Research suggests the 1973 acclaimed horror movie The Exorcist is a psychiatric hazard to viewers. An adaption of a novel from 1971, the film tells a story, in shocking scenes and with experimental music, about a demonically possessed girl. Two years after its release, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease reported on findings of traumatic neurosis in four people who watched the movie. Traumatic neurosis is a mental disturbance that arises after emotional shock. The study also observed, in some cases, psychosis.
One person, an 18-year-old former Marine, shakily watched The Exorcist in theatres and returned home to then worry about being possessed by the devil. He heard creaky noises, ate less, and abused alcohol and drugs to destroy his memory of the film. Another young man was referred to a psychiatric outpatient centre one month after his viewing. He was having dreams of the devil, was convinced his wife was cheating on him, and complained of persistent insomnia.
The other two cases documented examples of suicidal ideation, consideration of hospitalization, extreme guilt for past decisions, the belief that family members were possessed, and demands of assistance from either the church or psychiatric clinics. All four patients demonstrated similar symptoms within one day of viewing, including insomnia, hyperactivity, excitability, decreased appetite, loss of impulse control, paranoia, and reduced sexual functioning.
Over four decades later, an article from European Psychiatric found, similarly through case studies, that compulsive viewership of horror films can lead to an onset of mental problems. One 20-year-old male patient experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression for under a six-month duration after watching the film Hannibal (2001) and started treatment to rid his mind of obsessive ruminations surrounding the film.
As popularity in horror films increases, areas of macabre and occult and their effects on the human body are gradually becoming subjects of research interest. Trauma following movie-watching is relatively unreported and has been dismissed in the past as a result of repressed personal events. But as the German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said: “There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.”
According to Healthline, while our brains register the threats in film as fabricated, our bodies do not. Tension, fear, and shock cause a rush of autonomic nervous system hormones—such as norepinephrine, cortisol, and adrenaline—into the body, causing pupil dilation, racing heart rates, and bodily tension. The most noticeable side effect is sleeplessness. Loss of sleep can affect how our brains process emotions, and in turn, intensify negative emotions. Ninety per cent of people with depression experience sleep issues, and in older adults, this increases the risk of suicidal thoughts. More than three consecutive nights without sleep have been found to cause perceptual distortions, delusions, and hallucinations.
There is, however, a way to watch scary movies this Halloween season: understanding your tolerance and watching within it. Try opting for subgenres that give you the least bodily distress, such as Black Swan (2010) for psychological thriller lovers or Human Centipede (2009) to satisfy your gore craving.
Another tip is to be very aware of the effects of binge consumption of horror. A study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that binge-watching can have the ability to disrupt sleep, regardless of the genre. Watching movies with the lights on helps your body make the distinction between real life and fiction. Lastly, buddying up while watching can help us feel more tethered to reality. Cuddling is useful in managing fear and increasing feelings of protection.