The only thing we have to fear is anything remotely frightening. But just until we realise it's not. (Part II)

Read The only thing we have to fear: Part I

The review As a little Easter treat, I planned to spend the weekend finding out what it would be like to terrify myself by watching the scary movies I have avoided for the past 14 years. Before I got started, I put myself through the same process I use when setting up experiments in CBT: making sense of why it is how it is, and reviewing what could be lost and gained from trying something different.

And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here? I stopped watching scary movies in 1999, around the time The Blair Witch Project was out in cinemas. Okay, at exactly the time The Blair Witch Project was out in cinemas. In the years preceding, I had made it through some of the sexier horror ventures for my generation by pretending that they were all elaborate extra-credit assignments completed by Dawson Leery, starring all his friends from neighbouring TV shows. I thought the last pre-BWP one of these would be easy to watch because it starred Dawson’s best friend Pacey, in a long anticipated sequel to the one of him banging his teacher.

For some bright reason, my friend and I decided that Urban Legends would be best viewed in a car. At an extremely unpopular drive-in. On the slow drive down the dirt road back to civilisation (doors locked and radio off), my friend pondered how petrifying it would have been if some prankster had started knocking on the car roof to mess with us during the film. I concurred and then left the conversation behind me once I was safe in bed (door blocked and lights on). In fact I didn’t remember it again until that same friend reminded me of it several months later, while we were waiting for Blair Witch Project to start. I can’t tell you whether that film is scary or not, because I spent the entire time in survival mode, waiting for some dickhead to touch my ears or grab my ankles. Since then, even just the thought of watching another horror film will set my skin crawling.

And you may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong? I suppose I would say the potential costs of this experiment are complete regression and all-consuming terror from which I never recover. The potential benefits are the whole reason for doing these experiments: to gain better insight into the sorts of techniques I recommend to people on a daily basis. I want to know what it’s like to induce fear purposefully and repeatedly, I want to observe what hurdles I face when trying to do this, and I want to see for myself if habituation to fear really works. There are certain people in my life who insist that I will also be culturally better off if I am able to tolerate horror films. We’ll see.

The results Last week I rated the top 5 scary films suggested by my friends, in order of how much I would want to watch them under ordinary circumstances.

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I started with The Thing because I thought that the early 80s “special” effects and the presence of Kurt Russell would keep me aware that this was just a movie, thus tempering the fear response. It did. My heart rate was definitely higher in the second half of the film, but I’d say I was more tense than afraid. Next.

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The Exorcist had been suggested by a few people whom I don’t consider to scare easily. Right from the start I felt like I’d seen it before and this feeling never really left me. I suspect repeated viewings of Repossessed as a teenager might have ruined this one for me. Next.

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Silence of the Lambs is a brilliant film that I should have watched years ago. Next.

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I couldn’t quite believe that I had been avoiding these films for so long. I decided to go straight to the daddy mac. I knew that Wolf Creek contained all the things that would push my fear buttons, and just to make it feel that little bit more realistic and personal, it was all set in my beautiful homeland.

That’s done it.

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Before I started this experiment, I assumed that any repeated viewings would be unpleasant, but relatively easy for three sensible reasons. I would already know what was coming, I was motivated to complete the test, and I knew a lot about physiological habituation to fear. I rented the film through iTunes for 48 hours, 40 of which had passed before when I sat myself down on the sofa to have an internal argument about watching it again. Despite years of experience providing exposure therapy, my body simply refused to believe that it would be easier on second viewing, and it would not listen to any logic coming from my brain. The bit of reasoning that dragged me to the point where I could press Play was nothing to do with habituation, it was only the thought of failing the experiment. (It turns out my fear of failure is greater than my fear of serial killers. More on that another time.)

As soon as I got started, I knew that it was a different experience. It was no less horrific, and I was no less disgusted, but I did not feel anywhere near as afraid. Instead I felt tense and anxious, bracing myself to watch what I knew was coming. It felt like my body was much better equipped to cope when I knew exactly what was ahead, even when it was something awful. Maybe this was why The Exorcist hadn’t impacted me - I’d previously seen variations of every gruesome scene, thereby removing the exponential effect of the unknown. If someone stops you on your walk home and says “there’s something awful around the corner”, you would have a pretty different anticipatory response than if someone told you that you were about to walk past a dismembered cat.

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Having put off the second viewing for so long, I had limited time left on my iTunes rental, so for the third viewing I cut straight to the hard stuff – the final 50 minutes.

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Though it was exceptionally unpleasant, there were only two short sections where my heart rate went back up. For those who have seen the film, these two moments were “head on a stick” and the final bit before it’s all over. I watched these twice more each, bringing it to a close after my involuntary response downgraded from a wince to a nose scrunch. It seemed inhuman to try to get to the point where it didn’t bother me at all.

Heart rate: The bit before the end - Take IV

The lessons Doing this experiment reminded me of the day I tried blue cheese for the first time since dismissing it at age 12. I wonder what other masterpieces I might have missed out on based on an outdated belief that I wouldn’t be able to cope. My first lesson is this: if I am avoiding something that other people seem to love, then it’s worth checking if the reasons for avoidance are still valid. Sometimes they won’t be (blue cheese, Silence of the Lambs), sometimes they will be (frittata, Family Guy).

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I know that exposure therapy and habituation work for anxiety. I have learned about it in extensive detail, I have seen it work for a wide range of problems, and I know that long-term benefits often outweigh short-term costs. But things up close appear much bigger than those far away. When I’m sitting there with a plan to voluntarily inflict torment upon myself, my protective mode is going to easily overpower that smart little logical part of my frontal lobe. (Actually, my frontal lobe is massive. More on that another time.) It’s no wonder people come looking for support – it’s not that we don’t know what to do, it’s that our whole body is screaming at us not to do it.

Coming soon: sleep deprivation. Too bad I just overcame my fear of scary movies, I could really use the nightmares to help keep me awake.

© Cognitive Behave Yourself, 2013.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full credit is given to Jane Gregory with a link to the original material.  For CBT in North-West London please visit http://www.hampsteadcbt.com.