Are Scary Movies Bad For Your Health?

According to the experts, scary or suspenseful movies can have an adverse effect on your health.

There’s nothing like the surprise of a black-haired youth hiding in the closet (thanks The Ring) to get the blood pumping. But let’s say you’re not a fan. That you’re the person steering everyone away from The Conjuring and towards Pretty Woman or The Hangover? There’s evidence to suggest that you might be onto something.

Watching scary movies thickens the blood

Researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands have found a link between watching scary movies and thrombosis, or thickening of the blood.


Hoo boy.

They did so by comparing levels of Factor VIII, a blood clotting protein. In the study, 24 healthy volunteers under the age of 30 watched a non-threatening educational film (a documentary about Champagne), and a frightening horror movie (Insidious). Each film was viewed a week apart.

The study found that Factor VIII levels were higher for the horror movie than for the documentary, and according to Dr Banne Nemeth who worked on the study, this increase could be clinically significant. “Every 10 IU/dL increase in coagulant factor VIII levels is associated with a 17 percent increase in the risk of venous thrombosis,” he explained to UK’s Telegraph.

There are negative consequences for psychological wellbeing

Many people watching scary movies will experience a “fight or flight” response, where the body physically prepares itself for a stressful situation. Adrenaline and cortisol levels increase, and physical side-effects can include sweaty palms, an increased heart rate and shallow breathing.


*breathing intensifies*

As Psychologist Meredith Fuller explains, “if you start getting wound up… you need to go for a walk or go for a physical sport or activity to get rid of it – otherwise it’s caught in your system and causes you to be very stressed, worried and upset. It can impact your level [and quality] of sleep.”

Some people are more vulnerable than others

Particular personality types are more susceptible to being negatively affected by scary movies. According to Fuller, these are people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), those who tend to be anxious about new things or places, as well as negative glass half-empty types. “If you’re an anxious person, if you’re a bit sensitive, for example you hear noises or you’re easily woken, you’ll start to find for those people, that they’ll get wound up.”

In Meredith’s practice, she has found men more likely to be mentally affected by scary movies through addiction. The more scary movies they watch, the more desensitised they become, thus warping their sense of self and reality. For women, however, the fear factor is what’s most affecting.

Kath, 30, stopped watching scary movies when she was in her early 20s. “I found that after watching them, I would revisit horror scenes and it wasn’t pleasant,” she explains. Watching Saw formed part of this realisation. “It wasn’t something like zombies where it’s so fictitious that we don’t worry about it. I just kept thinking this really could happen… it was from then when I couldn’t sleep and had to watch a happy film afterwards to try and get images out my head I didn’t like.”


Comedy could be the answer

So how much is too much? A good test is if you experience a “startle response” after watching the film – say, jumping in fright when the doorbell rings. “That’s a physiological response and that’s not good for you,” says Fuller.

If you need help recovering from the effects of a scary movie, or want to experience a health benefit through film, the best genre to watch is comedy. A study from the University of Maryland looked at the effect of laughter on the endothelium, the inner lining of blood vessels that dilates or expands to increase blood flow. Fourteen of the 20 participants who watched the stressful movie experienced a reduction in artery flow, whereas 19 of the 20 participants who watched the comedy segments experienced beneficial blood vessel relaxation.

According to the main investigator in the study, Dr Michael Miller, the effect of watching comedy has a similar effect to aerobic exercise. “We don’t recommend you laugh and not exercise… 30 minutes of exercise three times a week and 15 minutes of laughter on a daily basis is probably good for the vascular system.”


Much better.

So is it time to “give up” scary movies? There’s no need for knee-jerk reactions if you enjoy dabbling in scary movies from time to time. “I think the message is with all things, just a little bit in moderation,” explains Fuller. If you do genuinely feel stressed at the prospect of watching a scary movie, however, trust your intuition. For the sake of your health, you’re better off without it.

Lead image: The Shining.

Chelsea McIver is a freelance writer and editor based in Melbourne. Her work appears in titles including VICE, Junkee, Broadsheet and The Big Issue. Tweet her @ChelseaMcIver.