Why scary films are good for you (and even burn calories)
Dark dramas trigger the production of adrenalin and dopamine: they could even help you lose weight. Time to shelve the romcoms, says a recent horror film convert
For those unfamiliar with the crime drama series Breaking Bad – and unbothered by a spoiler of sorts – there is a memorable episode in which a member of the Mexican cartel becomes a police informant. When his drug-dealing associates find out they wreak their revenge by cutting off the informant’s head and sticking it on top of a tortoise (for reasons too nefarious to go into). The gruesome human/tortoise amalgam is then (slowly) unleashed into the desert to serve as a reminder to watching officers and other potential traitors that the cartel is not to be messed with.
As I watched this horror unfold on my television screen I couldn’t avert my eyes. Granted, my vision was partially obscured by the hands I’d placed over them to protect my sensitive disposition, but still. If you had told me six months ago that I would be not only tolerating, but enjoying, such violent entertainment I would have scoffed in derision.
Until recently I steadfastly refused to watch anything but saccharine sitcoms and predictable romantic comedies. My reading material, meanwhile, was confined to chick lit. I was on first name terms with every one of Marian Keyes’s fictional heroines and ploughed through more Friends reruns than I had hot dinners. I found formulaic plot lines a refreshing antidote to having to use my brain and a welcome reassurance that – in a volatile and ever-changing world – everything would be all right in the end.
Anything with the slightest element of fear left me scrambling for the nearest cushion to hide behind.
So far, so vanilla. But then I watched Breaking Bad last autumn and my lifelong conviction of what constitutes decent entertainment shifted on its axis. Admittedly the decision to witness protagonist Walter White’s metamorphosis from placid chemistry teacher into gun-wielding drug kingpin after being diagnosed with terminal cancer wasn’t entirely my own. My husband Chris – whose Svengali is Stephen King and who would make it mandatory to watch a horror film a week if I weren’t in charge – had long since tired of my aversion to expanding my cultural horizons. After eight years together I realised, for the sake of marital harmony, that I should at least show a willingness to branch out.
To my amazement, when I did so, I was hooked (and yes I realise I was six years behind everyone else). Any film starring Cameron Diaz – who I had revered for decades – suddenly felt unbelievably twee and even Frasier, which I had hitherto believed to be the greatest programme ever, seemed positively pedestrian in comparison.
I craved excitement and danger, and by the third series of Breaking Bad I insisted on binge-watching several episodes a night. Chris looked on in amazement, both at Walter’s wanton criminality and my apparent lobotomy. But the truth was that far from being the bleak experience I had anticipated, being afraid in a fictional context seemed to make me happy.
But why? Professor Glenn Sparks of Purdue University in Indiana, US, is a specialist in the cognitive and emotional effects of the media and has found that frightening films and television shows can boost both our physical and mental health. “They cause what is called the excitation transfer process,” he tells me. “When a person gets afraid they experience high physiological arousal along with fear. This makes their heart rate and blood pressure increase and their muscles tense, which takes a while to go back to normal and makes any emotion they experience afterwards more intense.”
As the brain senses danger it releases the hormone adrenalin, leaving the body in a highly charged state of combat readiness. I can certainly attest to this – in the two months it took me to plough through Breaking Bad I felt alert and observant (albeit somewhat paranoid), scrutinising fellow passengers on the No 29 bus, convinced that they were all moonlighting as crystal-meth dealers and that at any given moment gangland warfare might erupt.
Perversely, this fiction-induced fear also prompts the production of the feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin in our brains, leading to an improved sense of wellbeing. “It can be reassuring to confront a frightening experience in an entertainment context,” says Prof Sparks. “It builds up some people’s resilience and ability to cope in the real world. And with repeat exposure their fear is diminished, which gives them a sense of power.”
Provided we steer clear of the popcorn, frightening films and television shows can whittle away our waistlines too. Research from the University of Westminster in 2012 revealed that raised adrenalin levels increase our metabolic rate to the extent that we burn a third more calories than usual while in a state of fear. Academics found sitting through 1980 psychological thriller The Shining could see us expend 184 calories – the equivalent of a small chocolate bar.
Apparently a third of us enjoy watching frightening films, and a large majority of those are adolescent males who see the fear factor as a rite of passage to prove their self-worth. Clearly, I’m not a teenage boy but I can see where they’re coming from – I immediately took to Facebook to broadcast my Breaking Bad addiction in a way I was strangely reluctant to do after enjoying chick flick Bride Wars. I felt proud that I was pushing my boundaries, as if I were finally, somehow, a bona fide grown up.
Yet as gripped as I was, I still found it hard to stomach the scenes with severed heads and blood-soaked shootings. Surely nobody except a sadist would enjoy witnessing the pain of other people, even if they were fictional? “I have not found any evidence that people actually enjoy the sensation of fear itself – it’s the desire to conquer it and gratification of what happens afterwards that appeals,” says Prof Sparks. “I compare it to riding a roller coaster. Thinking about the car falling off the track at the top isn’t fun, but it’s exhilarating when you can look back and say you did it.”
However, Chris, who enjoys Alton Tower’s terrifying Oblivion ride as much as he does science-fiction horror film The Fly, begs to differ, as does a female friend of mine who recently stared at the screen unflinching throughout horror film Babadook. Another friend – also female – insists that she was happy on the edge of her seat throughout the entirety of slasher movie The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. “With old horror classics like that the freaky music makes it much creepier,” she says. “There are certain ghost films I can’t watch without company but I can easily watch a serial killer film alone.” Obviously, I have a lot to aspire to.
But I am making progress. After finishing Breaking Bad I devoured Gillian Flynn’s mystery Gone Girl, and kept my eyes open throughout virtually all of the film version a couple of months later. (It has an 18 rating. It is scary.) I then stayed up into the early hours of the morning to finish The Girl on the Train – novelist Paula Hawkins’s new thriller. I have even begun to dabble with television series Dexter, in which the protagonist, a blood spatter pattern analyst for the Miami Police, leads a secret life as a serial killer. I can’t say I revel in the images of severed corpses that seem to be an integral part of the show, but they certainly put my own problems into perspective.
Meanwhile, my chick lit books and sitcom boxsets sit gathering dust on my shelf – mementoes from a safer, but infinitely more boring, stage of my cultural life.