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From one season of terror to the next: how the horror genre can help us prepare for exams

By Frances Chorley

Horror to switch off, an anxiety coping mechanism?

Horror movies tend to be a divisive subject. For some, simulated terror is the epitome of culture, an artistic delve into the darker parts of the human psyche. Others can’t stomach it—even Paranorman might be a stretch. But experimental research has indicated that ardent fans of the genre might be onto something. A 2020 study by researchers at Aarhus University, Denmark, identified a link between enjoyment of horror movies and the ability to cope with stressful situations. The dawn of December marks the transition from one season of fear to the next, hallowed by exam timetables and relentless essays. As deadline season looms, what can the horror genre teach us about anxiety management?

MRI screening has shown that simulated fear generates a very real physiological experience. Preparing for the worst, the body kicks into fight or flight, and activates the sympathetic nervous system. When we recognise the threat as false, this adrenaline rush is succeeded by an influx of endorphins and an overwhelming sense of relief. This experience itself has been tied to the alleviation of anxiety symptoms, similar to that which can succeed intense exercise. Similarly, a 2019 study found that participants who visited an ‘extreme haunted attraction’ were less challenged by stressors experienced subsequently.

This finding was corroborated in a 2020, when the researchers at Aarhus University found that those who identified themselves as fans of the horror genre were better equipped to deal with stressful scenarios. In an interview with Psycom, Mathias Clasen, a contributor to the study, contended that this was based around a “learning” process; horror films allow us to experience the physiological sensations of fear whilst in a safe and stable environment: “When you watch a scary movie, you’re actively regulating your own emotions, for example by reminding yourself that it’s just fiction, or covering your eyes or controlling your breathing”. Those predisposed to anxiety may also find relief in a renewed sense of control. When you intentionally expose yourself to something frightening, Clasen continues, “you know where the fear is coming from—the screen in front of you—and you know you can switch it off at any time”.

Whilst this research might be particularly uplifting for the already horror-keen, the adverse need not despair—there is no need to prepare for exams by binge-watching the Evil Dead franchise. Sociologist Margee Kerr proposes that horror is effective for anxiety management on the basis that it restores a sense of agency to an individual. As such, any scenario that pushes us to the edges of our comfort zones can be a good lesson in emotional regulation. Thus, while horror movies might offer academic reward to some, it could be just as well to ride a rollercoaster. Clearly, the application of this research to an exam context is finite. We cannot simply “switch off” our deadlines. Yet, the utility of anxiety management cannot be understated, both in our academics this December, and for frights beyond.


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