Horror Therapy: Understanding Why ‘These Films Radiate Comfort’

A still from 'As Above So Below'. Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is shown centre frame in a blurred 'found footage' shot. She is covered in black liquid, deep in a cave, screaming in fear and pain. The image is dark and dingy aside from her pale skin, you can barely tell she's human.
Universal Pictures

It’s about time we as viewers discuss a universally shared experience that on the surface seems nuanced, but is actually much more common than we think. The scenario goes as follows; you need a mental break, whether it be from work or school or just the inconveniences of existing. It’s the simple need for an hour and a half to recuperate and mindlessly throw on a comfort classic, only to sit back and watch three people descend into madness in a forest, watching as they become traumatised by a witch’s curse – R&R, baby!

But on a serious note, this is something that I personally have always taken comfort in and could never truly rationalise. However, with the way Twitter always seems to bring out the similarities in many of our coping mechanisms, the horror-comfort genre has seen an increasing amount of recognition, mainly through posts highlighting “the way this film radiates comfort”, bringing this curious phenomenon into the mainstream.

Screenshot of a tweet from user @jdebbiel that says 'the way this film radiates comfort' with four stills from the film Midsommar.
@jdebbiel on Twitter

Prominent films in this online materialisation of the horror-comfort sensation include some comforting classics; 13 Going On 30, Pride and Prejudice, and Howl’s Moving Castle. However, even more interesting are some of the hidden gems of the trend; Saw, The Conjuring, The Blair Witch Project, and perhaps most curiously popular, As Above So Below. There is a lot to unpack between the plethora of horror films considered to “radiate comfort” but for time’s sake, I want to break down what seem to be the most popular sub-genres.

a screenshot of a tweet from user @ghoul_spice that says 'as above so below IS a comfort film'.
@ghoul_spice on Twitter

The slasher genre is one that seems like a generally agreed upon comfort genre, and how could it not be? There’s a perfect formula involved that seems to put the viewer at ease; a killer on the loose and a final girl worth rooting for for generations to come. There is research to support the comfort that women-aligned people take in watching slasher films grounded in the final girl trope.

Scholars like Isabel Pinedo have been aware of the comfort that can come from watching horror movies for decades. According to Pinedo’s research, “anxiety is made pleasurable by the conviction that in reality, everything is under control, that there is really nothing to be afraid of.” This reduced anxiety is heightened for women when watching female-centred slasher films. Pinedo also writes that films like Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th have a strong emphasis on female survival rather than suffering. She comments, “The surviving female of a slasher film may be victimized, but she is hardly a victim.” It may be this precedent of postmodern horror that makes space for contemporary slasher films like Freaky, to become part of a larger collection of newer horror-comfort films.

Understanding Pinedo’s work is essential in understanding how this phenomenon has evolved into the “films that radiate comfort” trend. Modern horror classics like Jennifers’s Body, Black Christmas (both the original and the remake) and even more psychologically orientated horror films like Midsommar are popular comfort films in today’s online conversation, and it’s easy to understand the root of this. Watching female horror protagonists achieve empowerment, freedom, and vengeance is what may be so alluring to viewers of any gender, because it evokes a gratifying viewing experience that gives power to the seemingly powerless.

a screenshot of a tweet from user @rejullnadeem that says 'The way this film radiates comfort [blushing emoji surrounded by hearts]' with four images from the Insidious universe.
@rajullnadeem on Twitter

Another popular sub-genre platformed by this trend is found-footage horror. Cecilia Sayad provides the distinction in viewership that spectators experience when watching films like Paranormal Activity, as she heavily focuses on in her work on the found-footage genre. Sayad describes how this genre is contrasted by other postmodern horror films. While Wes Craven’s Scream creates a world in which film tropes and reality are contained within the character’s lives, found-footage films like Paranormal Activity are purposeful in dismantling the separation between film and the viewer’s reality. By using techniques of cinematic realism; shaky cameras, use of real names and an aesthetic that blurs the lines between film and reality, the viewer is put in a position that makes it possible for the film to spill out into the real world.

It would seem that the interruption of cinema into the viewer’s world might contradict the comfort that is taken from traditional slasher films, which are safely contained in their respective universes, however perhaps the appeal of found-footage comes from the lack of control that both the characters and viewer have. Sayad writes, “Paranormal Activity toys with our ability, to on the contrary, control the filmed events.” It’s quite possible that the definite lack of control involved in watching realistic horror is a reason why there is a sense of comfort in watching “real people” lose control of the supernatural occurrences that ultimately lead to their tragic demise. In short, while we experience solace in the formula of slasher films, there is also something to be said about the comfort of letting go of our own control as a spectator. Katie Featherston is a regular person who is unable to grasp the events of her possession, and we are along for the ride with her. 

Found-footage films that followed in the footsteps of Paranormal Activity include Unfriended, and As Above So Below which also put the viewer in a state of collapsed distinction between film and reality. In the latter film’s case, there is an added layer to the bond that is created between the viewer and the female protagonist. Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is an incredibly intelligent scholar interested in alchemy, who is working to uncover an artifact that her father studied until his own death, and in searching for this, she also reclaims a sense of empowerment and a stronger understanding of her father as a person. Within this film, we can see how horror-comfort films can adopt aspects of the final girl trope and an audience sympathy that transcends cinematic realism.

a screenshot of a tweet from user @r3dandrotten that says 'bitches be like "this film radiates comfort" and then this is the film:' with four images from As Above So Below.
@r3dandrotten on Twitter

In addition to the popularisation of the found-footage and slasher genres as film therapy, many folks, like Vice’s Abby Moss detail the experience of using gore horror films to cope with anxiety. Her research includes psychological reasons behind people with anxiety coping through watching horror films. Dr. Mathias Clasen’s study on this topic reinforces the idea that horror films induce a feeling of calmness because the viewer can be assured that whatever they are watching isn’t real, and is therefore manageable, maybe even more than one’s own anxiety.

“The genre allows us to voluntarily—and under controlled circumstances—get experience with negative emotion,” Clasen says. Other research conducted by Moss provides an alternative explanation for those with higher levels of anxiety to enjoy gory, dark horror films, and that is that enduring films like the Saw franchise can allow us to transfer anxiety from ourselves, onto whatever torture and trauma the characters of these films face. This allows us to temporarily displace our anxiety from our personal lives to the on-screen anxiety of a film. In some way we can be alleviated in knowing that whatever we may be going through mentally, is drastically different from being held captive and forced to participate in a series of self-induced body mutilation by a sadistic serial killer, for example.

Lastly, with the new prominence of the “films that radiate comfort” trend, it’s clear to see that this isn’t a new occurrence, however the trend does normalise a coping mechanism many of us have used since childhood, and it’s brought to the online eye how everyone has different methods of self-soothing. What research about horror-comfort films has shown us is that we crave catharsis; whether that be in the form of watching a woman take revenge on men who have abused and traumatised her, in sympathising with a lack of control in someone’s life, or even in distracting our anxieties by placing ourselves in a world where pain is all that exists. Films of any genre can prove to be therapeutic, and it’s even more impactful when we become aware that we aren’t alone in the strange – nay, different!–  tactics we use in order to help ourselves feel better.

by Danielle Kessler

Danielle (she/her) is a journalism major and cinema studies minor from California. She’s an avid Twitter user (@reserv0irthots) who loves Kristen Stewart, the Scream franchise, coming of age movies, and Community. Some of her favorite films are Almost Famous, 20th Century Women, Thelma and Louise and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but she also reviews some guilty pleasure flicks on her letterboxd

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