Fans of horror, zombie and apocalyptic movies are better at dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, says study

Horror movie fans appeared psychologically less distressed by the crisis than most, but those who watched 'prepper movies' were found to be more resilient and better prepared


                            Fans of horror, zombie and apocalyptic movies are better at dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, says study
(Getty Images)

Are fans of horror, alien-invasion, zombie and apocalyptic movies better at coping with the Covid-19 pandemic? A new study suggests that this just might be the case. Researchers have found that people who watch a lot of horror movies exhibited greater resilience during the pandemic and that fans of "prepper" genres — alien-invasion, apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic, and zombie films — showed both greater resilience and preparedness.

The team also found that morbid curiosity, a personality trait that has been previously linked with interest in horror, was associated with positive resilience during the coronavirus pandemic as well as interest in pandemic films. "Taken together, these results are consistent with the hypothesis that exposure to frightening fictions allow audiences to practice effective coping strategies that can be beneficial in real-world situations," says the research team in their analysis. It includes experts from the University of Chicago, US, Pennsylvania State University, US, and Aarhus University, Denmark.

Psychologists analyzed whether past and current engagement with relevant fictions was associated with greater preparedness for and psychological resilience toward the pandemic. They tested the hypothesis that morbidly curious individuals and horror fans exhibit greater psychological resilience during the Covid-19 pandemic. They also investigated whether or not those who watched more pandemic films specifically exhibited greater resilience and preparedness for the Covid-19 pandemic.

"While fiction can exist in several forms, we opted to study films since films are a particularly popular medium. Using the idea that fiction can serve as a useful simulation of reality, we predicted that horror fans would be more psychologically resilient during the Covid-19 pandemic, those who score high in morbid curiosity would be more psychologically resilient during the pandemic, and watching more pandemic films would be associated with greater preparedness for and psychological resilience during the pandemic," they write in the pre-print, which is yet to be peer-reviewed. 

The researchers interviewed 310 volunteers on their movie preferences and viewing histories before asking them how prepared they were mentally for a pandemic like the current one, and what levels of depression, anxiety, irritability and sleeplessness they experienced. The results reveal that being a horror fan was significantly associated with lower psychological distress. But being a horror fan was unrelated to preparedness. Fans of zombie, apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic, and alien-invasion films were significantly more prepared for the pandemic and experienced fewer negative disruptions in their life during the pandemic. However, being a fan of prepper genres was unrelated to positive resilience. 

Fans of zombie, apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic, and alien-invasion films experienced fewer negative disruptions in their life during the pandemic, shows analysis (Getty Images)

The analysis also shows that morbidly curious individuals experienced considerably greater positive resilience during the pandemic. There was no significant relationship between morbid curiosity and psychological distress or between trait morbid curiosity and preparedness, says the team.

Watching pandemic films in the past was significantly related to preparedness for the pandemic. But contrary to the authors’ predictions, past use of pandemic films was not related to psychological distress or positive resilience. Current interest in pandemic films was significantly associated with positive resilience but not psychological distress or preparedness. Morbid curiosity was notably associated with past use of pandemic films.

Those who had seen many pandemic films were significantly more morbidly curious than those who had never seen pandemic films, indicate results. Current interest in pandemic films was also significantly associated with morbid curiosity. "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 specifically with the social upheaval that might occur during a pandemic was associated with greater preparedness for the Covid-19 pandemic."

"This is in line with the simulation account of fiction where fiction allows its audience to explore possible worlds and try out various strategies and experiences without the negative consequences that would accompany these experiences in real life,” says the team. They add, "Experience with these simulations can be used as a form of preparation and practice of both specific skills relevant to particular situations and more general skills associated with emotion regulation."

What can we learn from a scary movie? According to researchers, though most people do not go into a scary movie to learn something, scary stories present ample learning opportunities. Stories allow the audience to explore the dynamics of an imagined version of the world at very little cost, making stories particularly good vectors for learning about threats, they explain. The authors further write that through stories, people can learn how to escape dangerous predators, navigate novel social situations, and explore methods for surviving a catastrophe. Imaginative fiction also allows its audience to practice their mind-reading and emotion regulation skills, especially in uncommon — but consequential — situations, they add.

The team says one reason that horror use may correlate with less psychological distress is that horror fiction allows its audience to practice grappling with negative emotions in a safe setting. "Through fearing the murderer or monster on the screen, audiences have an opportunity to reflect on negative emotions such as fear or disgust and practice emotion regulation skills," they write. Experiencing negative emotions in a safe setting, such as during a horror film, might help individuals hone strategies for dealing with negative emotions and more calmly deal with those negative emotions in real-life situations, say psychologists. 

The authors say one reason that horror use may correlate with less psychological distress is that horror fiction allows its audience to practice grappling with negative emotions in a safe setting (Getty Images)

Another interesting finding was the correlation between prepper genres and psychological resilience, the team finds. "While we did observe the expected positive relationship between prepper genres and preparedness, the correlation with psychological resilience was split. Prepper genre fandom was correlated with less psychological distress, but not greater positive resilience," they add.

One possible explanation for this is that prepper genre films are likely to be scary, such as zombie films. According to the researchers, this would allow the audience to practice emotion regulation strategies as with other horror movies, but not necessarily approach the pandemic “as an intrinsically interesting phenomenon.” Instead, the pandemic may typically be approached as a "frightening, aversive event" to conquer. In this way, prepper genre fans may be more vigilant about the pandemic than interested or curious per se, the team explains. 

"While the Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly everyone in one way or another, certain people seem to be handling it better than others, whether through stable personality differences or experiential differences. Importantly, these effects were significant even when controlling for age, sex, income and general personality. In sum, the current study provides evidence that individual differences in both media preferences and personality influence resilience during the Covid-19 pandemic," say researchers.

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