this pandemic, and how psychologically distressed they have been since it began.

The results were fascinatingly nuanced. Fans of horror films, for example, reported significantly lower levels of psychological distress in the face of the global pandemic. However, horror fandom was not associated with higher rates of preparedness or resilience.

Unsurprisingly, significantly high rates of preparedness came from fans of so-called “prepper genres,” including films about apocalyptic scenarios or alien invasions. The best results, in terms of resilience and preparedness, came from those subjects reporting the greatest engagement with pandemic films specifically.

Back in March, during the early waves of the pandemic, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller Contagion suddenly rocketed into the most-watched lists of many streaming services. This phenomenon puzzled many, after all, as Scrivner notes in a second new research paper, why would people “search for entertainment about the topic that was causing mass disruption in their lives”?

He says this strange counter-intuitive trait is called "morbid curiosity." In a second study, Scrivner describes how those individuals who sought out pandemic-related entertainment while a real global pandemic was underway register high in this trait, and he hypothesizes it is a way for some people to engage with dangerous situations from a distance.

“Indeed, this morbidly curious behavior might make sense as an output of evolved mechanisms that process threatening or dangerous material in organisms cognitively equipped with the ability to imagine themselves in situations and learn from those imagined experiences,” writes Scrivner in his second study.

The pandemic film study is available in pre-print form on PsyArXiv, while the morbid curiosity paper is online at Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture.

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