Let's be honest – we all watch tales of hardened heroes tackling post-apocalyptic worlds filled with zombie hordes, and some part of us thinks “I could be like that”. Sure, you may have no survival skills whatsoever, but should zombies come knocking on the gates you would rise to the occasion and win the day, based on your knowledge taken only from World War Z and The Walking Dead.
Whilst that may not be strictly true, new research from Penn State University suggests that indulging in zombie movies, as well as horror and Sci-Fi, may have helped some people be more prepared for the harsh realities of 2020 and the ongoing pandemic.
The study found that people who enjoy horror movies showed less distress during the COVID-19 lockdowns, whilst those that watch survival (or ‘prepper’) movies were more prepared to face the pandemic. The findings were published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences and may help us to understand how the entertainment we enjoy translates into real-world applications.
"After factoring out personality influences, which were actually quite strong, 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,” said Professor John Johnson, Penn State University, in a statement.
Involving 310 participants, the research aimed to test whether individuals that have engaged in horror and pandemic films in both the past and present have fared better during the difficult times of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each participant completed a questionnaire about their movie preferences, specifically how much they enjoyed zombie, horror, post-apocalyptic, and alien invasion movies.
Following these questions, they then completed another questionnaire designed to quantify their feelings during the ongoing pandemic. Each participant had to answer how strongly they agreed/disagreed with statements such as “I am more irritable than usual” and “I feel positive about the future”.
The findings showed that fans of prepper movies were more prepared for the pandemic and experienced fewer negative impacts on their lives throughout the period, although there was no correlation with how psychologically resilient they were. Fans of horror also fared well, having significantly lower psychological distress when compared to the average person.
Despite these movies existing purely for entertainment and evenings of binge-watching, it’s possible they also contribute to making people more resilient to significant lifestyle changes that mimic – albeit to a lesser extent – what they see on the screen.
This is not to say that horror movies will make you an unstoppable terminator during the apocalypse, and the authors note that the differences seen above could also be down to alternative factors – correlation doesn’t mean causation, after all. It is also possible that such films could have a negative effect on other people.
"I'm not sure that watching such movies now would be helpful for our current situation," Johnson stated.
"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."