Coronavirus: the psychological benefit of watching a traumatic horror film

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It sounds like the last thing you’d want to watch in the coronavirus pandemic, but horror films like 28 Days Later and Contagion are scientifically proven mood-boosters. Why? 

Quite honestly, I can’t watch the news anymore. Every single day brings more Covid-19 horrors, higher coronavirus death tolls, more unsubstantiated theories that our self-imposed quarantines will have to last until June. At least.

So what do I do instead? Well, I scour my Blu-ray collection for a frighteningly ‘of the moment’ horror, settle back with whatever rations I have left in my cupboard (does anyone have chocolate? Asking for a friend), and allow all of that wonderfully traumatising content to wash over me. Heads roll, boils erupt, zombies moan, and I, safe at home in my PJs, revel in the fact that things could be a lot worse than they are. A lot worse.

I’m not the only one who’s finding comfort in horror, it seems. Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film about a pandemic, Contagion, is seeing a spike in viewing. 1995’s Outbreak is one of the most-watched films on Netflix US right now. And, when I mentioned my newfound fascination with Cabin Fever, World War Z and the like in today’s Zoom meeting, my confession was met by a chorus of approving voices.

“Once work is done and I’ve logged off for the day, I’ll scroll through Netflix and often find myself landing on some kind of horror movie, particularly ones that involve some type of isolation element,” says Stylist’s Hanna Ibraheem, when I (virtually) pounce on her post-meeting for further details.

“Just the other night, I watched 28 Days Later. Yes, it had slightly uncomfortable parallels but I guess it also makes you see that things could be a lot worse. I’m very lucky to work from home, spend an evening on the sofa with my family and have friends a mere FaceTime call away: I’m not the last human survivor after a plague like Will Smith in I Am Legend.

“These movies also tend to take situations to an unsettling extreme, only for it to turn out OK in the end. To me, that is reassuring.”

And even my colleague Hannah-Rose Yee, famed for her hatred of all things scary (“I am a big baby and I receive approximately zero comfort from being scared,” she admits), tells me that even she has been dabbling.

“I watched Contagion again, which I did find oddly soothing, especially when Lizzy Bennet – aka Jennifer Ehle – sorted out a vaccine at the end,” she says.

“Spoiler alert for a movie from 2011, I guess.”

So why are we all turning to traumatising horrors at this time? Well, researchers at Oxford University say that watching horror films can up the levels of feel-good, pain-killing chemicals produced in the brain.

“The argument here is that actually, maybe the emotional wringing you get from tragedy triggers the endorphin system,” says Robin Dunbar, a co-author of the study and professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, as quoted by The Guardian.

Noting that previous research has similarly found that laughing and dancing together can heighten pain tolerance through an endorphin boost, he adds: “All of those things, including singing and dancing and jogging and laughter, all produce an endorphin kick for the same reason – they are putting the musculature of the body under stress,” said Dunbar.

Being traumatised by a gripping horror, he adds, could have a similar effect. 

“It has turned out that the same areas in the brain that deal with physical pain also handle psychological pain,” says Dunbar.

So there we go. With that in mind, then, here are the best isolation and pandemic-based horror films you can stream right now on Netflix.

You’re welcome.

The best (and most Covid-19 appropriate) horror films to stream on Netflix

  • Quarantine

    While on assignment shadowing firemen, a news reporter and her cameraman get trapped in a quarantined apartment with a vicious unknown killer.

  • Cargo

    Amid a terrifying pandemic, a father searches the wilds of Australia for someone willing to protect and care for his infant daughter.

  • A Quiet Place

    Cut off from the rest of the world, a tight-knit family lives in constant fear of making any sound that will attract terrifying alien creatures.

  • The Thing

    After Norwegian scientists find an alien vessel frozen in Antarctica, blood flows across the icy landscape when the organism inside the ship awakens (2011).

  • Pandora

    When an earthquake hits a Korean village housing a run-down nuclear power plant, a man risks his life to save the country from imminent disaster.

  • 93 Days

    Heroic health workers fight to contain an Ebola outbreak when a patient arrives in Lagos with symptoms of the deadly virus. Based on a true story.

  • What Happened To Monday?

    In a future with a strict one-child policy, six septuplets must avoid government detection while searching for their missing sister.

  • Black Summer

    In the dark, early days of a zombie apocalypse, complete strangers band together to find the strength they need to survive and get back to loved ones.

  • Here Alone

    When she finally encounters two other survivors, a woman alone in a world decimated by a zombie epidemic struggles to trust her new companions.

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Images: Netflix

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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