Why watching horror movies might be better than a workout

Love horror films? Then you’ll love the horror movie workout. Here’s why being scared might be better than sweating it out at the gym.

Could watching horror movies be good for you – and even help you burn calories?

Or does being scared senseless come with long-term consequences?

It turns out there might be an upside to leaning into your darkest fears with research suggesting that watching horror movies might be as effective as a workout.

This is great news for the rising numbers of Australians embracing the shock genre, with cinema company Val Morgan reporting that admissions to horror films rose 49 per cent to 3.12 million last year.

So, with a list of scary flicks slated for release in 2024, we take a closer look at the implications of subjecting yourself to on-screen terror and why a “horror movie workout” might just be good for you.

What is a horror movie workout?

A 2012 study on the topic by the University of Westminster in the UK found jump-scares in horror films prompt the release of endorphins, dopamine and adrenalin, and watching a 90-minute horror movie can help burn over 100 calories, about the same as a quick jog or a 30-minute walk.

“It is this release of fast-acting adrenalin, produced during short bursts of intense stress (or in this case, brought on by fear), which is known to lower appetite, increase basal metabolic rate and, ultimately, burn a higher level of calories,” researcher Dr Richard Mackenzie, of the university, said at the time.

What happens when you watch horror movies?

While widely cited, the UK study was never peer reviewed or directly followed up, but additional research has since shown that scary movies can help us deal with real-life fears.

People who watched pandemic- or apocalypse-related horror showed greater psychological resilience to the COVID-19 pandemic and better coping strategies than those who didn’t; and watching horror movies didn’t lower compassion levels.

And while we’d all love an effortless way to burn calories, psychologist and Solutions Psychology director Melissa Juzva says at their core, horror movies create fear, which may not be positive for everyone.

“When we encounter a potential or actual threatening event or stimuli, this increases the activity in our sympathetic nervous system resulting in changes to our behavioural, cognitive and physiological reactions – such as our heart and breathing rates,” Melissa says.

“If the individual enjoys this response, they perceive the event as enjoyable and/or desirable.”

Can watching horror movies be good for you?

US-based behavioural scientist and author Dr Coltan Scrivner has done numerous studies on our fascination with the horror genre, and he believes watching scary films is good for us because it:

  • Captures our attention; by drawing our thoughts away from everyday concerns, it becomes a powerful mindfulness tool
  • Gives us control over anxiety; when watching horror, fear and worry are a choice rather than unavoidable
  • Provides a safe way to face threats without being confronted with a real-life situation.

But Melissa says exposing a person to horror themes doesn’t mean they will automatically have increased resilience or less anxiety.

“People choosing to watch horror are already predisposed to cope with the threats and probably already have a different level of resilience,” she says.

“Horror movies as a stand-alone strategy is not the best idea for management of anxiety; however, they might be used as part of a carefully managed exposure with your psychologist.”

Horror movies aren’t right for everyone

While some people are wired to enjoy horror movies, others prefer rom-coms or family films.

“There are certain traits that predispose someone to either love or hate horror movies,” Melissa says.  “People who are aroused by mild fear are usually thrillseekers – the same people who are jumping out of planes are likely to be the same ones who are watching horror movies.”

Psychologists recommend horror films be avoided by children aged between three and eight, but this depends on their level of development.

“Research is limited, but studies have consistently shown that adults have strong childhood memories of being scared by a movie,” Melissa says.

Horror movies can trigger or result in traumatic stress under specific circumstances, she notes.

“Ultimately, we should tune into our body clues; if our brain and body are telling us that watching the horror movie is producing a feel-good emotion then OK; if not, you should probably switch over to the rom-com,” Melissa advises.

Those who have certain triggers should be aware that horror movies can push boundaries and touch on trigger points.

Checking movie ratings and reviews online is a good way to pre-empt any potential discomfort.

Upcoming must-see horror movies

If you can’t get enough of gore, screams and ghoulish scenes, never fear – there’s plenty more to come in 2024, with a stack of spine-chilling films set for release, including Beetlejuice Beetlejuice, Smile 2, Terrifier 3, The Watchers, and The Wolf Man.

So, buckle up and get ready for nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat entertainment that may deliver a bunch of wellbeing benefits!

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Written by Andrea Beattie.