TORONTO -- All those nights curled up watching zombie massacres, alien invasions, and paranormal hauntings may be paying off during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study which suggests horror movie fans are coping better than others during these unsettling times.

The study, published last week in the journal “Personality and Individual Differences”, found that fans of horror films exhibited “less psychological distress” during the pandemic than those who prefer other genres.

“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,” the study’s authors wrote.

To conduct the study, researchers from the University of Chicago, Pennsylvania State University, and Aarhus University in Denmark, enlisted 310 participants in the U.S. at the end of April when there was a lot of uncertainty about the pandemic.

The researchers controlled for several individual differences among the respondents, including their sex, age, extroversion, conscientiousness, emotional stability, agreeableness, openness, and general enjoyment of films and TV shows.

The participants were then asked about the types of movies and TV shows they enjoyed and their emotional state during the pandemic.

For example, people were asked questions such as if they feel “more depressed than usual” during the pandemic and if they have been “taking news about the pandemic in stride” and if they “feel positive about the future.”

The study’s authors found that those who indicated they were fans of horror and “engaged more frequently with frightening fictional phenomena” reported lower levels of distress during the pandemic.

Coltan Scrivner, the study’s lead author and a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago, explained that people who watch a lot of horror films are frequently exposed to being afraid in a safe setting.

“The idea is that they can sort of practise feeling anxious or practise feeling afraid or overcoming that or being OK with that so when something happens in their life that makes them afraid, or makes them anxious, they’re better able to deal with it or have more sort of tools that they're equipped with dealing with it,” he told during a telephone interview from Chicago on Wednesday.

Horror fiction allows its audience to practise “emotion regulation skills” and “hone strategies for dealing with fear,” the study said.

In addition to fans of horror flicks, those who enjoyed the “prepper” film genre, which involves fictional stories where the imagined world is illustrative of the chaos that might occur in a real-world pandemic, such as in zombie, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic, and alien invasion films, were also found to exhibit greater resilience during the global health emergency.

Those in the “prepper” fan base were also shown to display more preparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic because of their experience watching films that deal with social upheaval, such as during a fictional zombie uprising.

“The widespread chaos that occurs in zombie films is in many ways similar to the widespread chaos that can occur during real-world disasters,” the study said. “Thus, the information we obtain vicariously from an imagined zombie apocalypse may serve us in analogous situations in the real world.”

Scrivner said he found it “unsurprising” that fans of the “prepper” genre reported feeling ready for the pandemic.

“They would say things like they sort of knew what to buy when the pandemic started, it didn't catch them by surprise as much as it did other people, things like that,” he said.


On top of asking participants about their media preferences and emotional well-being during the pandemic, the researchers also asked them to rate themselves on the “Morbid Curiosity Scale” that Scrivner developed.  

The scale determines people’s interest in morbid topics by asking them how much they agree with statements such as, “If I lived in Medieval Europe, I would be interested in attending a public execution,” “I would be curious to see how an autopsy is performed,” and “I would be interested in attending or watching a video of an exorcism.”

Scrivner said he created the “Morbid Curiosity Scale” because, previously, there was no easy way to measure a person’s interest in this subject. He said he wanted to include the topic of morbid curiosity in this study because research he conducted earlier in the year suggested that people who were considered morbidly curious were watching more films and shows about fictional pandemics.

“We thought that there might be something interesting going on with resilience with that,” he said. “Presumably, if you can watch pandemic films during a pandemic, you might be dealing with it slightly differently than the non-morbidly curious person.”

As he expected, Scrivner and the team of researchers found that those who were more morbidly curious experienced more “positive resilience” during the pandemic than those who weren’t as curious.

Scrivner explained that positive resilience slightly differs from psychological distress, which was experienced by horror fans. He said while horror fans experienced less psychological distress, such as anxiety or depression, those who were morbidly curious were finding positive ways to enjoy themselves during the pandemic.

“It still might be kind of scary, or maybe even make them a bit anxious, but they found ways to enjoy their life, or they found something interesting in the pandemic,” he said.

Finally, Scrivner said the study reaffirmed his earlier research that those who are more morbidly curious were also more likely to seek out films and shows about pandemics.

The research team followed up with participants in May, a month after the initial study, and found the participants’ responses were mostly the same. Scrivner said they’re hoping to conduct further research on the topic, including a study on whether there are different types of horror fans and how that impacts their response to the pandemic.

“People watch horror movies for different reasons, some of them sort of like the adrenaline rush, some of them are interested in the investigative side of it and so we're looking at ways that we can sort of categorize people as to what kind of horror fan they are and are certain horror fans are dealing with it better than others,” he said.

As for whether he thinks people should start binge-watching horror and “prepper” films to help them cope during the pandemic, Scrivner said he doesn’t think that strategy will be effective for everyone.

“People kind of know if horror films make them really anxious, it's probably a bad idea to start watching them now to try to reduce your anxiety,” he said.

“If you don't absolutely hate horror films, maybe watching stuff that scares you a bit now and then is sort of like a psychological vaccine of sorts, but that’s speculation.”