A new study has found that people who enjoy horror movies tend to report lower levels of psychological distress in response to the outbreak of COVID-19. The findings, published in Personality and Individual Differences, indicate that the type of fiction a person enjoys is related to how they cope with the pandemic.
The authors of the study were interested in learning more about why people intentionally expose themselves to fictional violence and frightening situations. The outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 provided them with a chance to examine the psychological dispositions of people who are fond of such things.
“My main research topic is the psychology of morbid curiosity, so it’s in-line with much of my other research,” explained study author Coltan Scrivner (@MorbidPsych), a fellow at the Institute for Mind and Biology and a PhD candidate at The University of Chicago.
“Back in March, Penny Sarchet, a science journalist at New Scientist, asked if horror fans were faring better during the pandemic. My colleagues and I thought this was a great question, and we had considered the idea that horror fans might be able to cope with anxiety or fear better in real life before. So, we decided to investigate it.”
In April of 2020, shortly after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, the researchers surveyed 322 U.S. participants using the online survey platform Prolific. The survey included an assessment of the psychological response to the pandemic. It also included assessments of genre preferences and morbid curiosity, among other factors.
The researchers found that fans of horror movies and TV shows — as well as fans of prepper genres such as zombie movies — reported less psychological distress amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Fans of these genres were less likely to agree with statements such as “During the pandemic, I have been more depressed than usual” and “I haven’t been sleeping well since the pandemic started” compared to those who were not fans. Fans of prepper genres also reported being more prepared for the pandemic.
But horror and prepper fandom were both unrelated to positive psychological resilience amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, horror and prepper fans were no more or less likely than non-fans to agree with statements such as “I feel positive about the future” and “Life has felt meaningful during the pandemic.”
Those who were morbidly curious, on the other hand, reported greater positive resilience during the pandemic. But there was no relationship between morbid curiosity and psychological distress.
“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,” the researchers explained.
The findings highlight “that feeling anxious or afraid isn’t always bad,” Scrivner told PsyPost.
But the study does “not say anything about the mechanism behind the finding that horror fans are showing more psychological resilience during the pandemic. We speculate in the paper that this may be due to horror fans having ‘practiced’ those emotion regulation skills more due to exposing themselves to frightening fiction,” Scrivner added.
“I currently have a follow-up study planned to explore possible mechanisms by which horror fans are coping better. We also have a cross-cultural study that we recently launched looking at whether or not horror fans are following COVID-19 guidelines better (or worse) than non-horror fans. For example, are they practicing social distancing and wearing masks more often than non-horror fans?”
The study, “Pandemic practice: Horror fans and morbidly curious individuals are more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic“, was authored by Coltan Scrivner, John A. Johnson, Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, and Mathias Clasen.