“To commemorate a past event, you kill and eat an animal. It’s a ritual sacrifice. With pie.” ~ Anya, “Pangs” Season 4, Episode 8 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Halloween is my favorite holiday, but really, Thanksgiving is the most terrifying of traditional American celebrations. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about a holiday built on giving thanks, but in addition to its ritual animal sacrifice, the holiday is a bitter and ironic celebration of the tragic history of the American Indian population. In light of what is happening right now with the Dakota Access Pipeline, and increasing tensions post-election, many may be preparing for a Thanksgiving Thunderdome rather than a celebration of compromise. Adele, paper turkeys made out of handprints, and DIY cornucopias may not be enough to save us this year. My solution: horror movies.
“Let’s just try to have a nice time. Think about all the things you’re thankful for.” It’s great advice, and indeed thinking about what we’re thankful for, and even expressing that thanks and doing something kind for others, can significantly improve our own mood, but often the path from the pit of despair to a happy smiley face is just not that easy. When I’m in the pit and someone tells me to “think positive” or “think of all the good times,” or worse, shows me a picture of a happy cartoon sunburst, I get even more upset and want to throw a wet blanket over the happy rays of sunshine. This is because much of how we understand and adapt our lives is through comparison. Think about it: when you’re cold, warm can feel hot. Coming out of the dark, a 20-watt bulb can be blinding. If we’re in the pit, that positive place we’re being told to go to can feel not only far away, but impossible to reach. You’re not just sad, you’re feeling hopeless.
What to do? Gather some friends and watch a horror movie. Here’s the thought: if you have something super negative holding your attention and bringing you down, maybe a good scare is just the thing you need to get out of your funk. When we’re scared in a safe situation, such as watching horror movies, we can activate our sympathetic nervous system, kick our body into high gear, and let our animal instincts take over for a while.
Think of it as hitting “reset” on your inner dialogue; you can put your never-ending worries and “what if?” scenarios to the side. Research suggests this can work for a number of different reasons. First, distractions are incredibly effective when we’re trying to change the way we feel and what we’re thinking about. But in order for distractions to work, the thing distracting us has to be super compelling (just ask your cat staring at you blankly as you bounce a feathered bundle in front of her for the zillionth time, only to have her return to using your couch as a scratch pad)—it has to be something novel, something intense, something that demands our attention. Nothing does that better than fear, and when it’s in a safe place, it can make you feel pretty good. Some of it’s the natural response to the chemicals released during fight or flight, but it also goes back to comparison: after you’ve had the stuffing scared out of you, dinner with the in-laws may not seem that bad.
To get the most out of this, you want to be sure you pick the right horror movie (and that you like horror movies to begin with). I suggest you write down a list of what you’re most afraid of this holiday season and find the horror movie that blows that fear out of the water. For example, what better way to be reminded that you do not, in fact, have to attend a family gathering than by watching some horrific kidnapping thrillers, because outside of kidnapping and various forms of involuntary confinement, no adult has to be anywhere. I suggest Misery.
After a couple hours of Kathy Bates’ portrayal of the ruthless Annie Wilkes, perhaps your less-than-friendly in-laws will not seem so bad. And, if worse leads to worst, you’ll remember, “My legs are not broken! I can get up and leave anytime!”
Or, perhaps you’re more than a little wary about a new friend your sibling is bringing into your home. How about watching The Invitation? It’s a slow burn for sure, but it will keep you guessing the whole time, and it is especially good for those moments when you’re questioning who’s the one at the table with the distorted view of reality…
Maybe the inevitable clash of Left and Right is your biggest concern after everyone has had their third or fourth cup of spiced rum cider. While The Purge movies are obvious choices, I’d also throw John Carpenter’s They Live, featuring the late “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, into the ring (pun intended).
And, if just straight-up family dysfunction is weighing heavily on your mind, there is nothing like watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, House of 1000 Corpses, or one that has made me thankful for my family: The People Under the Stairs. After watching any of these films, hopefully your own family dysfunction will seem, well, a little less dysfunctional.
Finally, be careful who you invite to your Thanksgiving Horror Movie Extravaganza. Being scared together can bring us closer to each other thanks to some of the hormones, like oxytocin. and neurotransmitters, like dopamine, that are released when we’re afraid. But, while oxytocin has been shown to increase empathy towards others as well as extend and reciprocate trust and cooperation, it can also lead to increasing discrimination towards those you consider to be outside your “in” group. My suggestion: get together with your best friends the morning of and watch your favorite scary movie. When it’s over, give each other big hugs and be thankful that you’re not turkey.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
*Note: None of this is intended as actual therapeutic or medical advice; I am a sociologist, not a therapist. If you do struggle with anxiety and depression, please seek professional care: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/find-help/index.shtml.