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Horror movies and marital quality: What one tells you about the other

A new study says the eyes are the window to your fear — but your marriage can make a difference

A group attends a private screening at the Megaplex Theatres at Legacy Crossing in Centerville on Friday, May 29, 2020. Select Megaplex Theatres have been offering private family screenings for groups of up to 20 people.
A group attends a private screening at the Megaplex Theatres at Legacy Crossing in Centerville on Friday, May 29, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Did you know that being in a solid, supportive marriage can make watching horror movies less scary?

Being able to manage fear in horror movies, though, is not the main point of a new study by BYU researchers just published in the prestigious journal PLOS One. Being able to manage stressful situations of all types is.

And a good, strong marriage seems to be a powerful tool for navigating stress.

The researchers took a high-tech look at what happens when couples watch a horror movie to prove the point that relationship quality matters.

The science they used is called pupillometry, which in this case involved a real-time look at marital stress through the literal lens of the body’s autonomic nervous system — the eye. Pupils dilate in relation to stress well before someone’s even aware of their reaction, within 200 milliseconds of stress exposure. Before you know you’re stressed — and a horror film scare can elicit the response — your pupils react.

“Horror movies induce stress, through the fear response,” said lead author Tyler Graff, now an assistant professor of psychology at Wartburg College, “and our bodies can’t really differentiate where that stress is coming from. So it’s a very generalizable stress test. Couples watch horror movies together, all the time. And they hold hands all the time.”

The researchers needed to do the study in a lab, where they had sophisticated equipment. But they also wanted to replicate real-life stress. Co-author Wendy C. Birmingham, associate professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, said she likes to put blood pressure cuffs on people and send them out to live their lives to measure stress. But it’s not possible to use pupillometry that way.

However, lots of couples watch horror movies and a lab setting would not take away the real-life response because of the setting. When something terrifying jumps out unexpectedly and scares you, you react.

“I really liked that we could put people in a lab and control what was happening to them — and still make it like a real-life situation in the real world,” she said.

The story eyes tell

Eighty-three couples answered a questionnaire and were categorized as being in either ambivalent or supportive marriages, based on a scale. The couples had been married an average of 10 years and they spanned ages, averaging just over 33 years old.

They were assigned to either watch the movie clips alone or while holding hands with their spouse. As they watched, their pupil dilation was measured using an infrared camera.

The horror clips created a stress response that revealed significant differences between the support and solo experiences, as well as between marital relationship quality conditions. In both cases, holding the spouse’s hand dampened the degree of stress.

People without support while watching experienced “significantly higher feelings of state of anxiety,” according to the study.

The research builds on an earlier study by the same researchers, also published in PLOS One, that showed having your spouse nearby while you tackle stress and challenges can calm you down and let you complete stressful tasks. That study involved the Stroop Test, where one is presented with a word like “yellow” that’s written in green and the individual is supposed to choose the color and ignore the word. It’s amazingly stressful.

Relationship quality was an added element in the new study and they intend to add different types of relationships over time, Graff said. Perhaps close friends or colleagues. But he said they were struck by how much a quality marriage matters when it comes to handling stress.

Birmingham thinks just having someone with you could reduce or increase stress, depending on who that someone is. Feeling judged, for instance, increases stress. But she also thinks that the marital relationship, if it’s good, is particularly powerful.

“The takeaway message for me is that, No. 1, having my spouse with me during a stressful situation is comforting. And not only do I think that it’s emotionally comforting, but physiologically it changes my stress responses, it changes what’s happening in my body. Down the road, maybe I’m better able to cope with stress or it doesn’t affect me as much,” Birmingham said.

Since supportive marriages are the most helpful, she hopes the study will remind people to work on their marriages. “It’s not just important that you have a supportive spouse, but that you yourself then behave in a supportive manner to your husband or wife,” she said.

Fast reaction

The technology captured about 1,200 measurements per second — basically in real-time. Pupillometry has been well-vetted and is a well-accepted way to measure stress.

Steven Luke, professor of psychology at BYU, has been the technology expert and a co-author on both stress studies. He explained at the time of the first study that the “neat thing” about pupillometry is that it will “immediately measure how someone responds to stress and whether having social support can change that. It’s not just a different technique, it’s a different time scale.”

The researchers listed a couple of study limitations, including that “the horror video clips may not have been very believable since slasher films may not carry a high level of realism (i.e., most people do not expect to be stalked by a masked madman with a hook while running through a crowded street).

A realistically stressful or frightening event is difficult to replicate in small video segments; however, it is valuable to know that even startling or surprising situations are managed best with a spouse,” they wrote.