How Horror Movies Help Me Cope With Difficult Emotions

Most people watch horror movies to scare themselves silly. For comedian Anita Flores, it’s a little more complicated.

I’ve been a horror fan since I saw Hellraiser. I was 8 years old at the time. In middle and high school, my best friend and I would have scary movie marathons. We’d watch Friday the 13th, Halloween, the Leprechaun series, or anything we found at Blockbuster with a sufficiently cool VHS cover. But as I got older and and made new friends, I was surrounded by fewer and fewer fans of the genre. As time went on, back-to-back screenings from the Scream series became less frequent. I usually needed to rope people in with an excuse, like my birthday or Halloween. I got sick of waiting for friends to check out movies like Candyman with me, so I either watched them alone or not at all. But in the past two years, there’s been an uptick in my horror film viewings. I’ve seen 70, to be exact. And I think it directly correlates with the fact that my father was diagnosed with dementia in 2017. In 2016, I finally started taking medication for my anxiety, but pills can only do so much when it comes to dealing with my ongoing personal tragedy. I know that horror movies bring me some kind of comfort, but why?

To try and answer this question, I compiled a list of all the horror films I’ve watched since 2017. Next, I went through and picked out the ones that I rewatched the most. These are the top five.

Good for: Anxiety
I watched this movie twice on vacation in Italy. During my first viewing, I was sleeping in separate beds at an Airbnb with my boyfriend. Three days prior to our romantic trip, he’d been diagnosed with shingles. The virus poses minimal risk to anyone who has had chickenpox or the vaccine; I’d had neither. That meant we weren’t allowed to touch or sleep in the same bed. I couldn’t sleep because of my anxiety over the situation. My love language is physical touch, and my boyfriend couldn’t even hold my hand. I obsessively thought, “Does he still love me? We haven’t cuddled in three days – are we even dating anymore?” I watched Annihilation for the second time at 1 a.m., feeling really proud of myself for not getting too scared to watch a monster savagely rip Gina Rodriguez’s throat out. I compared myself to the characters, thinking, “At least I’m not turning into a plant.” The movie is visually captivating, and I was scared enough by the story to stop obsessing about whether or not my boyfriend loved me.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Good for: Depression
After a long weekend back home visiting my dad and running caretaker errands, I came back feeling tired and sad. More than a few times, I’ve blasted The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on the TV in my living room. Ah yes, the soothing sounds of a chainsaw. After these trips home, I have no energy and all I can do is eat Chinese food and cry. This film takes me back to the rootin’, tootin’ seventies — to the land of hot, dumb people I don’t have any connection to, who become violently acquainted with Leatherface. I like that it’s not a psychological thriller. It’s pretty psychology-free, actually, kind of like the Oxycodone of horror films. It’s a simple chase with a chainsaw, loud enough to distract me from anything else. Compared to its brainlessness, even a rom-com like Valentine’s Day feels too painfully rooted in reality. When I’m feeling down, watching people laugh and be happy onscreen makes me feel worse. With a romantic story, I inevitably end up comparing myself to the characters on screen and falling short in my own mind. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I don’t feel any connection to the victims, Leatherface, or his cannibalistic family. It’s like I’m on a vacation from myself.

Good for: Insomnia
Sci-fi meets horror? A dream! I’m obsessed with planets colliding, the sun burning out, and total chaos. I like to watch this movie when I can’t sleep because dark, infinite space makes me sleepy. The soundtrack has a dreamy vibe. Much like the inevitability of the crew’s dreaded one-way mission, I think of exhaustion the same way. Sleep is inevitable, and that comforts me. When I can’t stop thinking about how I’ll ever get to sleep, this film helps me focus on bigger-picture stuff, like space. And Cillian Murphy’s eyes.

Rosemary’s Baby
Good for: PMS
I have anxiety. I take Lexapro, and I have a hormonal IUD. It’s the perfect storm for what I like to call a “PMS tornado.” My boyfriend recently asked me, “What does it feel like when you have PMS?” The answer for me is, the inability to think rationally. The obsessive thoughts that Lexapro helps me quiet down are elevated every month by this natural disaster of emotion. In these trying times, I love the absolute paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby. Everyone is against her, and they’re all in it together! Rosemary, I feel you, girl. Krzysztof Komeda’s film score is like a more frantic version of Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver soundtrack. It’s the musical version of my obsessive thinking. When I watch the movie, I temporarily leave my irrational thoughts behind for a world in which a woman’s husband, doctors, and neighbors are all against her. Is it still paranoia when you’re right to be scared?

The Descent
Good for: Depression
I recently watched The Descent with with some friends. It’s the seventh time I’ve seen it, and it’s still the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. When I watch it alone, though, it leaves me not with a feeling of fear, but of comfort. When I’m feeling really down, I’m too sad to be scared. Bone-chilling horror, in those moments, is less frightening to watch. I can focus on the characters and the plot without being jumpy. What I love about this movie is that the majority of it takes place in a dark cave. Danger lurks everywhere. There’s no break from the tension — a nice respite from sadness. The movie makes me claustrophobic, just like Gravity (a movie with a very different setting). When it’s over, my actual life seems like a breath of fresh air. The Descent was given a new ending for its American release, where the main character triumphantly escapes. She escapes in the original film, too, but we soon learn that it was a fantasy. In reality, she’s trapped there. I love this darker resolution. When I’m in a bad headspace, I have no patience for feel-good movies. I think to myself, “No, this isn’t real. People you love get sick and die.” I watch a dark ending and I’m like, “Yes, this makes sense to me,” and then I can move on with my life.

So what am I truly getting out of horror movies? I asked this very question to my therapist. She said finishing a scary film creates a sense of accomplishment. It’s “achieving mastery.” Something to cross off a list. There is absolutely truth to that. My father’s dementia is getting worse, and sometimes my anxiety gets the better of me, but at least I finished a horror movie that other people can’t stomach. But in a way these movies are also fantasy for me. It’s not about the violence or gore, it’s about the distraction from myself. Actual horror is watching someone you love slip away. I watched 150 hours of terror all by myself in a short period of time. Who else can say that? No really, I want to know. Is it you? If so, let’s hang out.

Anita Flores has produced and starred in videos for Buzzfeed, Univision, and She hosts 2 monthly comedy shows called Party of Two and Gross Girls. She is currently on tour with Awkward Sex and the City and has a podcast called I’m Listening where she explores different themes and pivotal moments from the show Frasier with a new guest each episode. For more, visit her official site.