After 25 years of psycho-social studies, what do we know about the effects of horror films?

After 25 years of psycho-social studies, what do we know about the effects of horror films?

For parents and educators, one of the greatest concerns when choosing audio-visual resources is knowing whether the content is age-appropriate.

There are websites that can help decide (in italian only) on criteria for choosing content. But what do we really know about the effects of violence in film and television, about the effects of horror films and scenes of explicit sex on the children--and those who are no longer children?

The influence of the media

Only those who sell sex deny that pornography harms adults. Backed up by serious studies, some social agents, such as the Catholic Church in the United States, are fighting this addiction that destroys many marriages.

Recently, some celebrities, after making the problem known to their wives, have decided to confess it to the public as well, to strengthen their resolve and to help others who have the same problem.

There have been many studies, and even more has been written, about the effects of media violence, with conclusions that are different, contradictory, and never definitive. In these studies, much depends on the viewpoint of the researchers and on what is viewed. There can be no doubt that violent content in the media has increased in the last 60 years. It has also been proven—and no sensible person denies it—that those with a predisposition toward violence or who whose psyche or family is unbalanced or fragile tend to consume more violent content. And it is also beyond doubt that, in cases of fragility, the probability of violent behavior is increased.

What about horror films? Violence is always scary, but horror films are different from other genre. There can be horror without violence. The emotions involved in horror are not the same as those in other films. The horror factor is not currently included in the parameters that some countries use to counsel parents about whether a film is age-appropriate for their children. Instead, other factors such as sex, mature language, and violent images are considered. Nevertheless, there is an empirical datum that is significant for proposing more attention to horror: 90% of adults remember a scene of a film that terrified them and 21% still have “residual terror”.

Fear, anxiety, sleeping disorders and horror films

Laura J. Pearce and Andy P. Field, of the University of Sussex, have presented the conclusions of their rigorous study “The Impact of “Scary” TV and Film on Children's Internalizing Emotions: A Meta-Analysis”, in an article published in the academic journal Human Communication Research. The sociologists have sifted through 25 years of studies about how children internalize certain emotions—fear, anxiety and sadness—and whether they suffer from sleeping disorders after watching horror films or television programs.

Here is a summary of their conclusions:

a) There is sufficient empirical evidence that demonstrates that teens and children internalize reactions of anxiety, fear, depression and sleeping disorders as a result of seeing this type of film or television program.

b) Cognitive development can assuage these effects. Children under age 10 are much more vulnerable.

c) The methodological differences in the studies conducted over 25 years (laboratory studies with small groups, representative samples of the young population, different scales to measure the effects, type of programs examined, etc.) does not allow reliable conclusions about whether the effects vary significantly according to whether the content is fiction or non-fiction, or if they vary with the psychological profile of the individual. A minor, but significant datum is that the results are constant regardless of who responded to the questions in the questionnaire, be they children or parents.

The scope of the study

There are many studies about the measurable external effects after viewing violent media content, such as aggressive behavior, etc. This is the first that has been done about the internalizing of those effects, what we could call “emotional health” relative to horror content, or what are commonly known as “scary movies”.

The study is a meta-analysis, that is, a study of other studies. The validity of the conclusions, in these cases, depends on the authors being intellectually honest enough not to compare apples and oranges. Not all of the studies measure the same things, nor do they do so with the same tools or with comparable populations. Pearce and Field have done an impeccable job of methodological filtering to find what the studies have in common that can be compared.

The authors are cautious about explaining the notable differences between the results of laboratory experiments and those of broad samples.


Beyond the indispensable methodological caveats imposed by any empirical social study, one must admit that the findings of the article are doubly important. On one hand, they explain the increase in anxiety among young people and its relation to media content and, on the other, they provide a good starting point so that parents, politicians, and those working in the media can be better informed about the emotional impact of media content and take appropriate measures to protect young people.

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