Horror movies have been delighting and terrifying audiences for decades. Aside from making you shield your eyes in the theater and replay the scariest scenes in your head as you try to sleep, horror movies can also impact your nervous system. Even if you like a good scare, you should be aware of exactly how that next horror movie will impact your health.

There are a number of movies that mainstream audiences and even diehard horror fans simply couldn’t get through — or at least watch a second time. At the, Before the Bite premier at the Fantasia International Film Festival, producers gave viewers barf bags because they knew the grotesque scenes could cause upset stomachs. The Devil’s Rejects is so violent that some viewers left the theater well before the ending. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) was originally rated X and even banned in a few countries.

Why do we respond so viscerally to these films? It may have something to do with how they physically impact us.

The Physical Effects of Horror Movies

If you’ve ever watched a horror movie, you’ve probably experienced physical reactions firsthand. Your heart races, you squirm in your seat, and you jump when the scary thing you’ve been waiting for finally happens. Sometimes, you may even be so scared that you remain completely still, terrified to move a muscle. 

These scenes may even haunt you for years, especially if the events take place somewhere seemingly unthreatening. Some of the best horror movie moments occur in places we all visit regularly — the grocery store, the beach or our workplace. For example, a majority of the movie Hereditary is set inside a family’s home, which can make all of us fear the place we return to each night. Aside from that, Hereditary may be one of the scariest movies ever made.

Horror Movies and Heart Rate

When entertainment company A24 held screenings of Hereditary in the U.S., they had viewers wear Apple Watches to record their heart rates. This wasn’t for health purposes; instead, it was to help promote the movie as being wildly terrifying. However, it does shine a light on the connection between heart health and scary movies.

Hereditary viewers had heart rate spikes as high as 164 BPM. While heart rate monitors like the Apple Watch aren’t 100 percent accurate, that’s still a major spike, even if the actual BPMs were a bit lower than reported (they may have been higher, too). To put that in context, your resting heart rate is usually between 60 and 100 BPM. A BPM above that is what you may strive for when working out, but otherwise, it doesn’t typically rise that high unless you’re in a stressful situation.

The Fight-or-Flight Response

A scary movie can make your fight-or-flight response kick in, which turns up your blood pressure and heart rate. That response usually occurs when we’re in real danger. However, even though viewers know that the images on the screen can’t truly hurt them, the brain reacts the same way as if there were a real-life threat. 

Anxiety creates the same fight-or-flight response that real-life experiences do. For healthy people, an increased heart rate for a short period of time isn’t necessarily a bad thing — after all, that’s the purpose of exercise for many people. However, for those who have a much stronger response to a scary movie or who already have a weak heart, that fight-or-flight response can pose a genuine health risk.

Stress and Heart Health

One of the major causes of heart disease is stress. Researchers at UCLA found that both men and women are at the same level of risk for stress-related heart disease. For many people, managing stress level is imperative to remaining healthy. Avoiding horror movies is one way to limit how much stress you expose yourself to. These films have a tendency to increase your heart rate, which then raises your stress level and puts your heart at risk.

Avoiding scary movies is just one way to keep your heart healthy. Whether or not you take in the next thriller, consider adding exercise to your daily routine, especially if you’re a filmophile and spend a lot of time getting scared by the silver screen. If you don’t have any heart conditions, regular exercise can lower your risk. If you’re currently suffering from a heart condition, speak with your doctor about starting a heart-healthy exercise regime.

Poor Sleep and Heart Health

Here’s another consideration: if that scary movie is making it hard for you to sleep, your heart health may be affected. Replaying scenes in your head as you try to drift off or worrying about realistic, disturbing scenarios from the movie can make it impossible to get to sleep or sleep soundly, leading to sleep deprivation.

If a person exhibits patterns of poor sleep habits, they may have insomnia. Insomnia is defined in a number of ways:

  • Difficulty falling asleep

  • Difficulty staying asleep

  • Waking up too early

  • Getting poor-quality sleep

Aside from insomnia resulting in issues like poor concentration, bad mood, and fatigue, it may also have an impact on the cardiovascular system. Studies have shown that insomnia may increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as high blood pressure and stroke. If you’re already struggling with insomnia, you may want to avoid horror movies until you’ve improved your sleep health.

Scary movies may be a ton of fun, but if they’re putting your health at risk, they’re simply not worth it. In the U.S., heart disease is responsible for one in four deaths among women alone. By limiting your exposure to heart disease contributors, you can better manage your health — but for the rest of us who love the thrill of being thrilled, we can at least take care of our hearts to ensure the scares can keep coming.

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