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Putting the Psycho in Psychology: The Curious Popularity of Horror in a PANIC-demic

Our friends from Brain Burrow explore what sent so many into the terrifying arms of horror during the pandemic.

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There is nothing more strange or deeply unsettling than realizing you are trapped in your own personal horror film. Hell hath risen. Perhaps even more terrifying; you don’t know how it will end. This is the panic we all felt last year. The devastating loss of control. The despair in empty cityscapes. The omnipresent ticking death count; the cold reminder that we all have an expiration date. But what’s most peculiar is the rise in horror film views. 

In 2020, horror films grossed the largest market share in history. Of course, the primary contributor to the popularity was the lockdown; our reality lost, protectively forsaken, as we found solace in a place where we could take back that control and confine our fears to an electronic box.

Richly fueled by a heavy dose of nostalgia, Halloween (1978) was the second highest grossing film in 2020. It has withstood the test of time, and remains a master in the art of suspense, and the intense anxiety rising from this mental gasp. 

Related: Why Empathy in Horror Makes for Better (and Scarier) Movies

In A Cut Above the Rest (2003), a documentary exploring the impact of Halloween, director John Carpenter recalls a trip to a mental institution while he was studying psychology: “We visited the most serious, mentally ill patients,” he said. “And there was this kid, he must have been 12 or 13, and he literally had this look.”

It was a look that inspired the character of Michael Myers. Just as the innocent Laurie Strode grew concerned upon discovering this unwanted companion, we too found our own sharp sense of paranoia in a virus walking just out of sight, and yet, ever present. 

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Stuck inside with little else to do last year, we resorted to a strange little world that is frightening, but caged and contained. And now that the world is still off-kilter, we still engage in this unique practice. Why do we find comfort in this ritual? Maybe we just enjoy dancing with the devil: the excitement that serves as a catalyst to an invigorating experience, an experience that momentarily frees us from the status quo. A short-term remedy, really. 

Related: 13 Pandemic Horror Books to Keep You Occupied During the Coronavirus Outbreak

It is this distinctive cure that creates a temporary hold on our real-life suffering. Taking ownership over something in the midst of doom and gloom is empowering; it revitalizes our natural survival instincts. We still have some fight in us after all. In Brain Burrow, we explore how the horror both in our own lives and on the screen is thoroughly intertwined. We burrow deep in every sense of the word, and find the true meaning behind what it truly means to be human. 

It is without a doubt that 2020 affected the psyche of everyone, and the aftershock sent a ripple through the country. Researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that emergency room visits skyrocketed, with suicide attempts among girls between the ages of 12 and 17 increasing at 26% during the summer of 2020 and by 50% during winter 2020. 

With mental stability dropping at an alarming rate, we felt lost; the world as we knew it was gone. Launching into nostalgia, diving into classic movies, and retreating into our own mind, became our coping mechanism. Maintaining a firm grasp on sanity by delving into contained chaos, our self-defense. Then, we began to speak up. 

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There is a neurological benefit when it comes to escapism: whether it be getting lost in discussion or watching a movie, and enjoying the time away from the daily hustle and bustle of life. 

A type of cognitive behavioral therapy called laughter therapy releases endorphins, which is similar to reacting to a film and discussing the aftermath. It is a kind of stimulation that manifests a chemical reaction in the body; when we express ourselves in conversation with others, and are given validation and therefore, safety, we feel good. Our minds are at ease. 

Therapy of any form is brain food. The very act of talking about our past and escaping into trauma can be damaging, as there is a feeling of vulnerability that is unlocked and awakened, but more often than not, it can also be enlightening, and cleansing.

Related: Horror Books That Grapple with Trauma

As a specialist in the very sensitive art of mental cleansing, Mark D. Valenti has studied behaviorism for well over 20 years. He is an expert when it comes to examining the curious functions of the mind. With over 41 episodes under his belt with Brain Burrow, he has delved into the thoughts of countless creative professionals, discovering that we are all very much alike than we realize; we undergo crippling circumstances, but we find our own cure: in discussion or on screen, either way, we maintain control and see hope through these avenues. 

We know that despite our collective trauma brought on by 2020, there is still a great deal of us who emerged just like our final girl, Laurie Strode; the horror still lingering, but our respective lives surviving despite it all.

Article written by Bianca Crespo, Associate Producer of Brain Burrow. Born and raised in Philly, Bianca started her entertainment career in Los Angeles in 2012. She has worked in several aspects of film/TV production, some of which include The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and Millennium Films. She established her multimedia production company Santa Mira Studio in 2017, now based in Pennsylvania, where she creates original content. She joined Brain Burrow with host Mark D. Valenti earlier this year.

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All images courtesy of Brain Burrow.