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How apocalyptic movies are helping us handle COVID-19

Movies like ‘Contagion’ are changing peoples’ feelings of preparedness and resilience during the global pandemic, new research shows

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In this image released by Warner Bros. Pictures, Chin Han, left, and Marion Cotillard are shown in a scene from the film “Contagion.”

Chin Han, left, and Marion Cotillard are in a scene from the 2011 film “Contagion.” According to a new study, horror and “prepper” movies are impacting viewers’ feelings of preparedness and psychological resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Warner Bros. Pictures, Claudette Barius, Associated Press

Watching a scary movie just might help you feel better about our current global pandemic. The science says so.

A new study by academics from the University of Chicago, Pennsylvania State University and Aarhus University examines how exposure to apocalyptic/“world-ending” movies impacts a person’s mental and emotional resilience, as well as their feeling of preparedness, toward the coronavirus.

As reported by The Guardian, the researchers questioned more than 300 volunteers about their movie preferences and viewing histories. From there, the volunteers were asked how prepared they felt entering the current pandemic, and how much anxiety, depression, irritability and sleeplessness they’d been experiencing. 

Researchers were specifically interested in the effects of horror and “prepper” movies — “prepper” meaning apocalyptic movies where society collapses. The Daily Mail reported that to mask the study’s intent, researchers included eight other movie categories: zombie, psychological thriller, supernatural, science fiction, alien-invasion, crime, comedy and romance.

The results? Horror movie fans were less psychologically distressed by the coronavirus than others — but these horror fans didn’t exhibit signs of greater resilience or preparedness.

However, fans of “prepper” movies did show more resilience and preparedness, and experienced fewer life disruptions, than fans of other movie genres. These findings held when controlled for factors like age, sex, fondness for movies generally, and personality traits like neuroticism and conscientiousness. 

Coltan Scrivner, a psychologist at the University of Chicago who studies morbid curiosity, was one of the study’s main researchers. He told The Guardian people are compelled to watch apocalyptic movies because it gives them a safe environment to experience the chaos of social breakdown.

“For the cost of a bad dream one night, you can learn what the world looks like when a pandemic hits,” Scrivner said.

These findings are consistent with recent anecdotal evidence. The 2011 film “Contagion,” in particular, became one of the most-downloaded movies during the beginning of U.S. shutdowns in March.

Mathias Clasen, another of the recent study’s co-authors, noted that our willingness to inhabit fictional worlds is an evolutionary trait. By experiencing fictional scenarios, we become better prepared for when those scenarios become real life.

“If you’ve watched a lot of what we call prepper movies, you will have vicariously lived through massive social upheavals, states of martial law, people responding in both prosocial and dangerously selfish ways to a sudden catastrophic event,” he said, according to New York Post. “Compared to somebody who has never simulated the end of the world, you’ll be in a better place because you have that vicarious experience.”

This greater psychological resilience was most present in those deemed “morbidly curious” — folks who display increased curiosity in unpleasant things related to death. For those who weren’t morbidly curious generally, the study indicated that horror and prepper movies had mixed results in fostering psychological resiliency. According to ScienceAlert, the study’s authors think this is because pandemic films are often meant to simply scare people, not inspire curiosity or approach the pandemic “as an intrinsically interesting phenomenon.”

In a separate paper, Scrivner explained the uniqueness of these findings, and what they teach about humankind’s penchant for morbid curiosity. Humans instinctively recoil at “potentially pathogenic material” like spoiled food, as a way to minimize infection risk. In certain instances, however, we’re also hardwired to seek out this disgust if we think it’ll increase our safety long-term.

“In many real-world instances, the costs of obtaining information about dangerous phenomena are high,” Scrivner wrote. “One way to reduce the risk of interacting with a dangerous phenomenon is to create physical distance between yourself and the dangerous phenomenon.”

So, if you find yourself naturally curious about death and disease, a movie like “Contagion” might actually be healthy.