Dig zombie films? Horror films may have mentally prepared you for the pandemic

DuBOIS, Pa. — Binge watching Netflix has been a guilty pleasure for many during COVID-19 lockdowns. While it may seem unproductive, watching the “right” shows before the pandemic may have actually helped people cope with 2020. Researchers from Penn State say watching doomsday fiction may have mentally prepared some people for the ongoing crisis; allowing them to deal with a non-fictional pandemic better.

“My colleagues wanted to identify factors beyond personality that contributed to people’s psychological preparedness and resilience in the face of the pandemic,” says co-author John Johnson in a university release. “After factoring out personality influences… we found that the more movies about zombies, alien invasions and apocalyptic pandemics people had seen prior to COVID-19, the better they dealt with the actual, current pandemic. These kinds of movies apparently serve as mental rehearsal for actual events.”

The psychology of horror

University of Chicago graduate student Colton Scrivner designed the study. Scrivner studies the psychology of horror — why people are attracted to horror stories. For this latest project, Scrivner wanted to see whether people who like horror fiction fared better during COVID-19. He reached out to Johnson for help developing a survey and analyzing the results.

Scrivner and his collaborators surveyed 310 people. Their survey measured resilience and included questions specific to the COVID-19 pandemic. They also asked people how much they enjoyed horror, zombie, psychological thriller, supernatural, apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic, science fiction, alien-invasion, crime, comedy, and romance genres.

After controlling for confounding factors such as personality, the researchers determined whether a person’s preference for horror stories affected their resilience during COVID-19.

“People who watched certain kinds of movies before the pandemic seemed to be helped by them during the pandemic,” Johnson reports.

Time to start binge watching for the next pandemic?

The researcher adds that such stories are like “mental rehearsals” for future challenges in real life. While it may be too late to go on a horror movie binge to prepare for COVID, the study author explains that the next crisis is never too far away to start prepping for now.

“I’m not sure that watching such movies now would be helpful for our current situation,” Johnson notes. “However, my understanding of pandemics and other life-challenging events is that similar future challenges are absolutely inevitable. The past is often forgotten too easily. Who remembered the Spanish flu epidemic until scientists brought up that piece of history during COVID-19? This reinforces my belief that consuming stories from books, films and maybe even video games is not just an idle pastime, but a way for us to imagine simulated realities that help prepare us for future challenges.”

These findings are published in Personality and Individual Differences.