What Happens to Your Body When You Watch a Scary Movie?

Clowns, zombies and ghosts – oh my! October is upon us which means movie theaters and living rooms are echoing with the sounds of scary movies. Whether you’re watching classic horror flicks like Nightmare on Elm Street or Carrie or Netflix’s new supernatural series, The Haunting of Bly Manor, your body has distinctive physiological reactions to the sights and sounds of these scary screen stories.

While many people enjoy having their hearts race or clutching the seat in suspense, they find themselves scared long after the movie ends. That’s because the brain is wired to treat what it sees as real. It is very difficult to tell the primitive brain to ignore the reality of what it is seeing. Specifically, if the images appear to be real and terrifying, the brain tells the body to react accordingly.

Here’s how your brain and body react when you push play:

Your Brain: Horror movies can trigger a reaction in those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. In rare instances, watching these films can also cause PTSD. Since the brain cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality, memories that relate to a situation shown in a movie that contain elements of a previously traumatic situation can trigger a response. Anxiety can also be an effect of watching scary movies, especially when children are exposed to them at a young age. Physical reactions to terrifying images can include sweaty palms, tense muscles, a drop in skin temperature, a spike in blood pressure and an increased heart rate.

Although horror movies do not directly impact the brain in a positive way, they can have a desensitization effect. If a person repeatedly watches this genre of movies, they repeatedly expose themselves to these threatening images and over time become less emotionally reactive to the images. This can result in lower levels of anxiety and fear.

Your Heart: Just like other adrenaline-raising activities, watching scary movies can increase your heart rate. These effects are not unlike what happens while doing other sensation-seeking activities like riding roller coasters or sky diving. Horror movies can even affect heart attack risk. If the physical and psychological response come together at exactly the right time, a heart attack can occur. Individuals with high blood pressure may be more at risk than others because heart attack and stroke are related to blood pressure.

Your Hormones: Watching horror movies releases dopamine and adrenaline. This release can actually trigger someone to faint or have a panic attack.

Your Behavior: Just like playing violent video games, watching a scary movie can prime aggressive behavior. Any activity that heightens emotional response, especially in someone who has difficulty controlling their emotions, can trigger an effect.

Do you feel any of these effects from watching a scary movie? What will you be watching this fall? Tell us in the comments.

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Photo Credit: miodrag ignjatovic

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Read 25 Comments

  1. Thank you. I just watched “the silent” on netflix and i thought i was going to have a heart attack after the movie. I had to turn off the tv and breathe deeply. I had no idea this could happen. And i already suffer from high blood pressure.

  2. It sure caught my attention when you said that watching movies like horror films could trigger your heart to pump out adrenaline and makes your body experience a desensitizing effect. I am planning on attending the Sacrament Film Festival to immerse myself in different horror films. Watching these films make me feel excited and alive.

  3. Last one was 2 night ago .exorcism 1974.
    That was really horror and i had to off tv cause i was do frighten and think someone attack on me from behind. I remember all movies see before.
    Thanks for information

  4. My favorite horror movie is “Silent Hill”. I love to watch these movies all by myself, so that no one will disturb me 🙂

  5. This helped me a lot, because I’ve avoided horror films my whole life. I was teased as a child because I couldn’t let it go. I would panic, and to this day, still remember sounds and images of films my family had me watch. Being a person who was abused is probably what created the problem

    1. Hi Cat,

      We’re sorry to hear you had a difficult childhood and hope you’ve been able to seek help for any lingering trauma you experienced. We have a lot of helpful resources at bcbsm.com/mentalhealth if you need to connect with a mental health professional.

  6. This really helps me, especially I came here because when I’m watching horror moving it’s like my body is on fire and I feel like throwing up its look like I’m scared of paranoid things but Nah I can tell that I’m not that scared of those but I don’t know what’s wrong with my body. Anyway, Thank you.

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