There are certain days — and they seem to be happening more frequently — when I feel completely out of control. Restless limbs. Racing mind. Full-force anxiety seamlessly mixed with debilitating fatigue washes over me.
When I feel it coming on, I start grasping for things to snap me out of it. A nap is usually the first thing I try, and then a snack. Maybe some exercise if I’m REALLY at a loss. If none of those work, I break the glass on my emergency measure — the one thing that is sure to press my reset button and get me back on track.
I clear my schedule for a few hours, get comfy on the couch, and watch a horror movie.
And not just any horror movie. I pick the most f*cked-up horror movie I can find. Why would I do that, you ask? Well, when I watch a movie that terrifies me, I’m not focused on anything else outside of the winding tension on the screen, my own pounding heart, and then, finally, the cathartic release at the end. And it feels fantastic.
While many people might think scary movies fuel anxiety, for me, it’s the opposite. By the time the end credits roll, I feel calmer, more focused, and better prepared to approach whatever’s in front of me.
In a 2019 Huffington Post article entitled “Why Some People with Anxiety Love Watching Horror Movies,” the writer Caroline Bologna (my favorite food — and yes, that’s a “Ratched” reference) offers some insight from mental health professionals as to why this works for some people.
“These movies could provide a distraction from their personal worries that are causing them physical and emotional distress,” says Jocelyn McDonnell, a therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, in the article.
“For example, instead of worrying about making a mistake on a presentation at work tomorrow, the person would be focusing on fearful stimuli that is unrelated to their lives, such as being chased by a clown that lives in a sewer.”
To sink our teeth a little farther into how watching scary movies can be oddly therapeutic, here’s how a few (perhaps controversial) horror classics have shaken me out of a physical or mental impasse.
I was afraid to watch “The Exorcist” for so long after my mother referenced it as the scariest thing she’d ever seen. I had never known my mother to be scared of anything, so the thought of her carrying the impact of the experience with her made it the scariest movie in the world in my mind.
I was in my early 20s when I finally saw the movie at a friend’s house one Halloween night. Afterward, when I returned to my apartment alone, I noticed a keen awareness of some of the darker corners. But I also noticed something more important: The nearly paralyzing social anxiety I’d had to work through to get to that friend’s house in the first place had dissipated.
Since then, this movie has taken on a sort of liberating meaning for me.
The experience of viewing this 2018 exploration of family, grief, and ritual can feel like riding a roller coaster in total darkness. For that short, exhilarating time, your thoughts aren’t on what’s back on the ground.
When a main character’s face distorts in an anguished scream or when another terrifies me by losing themselves to dark forces, it certainly sticks with me. It also helps me release any tension from a tight work deadline or a high monthly bill for a couple of restorative hours.
The found-footage style that the original “Paranormal Activity” was shot in seems a bit old hat these days. But when this was released in 2007, it was still a fresh approach that scared me to a full-body degree.
It seems funny to unwind from everyday stressors by watching a hyper-realistic movie about your house being overrun by evil spirits. But damn, spend a little while suffering (and screaming) along with these poor people and you’ll come away feeling like you can handle anything.
This is a movie about a freaky German surgeon who kidnaps people; sews them to one another, mouth to butt; and forces them to live a new, horrifying, poop-eating lifestyle.
All I’ll say is whatever you were thinking about before, you’re not thinking about that now.
Whenever I’m at my very lowest, I can bring to mind the image of Sigourney Weaver’s classic badass character Ripley. She’s floating in deep space, wearing nothing more than white underpants, a tank top, and super cool Reebok Alien Stomper shoes that I have yet to find in my size on eBay.
I know without a doubt that if she can overcome what she did in this sci-fi horror classic, I can take an earnest stab at confronting whatever my day holds. Things may be hard, scary, strange, and uncertain, but at least there are no teeth-snapping, drooling aliens coming after us (yet).
Bonus: I asked my wife what movie scared her the most, and she said “Mothman.” So there’s that.
Kelly McClure is a writer who has written for NY Magazine, GQ, The Hairpin, Rolling Stone, and more. Find more of her work here.