People fall into one of two categories in a pandemic, those who want to lean into the void and watch all-too-real movies like Contagion and Outbreak, and those who avoid such disaster movies like the plague (pun intended). A new pre-print study (meaning it hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed) has found that our fondness for grim films actually impacts our capacity to cope in a pandemic, with those who enjoyed a good horror flick faring better than those who didn’t.
The study authors from Aarhus University in Denmark identified a genre of “prepper” movies that they hypothesized might mentally prepare the viewer for facing a crisis in real life by allowing them to "practice effective coping strategies that can be beneficial in real-world situations". They wrote that fictional stories in books and cinema are like a "gift from natural selection" in helping us to act out real-world situations from the safety of our sofa. With their research, they set out to ascertain if a penchant for plots that tell of disaster and ruin gave movie fans a mental advantage in coping with the living nightmare of the coronavirus pandemic.
Within their “prepper” movie genre, the researchers included films about alien invasions, apocalypses, and zombies. They sought to establish whether morbidly curious individuals and horror fans exhibited greater psychological resilience during the Covid-19 pandemic, and if this improved their preparedness for the crisis.
They surveyed 310 participants in the United States who had to complete “attention checks” before being approved for the study (it’s unlikely you’ll glean much information from pandemic movies if you’re on your phone from start to finish). They were then given a questionnaire about their viewing habits to identify which of the participants were partial to scaring the bejesus out of themselves with doomsday films.
Psychological resilience is a difficult concept to prove under experimental conditions, so the researchers used participant’s reports of enjoyable experiences during the pandemic. They inferred that higher rates of positive experiences could indicate that a person is suffering less than someone who is too stressed to have fun. Finally, participants were given a questionnaire asking them on a scale of one to seven how prepared they felt for the Covid-19 pandemic.
Their findings, yet to be peer-reviewed but interesting nonetheless, revealed that “prepper” movie fans were better able to cope and felt more prepared for the realities of life in a pandemic compared to those who steered away from watching films like Contagion. Those who didn’t watch prepper movies but enjoy horror films showed psychological resilience but didn’t report high levels of preparedness. I guess an extensive knowledge of the supernatural does little to prepare for a fight against a pathogen.
"If it's a good movie, it pulls you in and you take the perspective of the characters, so you are unintentionally rehearsing the scenarios," said Coltan Scrivner, a psychologist who specializes in morbid curiosity at the University of Chicago, in an interview with The Guardian. "We think people are learning vicariously. It's like, with the exception of the toilet paper shortage, they pretty much knew what to buy."