Mind and Body
Psychologists Explain How to Stop Being Scared After Watching a Scary Movie
Jordan Peele’s Us isn’t a scary movie, objectively speaking. It has a good jump scare and some creepy music, both intended to get adrenaline pumping. But the psychological aftermath of the movie is far more sinister. Days after I left the theater, my anxiety lingered, reemerging every time I turned off the lights or caught a bar of “Good Vibrations.”
Most people who hate horror films are fed a simple refrain: It’s not real. That viewpoint neglects how horror movies make some of us feel once they’re over: chilled by lingering creepiness or the unshakable sense that a murderous doppelgänger is around the corner. Kristen Lindgren, Ph.D., a psychologist the University of Washington, tells me that this experience isn’t fear but anxiety — which is a very different cognitive beast to tackle.
"That happens to all of us, and that anxiety is the place that we want to intervene.
“Fear is appropriate. If a tiger runs into the room it’s natural to feel fear. It’s the body’s natural physiological response,” Lindgren says. “Anxiety is when that fear response goes off at a time that isn’t actually dangerous, but it’s seeming or feeling like it’s dangerous. That happens to all of us, and that anxiety is the place that we want to intervene.”
Why Do We Feel Creeped Out After Scary Experiences?
When I told Lindgren about my lingering feelings after seeing Us, she explained that what was actually happening during those sleepless nights was the third phase of a fear response.
The first part of the response happens during the movie when a jump-scare activates our sympathetic system’s “fight or flight” mechanism, filling the body with adrenaline intended to help ancient humans escape predators. Good horror movies, from Us to Nightmare on Elm Street, are intended to activate that system, and for many people that’s the “fun” part of seeing scary movies. After the film, the brain has to process what just happened to it to decide how real the threat was. Thoughts generated by that process can be eerie and uncomfortable.
“There’s this time when you start to make sense of things. It includes cognitions, thoughts. All of those things together make up what we call anxiety,” Lindgren explains.
University of North Carolina clinical psychology professor Jonathan Abramowitz, Ph.D., admits that these anxious thoughts are hard to shake. But they’re normal, he explains; they’re a processing technique deeply ingrained in our evolutionary history. For ancient humans, forgetting what it was like to watch someone, say, get gored by a tiger could be the difference between life or death, which is why our brains have evolved to file scary images away for future reference.
“One of the ways that the brain wraps its head around that is through flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive images,” he says. “That’s part of the mind keeping us safe. By reminding us, sometimes against our will, of terrible things, terrible images, stuff like that. Fundamentally, that’s our friend, but it can be very distressing.”
For me, those images consisted of family being stabbed to death by clones, while their home assistant played N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police.” Both Abramowitz and Lindgren agreed that these intrusive images fade with time, but for those who prefer a more active approach, there are ways to intervene.
Controlling The Scary Story
One of the things that both Abramowitz and Lindgren do in their practices is help patients reconcile with the thoughts that keep scary images ever-present by helping people recontextualize them. Aiding patients in telling a story around scary thoughts, says Abramowitz, is a core part of a type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy.
“The main component behind fear and anxiety are mistaken beliefs, the overestimate of threat, and the underestimate of one’s ability to perceive danger,” Abramowitz says. “Cognitive behavioral therapy for fear and anxiety is all about training our minds to think in a more helpful, healthy way,”
Part of that training comes down to a technique called cognitive restructuring, which helps people reorganize how they perceive threats. Lindgren often asks her patients in Washington to walk her through what they think might happen if they confront their fear. “How likely is it that just because you saw a movie with zombies, that you’re going to be attacked by zombies the next day?” she might ask. When confronted with that evidence, patients can begin to realize their anxiety is unfounded.
I gave Lindgren my best attempt at a new way of contextualizing my Us-related anxiety. “The tethers live in Santa Cruz,” I said, but I live in New York.” Even that feeble attempt, she said, was an example of “adaptive thinking” — a way to help make the threat seem less prescient.
Evidence that helps prove that a stimulus isn’t threatening, whether it’s a helpful thought experiment or watching behind-the-scenes features to prove that a movie isn’t real, can all help build the case that there’s no need for fear. But some people require just a little more evidence to prove that all is well. That’s why Abramowitz’s lab specializes in exposure therapy, a technique intended to give people real life experiences proving that scary things may not be as isn’t actually dangerous as they seem.
“Lean Into It.”
Abramowitz’s fear and anxiety lab is an arachnophobe’s nightmare. He has his spider-fearful clients interact with and touch tarantulas. In some cases, he lets the spiders climb all over them. The idea is to activate the fear response and teach the body that, despite the pounding heart and clammy hands, there’s no actual danger. He suggested I do the same thing with Us.
“Lean into it,” he said. “You want to look at the stimuli. Don’t look away from it. See it as images on a screen: It’s generated by the producers to get the exact effect you’re experiencing.”
I went back to see Us — this time, alone. I descended a creepy escalator to a theater in the basement and sat in a seat three rows from the front. There was nothing less scary about watching the film unfold the second time. The expertly designed soundtrack and visual motifs still got my fight or fight responses pumping.
But the jump scares felt blunted when the element of surprise was removed. I learned to lower my expectations of danger, that, admittedly, were high as I sweated through the previews. There, I received fresh evidence that I was overestimating just how scary Us was.
Lindgren told me to expect not to be as scared the second time. The point, she added, was to go through the motions of facing the fear, which would inevitably be less potent that it had been the first time I walked into the theater. “Going and seeing the movie a second time is absolutely a way you can bring the anxiety down,” she aid. “That’s a core part of psychotherapy. Exposure-based treatments are fantastic and they work very well.”
"Lean into it.
Two hours and a KitKat later, I gave exposure therapy full marks. My heart pounded as I walked home, but this, as Lindgren explained, was the lingering sensation of the fight-or-flight response. As she predicted, it passed — and this time, my evening wasn’t haunted by unpleasant, intrusive images.
Us may not be in theaters forever, but Abramowitz and Lindgren make it abundantly clear that reframing anxiety with different, more realistic context can help combat the feeling no matter what causes it. Maybe it’s Jordan Peele’s recent horror film, or giant hairy spiders, or speaking in public. Abramowitz for one, is all about tackling those issues head on.
“You’re not going to learn to overcome anxiety by avoiding it, he says. “You need to confront it.”