When it comes to scary movies, it’s important to know what you can handle. On a recent family vacation, I went to see the movie Joker with my parents. Within the first 15 minutes, my mom and I were both so saddened and scared by the brutal opening scene that we decided to flee the theater. As a family, we casually slunk one by one into the auditorium next door. We caught the very beginning of Downton Abbey, a much more pleasant and soothing cinematic choice.
But for those of you who have grit, and aspire to power through some horror films in advance of the Halloween holiday, there are tactics you can use to overcome your fraidy cat tendencies.
Neuropsychologist Dr. Theo Tsaousides, Ph.D., ABPP, says that horror films allow us to experience "safe fear," but some of us still experience the spooks more intensely than others. "The fear that we get [watching those movies] is more like a tickle than a punch," he says. "However, just like some people are more ticklish than others, some people are naturally more easily scared — that is, their bodies respond more quickly and more intensely — than other people."
Figure out which horror sub-genres you can handle.
If you want to start pushing the boundaries and see a scary movie you might normally be too scared to watch, the first rule is making sure it’s not something that’s so scary that it’s going to traumatize you, Poffenroth says. “If you don’t want to see super gory stuff that’s going to sit with you forever and be disturbing, maybe try a psychological thriller," she notes. Be particular about what you’re able to sit through. If it’s gore that gets you, maybe pick Shutter Island over The Human Centipede. Or if you believe in ghosts, maybe try Psycho over Paranormal Activity.
Tsaousides also recommends choosing a funny scary movie, so that you can enjoy a few laughs between frightening scenes.
Remove visual and auditory tiggers if you’re freaking out.
Poffenroth says there’s no shame in closing your eyes if you’re terrified. “In the horror genre, we generally like it because it’s predictable,” she says. “There’s a set pattern for how things are going to go, and we usually know when things are about to happen or someone’s going to die.” If you hear dramatic music or see someone’s about to open a door they shouldn’t, feel free to just cover your eyes with your hands or a blanket. Don’t peek.
Similarly, some people are bothered by the audio of people screaming or suffering in films. In that case, if you’re watching at home, you can hit mute and put on subtitles. Otherwise, you might consider bringing earplugs with you to the theater for the worst parts.
If a portion of the movie is really getting to you, Tsaousides, recommends finding excuses to leave the room altogether. Go for a bathroom run, or go refill your popcorn bucket. "You won’t miss much in terms of plot," he says.
Look up spoilers.
Although this may offend your movie-going sensibilities, looking up what happens at the end of a movie can sometimes help you if you’re full of dread pre-film. Especially if the spoiler tells you there will be a classic good-conquers-evil ending to look forward to. With that said, Poffenroth notes that horror movies are usually predictable enough that you shouldn’t need to do this.
However, you should look up how gory a movie is before seeing it, she says. Doing your research can save your from an experience that is actually traumatizing. Imagine if you thought the movie Saw was just a lumberjack mystery.
Watch with others.
It can be helpful to watch the movie with a group of friends or your significant other. Having someone else around to keep you tethered to reality. “There’s safety in numbers,” Poffenroth notes. Secondly, it can help bond you to your fellow movie-watchers.
“People who go through warfare together in a platoon share a unique experience and are bonded for life because they’ve connected over their shared struggle,” Poffenroth says. “Horror movies give us a tiny bite-sized version of that in a controlled arena.”
Think logically about your fear.
Analyzing what you’re actually afraid of can help you during the most trying scenes. Poffenroth recommends asking yourself if your fear is fictional or factual. “If you’re sitting in a movie theater feeling this way, your fear is not factual because your health and safety aren’t being threatened with topical death in this moment,” she says.
Secondly, it can be helpful to think about if you’re most scared of internal or external fears. The former involves ideas like losing control of your life or not being lovable. The latter might be a fear of spiders or snakes. “Allow some introspection on why you’re scared of this movie that’s fake,” Poffenroth recommends. “Ask yourself: ‘Why are these things reacting with me?’ Getting curious about that can give you a lot of power. ‘Maybe I’m having this reaction to other things in my life that aren’t supporting my success.’ Or ‘maybe I just hate jump scares.’ Either way, identifying the exact emotion you’re having can help."
Keep the lights on.
Being afraid of the dark is common. Studies on Nyctophobia have shown that people don’t like it because there’s such a lack of visual stimuli, meaning they can’t know what’s around them.
Even if you don't have this specific fear, it may help to watch the movie with the lights up in an environment you're familiar with.
Know when to leave the theater.
Know when to say no to watching a creepy film. “If we’re an empathy-forward person, it’s not that we’re being a big scaredy cat, it’s traumatizing for us to watch the victimization of others,” Poffenroth says. “Forcing ourselves into this can have negative effects. It can cause trauma.” So, it’s important to realize when you need to put your foot down, leave the theater, and opt into something a little more light. Even if it’s Downton Abbey.