The horror!

How watching horror movies can make medical students better doctors

You can follow the films and commentary on the class’ sub-Reddit.

Young scared woman watching horror movie in the living room at night during Christmas holidays
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Anthony Tobia’s favorite horror movie is The Shining. It’s so rich, he tells Inverse, that he’d want to teach a course on that film alone. Ideally, to him, the course would begin on July 4 — the date of the Overlook Hotel ball — and end on October 30, the day the Torrance family moves in.

Tobia isn’t a professor of film, but of psychiatry at Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. The Kubrick classic is just one of 31 horror movies he uses as a fictional case study for his medical students to diagnose and treat patients like Jack Torrance.

This curriculum, the 31 Knights of Halloween, has an entertaining hook but serves a twofold purpose at making these students better doctors.

What’s happening — For each day of October, Tobia assigns one horror movie for his students to watch and analyze from a psychiatric point of view. Any portrayal of human behavior, Tobia says, can help teach both typical and atypical aspects of psychiatric health.

“Psychiatry is very lucky like that,” he says. “Surgeons, endocrinologists can’t do that. The movie must be about a surgery or something surgical for a surgeon to use it for educational purposes. That’s not the case in psychiatry. All films examine human behavior, and therefore all films can be used to teach aspects of human behavior and psychiatry.”

Together, they discuss their visceral reactions as well as their thoughts from a psychiatric perspective. Meanwhile, everyone posts reflections and comments to a public sub-Reddit.

“It’s out there for the community,” Tobia tells Inverse, “for the general population who want to have their questions answered [on] aspects of mental health, or maybe just reading it for enjoyment.”

The syllabus has included Saw, Shutter Island, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, Halloween, and other classics.

How science plays a role — In watching these violently outlandish films, medical students practice identifying symptoms of psychiatric disorders in the DSM-V. Jason Voorhees becomes a patient, and these students are tasked with understanding how his actions inform their diagnosis.

Even the movie Cloverfield in which an alien decimates Manhattan becomes fodder. “This monster is an alien life form that is an infant,” Tobia explains. “All it’s doing is wanting to find its mom. All of a sudden, you could just feel the collective change of heart when we discuss issues that are consistent with illnesses such as separation anxiety disorder.”

It may seem like overkill to look into the psychiatric ills of a fictional alien monster, but perhaps that helps students overcome the stigma placed on those with psychiatric disorders, those who often are deemed monsters or outsiders.

A consequence of horror movie inundation, Tobia says, is desensitization. For future doctors, that can cut both ways. While Saw will probably never be comfortable for anybody to watch, exposure to these films can prepare these med students for a slew of scenarios they may one day face (as well as a good number they hopefully never will, like Cloverfield).

He also enjoys surprising his students with what he calls conspiracy theories. These are Tobia’s and other fans’ hypotheses that exist outside the film. He suggests, for instance, that Jack Torrance came to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining while on medication, and he pulls from plausible evidence in the movie.

Why it matters — While students practice identifying symptoms and proposing diagnoses, Tobia wants this exercise to foster empathy in the doctors-to-be.

When watching horror movies, the viewer often identifies — consciously or subconsciously — with the victim who claws their way to the very end (or not), outrunning Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. In desensitizing them, he hopes to grow their capacity for understanding a fundamentally different perspective.

“One of the ways to desensitize is to actually make a conscious effort to see the movie through the eyes of the other,” Tobia says. “While that’s initially uncomfortable, the fact that it feels artificial because you're making a conscious effort — ‘I wonder what they're thinking now, I wonder what it must feel like for them’ — that can teach empathy.”

He stresses that this growth almost never comes naturally, which is why this course is unique. For a group of friends watching a horror movie, it’s unlikely discussion will turn toward empathizing with Jigsaw. What’s more, horror movies are meant to provoke fear and anxiety in the viewers. Those feelings aren’t always pleasurable, and can sometimes trigger unwanted memories or experiences. Tobia offers a curated, supportive space where his students can talk through their discomfort — or opt out of watching a movie if they choose.

Even for those who will never become doctors, the act of empathizing with an alien or ghost, in addition to feeling that intense fear, can be cathartic and destigmatizing. Horror movies depict the darkest parts of the human condition, the parts most people never act on, and give the viewer permission to engage. Tobia goes a step further, and urges his students to go so far as to empathize with that darkness.

“There are some things that, when there’s nobody around and there are no consequences, may have crept into your conscious awareness that our brains suppress or repress for good reason,” Tobia says. “But this is a safe space to explore those and that could be kind of fun. To see an aspect of yourself, your subconscious that has been repressed now literally projected.”

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