Pandemic horror movies: Behind the 'quar-horror' phenomenon

Horror movies may help us relieve some of that pent-up tension in quarantine.
Horror movies may help us relieve pent-up tension and practice survival skills.
Horror movies may help us relieve pent-up tension and practice survival skills.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
By Vivian Manning-Schaffel

There’s no denying our current reality is something of a real-life horror movie. The death toll and infection rate of the COVID-19 pandemic is staggering, leaving so many of us confined to our homes in fear of catching this insidious contagion.

When scary stuff meets reality in our lives (and this stuff is unprecedented) we sometimes gravitate toward entertainment that reflects — or helps us work through — feelings of fear. Case in point: The pandemic psychological thriller “Contagion” flew up the iTunes streaming chart in March.

COVID-19 even inspired a new subgenre of horror film — “quar horror.” As NPR recently highlighted, a group of filmmakers tapping into the pandemic to create innovative new films that reflect the fears we’re so immersed in today.

So, what's the appeal of horror when life right now is already scary?

One recent study conducted by the University of Turku in Finland took a close look at how viewers processed fear when watching the 100 best and scariest horror movies of the past century by looking at MRI scans of their brains.

The results suggested that horror movies may help us relieve pent-up tension.

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Watching a horror movie presents us with an insurmountable situation in a controlled environment that can somehow be overcome, and this can provide us with a temporary sense of relief, says Matthew Hudson, a lecturer at the National College of Ireland in Dublin and a lead researcher on the fear study.

“Horror movies function to make our feelings of anxiety and fear concrete in some way. In our everyday lives, the banal and mundane aspects must continue, and it is difficult to find a release for our tension during our day-to-day activities. Watching a horror movie may allow us to feel these anxieties covertly and provide an emotional release,” Hudson told TMRW.

We mentally practice survival skills without actual risk.

“The key to understanding anxiety and fear is uncertainty,” said Hudson. “That’s why we have evolved a brain that's worried during times of uncertainty. People who (worried) were more likely to survive than those who didn't." During times of uncertainty, he explained, that tendency to worry and try to resolve uncertainty can help protect us. He added that this is what happens when our brains process fear and we experience a heightening of our senses, which he refers to as a “state of readiness,” that occurs when we go into fight-or-flight mode.

“There is an excitement associated with the unknown, which frightens us the most,” said Sanam Hafeez, a New York City-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. “Watching a horror film unfolds this excitement in a ‘safe’ way, where you can experience the thrills from a simulation perspective. It’s almost like exercising your skills if you were to be in the same situation. It helps us prepare for that unknown fear from the comfort of our couch knowing when the movie is over, we go back to our lives. In the current day, the pandemic and other instances are playing out like a horror movie and we get to practice these skills, and hope to come out safely on the other side of it.”

We get to bond with others.

In this time of social isolation, watching a horror movie — or movies about pandemics — gives us the opportunity to bond with others in fear, whether in person or virtually. “We often watch horror movies with other people, and shared experiences create a sense of community and bonding, especially if this experience is traumatic in some way,” said Hudson. “We may, therefore, watch horror movies to feel closer to people with us, or feel closer to people (with whom) we engage with remotely online and talk about the movie.”

We’re reminded that we’re safe in the moment.

The pandemic allows us to watch quarantine movies or other scary movies and process them from a more realistic perspective, said Hafeez. “In the past, we thought ‘what if?’ But now that ‘what if’ is a reality, in some ways. Even the early months of the pandemic, the stories coming out of places like Italy were so sad and gruesome, we imagined them like a movie."

People enjoy being physically safe and removed from the horror that occurs in films, she continued. It's similar to when we pass a terrible accident on the road. "We think ‘wow, that’s terrible, but thankfully, that wasn’t us.’ It's similar to rubbernecking to see the wreck that could’ve been us," she said. "And we all drive just a little slower and safer, if only for a few minutes.”