How do horror movies affect us

Since Halloween is right around the corner, there has been an obvious increase in horror films on TV. Even though I’m a fan of the genre, it’s undeniable that I, and most others, feel some type of way while watching horror movies. This made me wonder, what exactly is happening to us physically and psychologically when we watch scary movies?

The physical effects of fear are pretty noticeable. Most people will experience an increased heart rate, and an increase of adrenaline. The Huffington Post UK took a poll and found that The Shining is the number one scariest film, specifically the infamous “HEEEERE’S JOHNNY” scene. They then conducted a study by holding viewings and hooking the audience members up to heart rate monitors, and found that this particular scene caused viewers heart rates’ to increase by an average of 28.21%. This heart rate (between 97-165 BPM) is equivalent the heart rate of someone doing light exercise. So if you’ve ever heard that watching scary movies burns calories, it’s true! Of course it’s not substantial and also not effective if you’re eating a large buttered popcorn in the movie theater. Other noticeable effects could be sweating, or crying, or shaking, which would vary for each viewer. While these physical effects are only temporary, there can be more lasting effects, like sleeplessness if the viewer is very traumatized after the movie.


As for psychological effects, there are quite few more than you might think. The most obvious are anxiety and stress, which relate to the physical side effects because they can lead to increased heart rate and sweating. On a neurological level, during the scary or suspenseful scenes in horror movies, there is increased activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with emotions, in this case, fear. Under more serious circumstances, horror movies can cause PTSD or desensitization. Seeing traumatic scenes in movies can trigger traumatic memories from a viewer’s own life, which can sometimes be too much to handle. As for desensitization, this would be more common in people who watched a lot of intense horror films starting at a young age.

So if horror movies make us cry and lose sleep, why do some of us keep going back for more? The answer can in part be associated with The Excitation Transfer Process and The Gender Socialization Theory. Glenn Sparks, Ph.D., from Purdue University, attributes part of the reason to The Excitation Transfer Process. This process involves what happens to us physically during the movie (increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate), and how we were feeling on an emotional level. If you had an enjoyable time, besides the fact that you were scared, i.e. spending time with friends, eating your favorite candy, etc, you will be more likely to associate these good feeling with the experience of seeing a horror movie. This is because you are psychologically aroused, which heightens the feeling of whatever else you’re doing. As for his theory of Gender Socialization, the experience will depend on how your viewing partner reacts. In a study conducted by Dolf Zillmann, James B. Weaver, Norbert Mundorf, and Charles F. Aust, for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it was found that, “men enjoyed the movie most in the company of a distressed woman and least in the company of a mastering woman. Women, in contrast, enjoyed the movie most in the company of a mastering man and least in the company of a distressed man. Mastery did not enhance the female companions’ physical appeal. However, it significantly enhanced that of the low-appeal male companion. The display of distress in response to horror reduced the desirability of both male and female companions as working mates”. This also shows that this theory can have the opposite effect, and leave the viewer associating horror movies with a bad experience. As for the Excitation Transfer Process, if the viewer has a bad time at the movie, i.e. gets in a fight with their friends, spills their popcorn, can’t find a seat, they could also leave associating horror films with a bad experience, and a heightened one at that. In the end, no matter if you love horror movies or hate them, they affect you whether you know it or not.



7 thoughts on “How do horror movies affect us

  1. Rebecca Sorensen

    I absolutely hate scary movies and have avoided almost all of them my entire life, so I’m not even sure why I was attracted to this post, but I found it very interesting. While all my experiences with scary movies have involved friends and an otherwise fun nights, I still refuse to watch them and will never associate them with good memories. I just started watching American Horror Story two weeks ago, never having watched seasons one, two, or three. Needless to say, it takes me a while to fall asleep now because of how long it takes me to get rid of the image of the clown from the show, and I feel uneasy falling asleep. However, every Wednesday, I tune in to watch. Your post helps explain why I look forward to 10 PM on Wednesdays, not matter how horrified I feel after. I think it is really interesting how factors that seem so small can have such an impact on the way we perceive scary movies. At the very least, I’m glad I’m burning some calories every Wednesday night. Great post!

  2. Caley Mccormick

    I personally always experience paranoia after a good scary movie, however, I still enjoy the thrill they give me. Why do I keep watching? Allan Hilfer, a psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center in New York made a very valid point in saying, “We like to be scared without feeling like we’re in real danger. In that way a scary movie isn’t all that different from a roller coaster. We like fear. We like anxiety. But we like them in a controlled sort of way where we know nothing bad’s going to happen.” This is especially true to the way I think because whenever I begin to feel scared during a movie I remind myself that it isn’t real and I am able to move on.

  3. Abigail Charlotte Ventosa

    This was really interesting for me to read considering I’m a huge horror movie fan! I always get questioned as to why I love them by people would dislike them, but until reading this post I never realized that I’m always with my friends and people I enjoy when I watch them, and maybe I’m associated the good company with the scary movie.. considering I’d never watch a scary movie by myself, not matter how much I love them!

  4. Kendall Agosto

    This post is very interesting and got me thinking about how horror may have a different effect on kids specifically. You mentioned in your post that horror movies may lead to kids becoming desensitized, but another thing that these movies could cause is a child to become violent. The most important age for any person is their early childhood because they are very vulnerable to what they see and hear. If a child watched horror movies in which someone thinks it is okay to kill others, they child is more susceptible to thinking that it is okay in real life, causing the child to act out. I am in no way saying that every child that watches a horror movie will become a killer, but it is just more of a risk to allow kids at a young age to watch horror movies. Overall, horror movies do have different effects on different people. but we should be more careful on what age group we allow to watch these specific movies.

  5. Olivia Yvette Noble

    This was a really interesting post! I myself personally love scary movies and Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. I think the actual of place of where a person watches these scary movies can be a factor on how it effects us. Just like how you talked about how it depends on who you watch the movie with, I Think your location plays a big part as well. If you are watching a scary movie during the day, it may not really effect you, but if you are in a dark scary kind of setting, you will be setting the mood to be pretty scared. This was a great post!!!

  6. Byanca Melissa Rodriguez Villanueva

    I really like this post, I feel that the excitation transfer process happens to me. Imlove horror movies but after I watched them, I can’t sleep, I have nightmares but that still can’t make me quit of watching them. I agree with you about the physocological effects of these movie gender and specially because what the producers are looking for is the connection between what is happening on the movie and our daily life situations. That triggers experiences from viewers that makes them feel anxious and stressed.

  7. ayd5332

    This is a really interesting topic. I liked how you touched upon the fact that your viewing experience has a lot to do with how your viewing partner is effected by it. I have watched horror movies with people who have not been scared at all and others who pretty much half watched it while covering their eyes. Thinking back, I definitely felt more calm myself when watching with another person who was not scared. However, that factor of being psychologically aroused that you discussed comes into play. Although I have been more scared watching horror movies with people who were also terrified, I definitely had a better time being scared together and feeling like we were sharing all the same emotions at the same exact time.

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