How I Deal with Movie Anxiety

mo·vie anx·i·e·ty

/ˈmo͞ovē aNGˈzīədē/

a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease that comes from not knowing what is going to happen during a movie
“her movie anxiety kept her from seeing scary movies in theaters”

Does this sound familiar?

Apparently, a lot of people feel this way before and during movies. Nausea, headaches, panicked breathing, crying – these are all symptoms movie anxiety sufferers have described to me.

And I totally get it!

According to my (saint of a) mom, I first started experiencing movie anxiety when I was a toddler. She bought Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on VHS and by the end of it was regretting her decision because I. Was. Wrecked.

That witch disguised as a crusty old lady freaked me the eff out – I still remember vivid nightmares I’d have that she was in my house, forcing me to chew poisoned bubble gum. No matter how many times I reminded myself that “it’s just a movie,” I couldn’t separate the made up stuff from real life.

Image courtesy of Disney

I responded in a way as dignified as I could muster (LOL I WAS FOUR) and demanded that my mom hide the VHS forever. And she did! Every few months, she would take it out of its hiding place to check if I was over it or not, and I responded by bursting into tears.

Unfortunately, this was a preview for the rest of my life.

Middle school me regularly ended up in the guidance counselor’s office, trying to explain why I felt like I couldn’t sit through a video about how the Egyptians put King Tut’s brain in a fancy jar. Some teachers were super understanding and let me take movies home before we watched them in class – knowing exactly what was going to happen was almost euphoric. But some teachers, understandably, were like, “WTF? Can’t I get a movie day breather without someone sobbing?”

By high school, I learned ways to work with my movie anxiety without causing a scene. I could tell it wasn’t “normal” to panic over a sword fighting scene in Zorro, so I made a habit of going to the bathroom during movies. (Obviously, by going to the bathroom, I mean roaming the halls and using my pay-per-text cell phone plan to send 15¢ messages to my friends.) One of my proudest triumphs was excusing myself during a showing of Schindler’s List and crashing a different class where it was someone’s birthday. Eating cake and avoiding crying in public felt like a win-win.

Movie anxiety is confusing, even to me. It’s hard to explain, and people often dismiss my feelings because they think I’m trying to get out of plans or am just being a, “baby.” A group of college friends couldn’t understand why I could read The Shining right before bed, but got a stress migraine from watching The Leprechaun. Listen, it doesn’t make sense to me either! But my suspicion is that it all starts and ends with control. When I’m reading a book, I get to control literally everything: how fast I read, what the characters look like in my head, and the amount of PG-13 violence I allow to occur. During movies, I feel like I’m at the mercy of someone else’s vision, which CAN BE THE BEST ESCAPE EVER, but can also be, well, anxiety-inducing.

Luckily, I learned a fabulous solution from Shrek.

Yes, Shrek, the unofficial second greatest movie of all time. (Shrek 2 is even better and you know it.) I was eleven and felt way too old to be quaking with nerves over seeing a frickin cartoon featuring a talking donkey. So I signed on to our dial-up internet (weeewoooweewoooberrpbeeberrrp) and asked Jeeves what to do. He pointed me to a website called Kids in Mind, Ratings that Work, which is a website for overprotective parents to check all the reasons a movie is rated the way that it is. For instance, Shrek got a PG rating from Hollywood, but on Kids in Mind, it has a 3.4.3. The threes indicate a 3/10 for Sex & Nudity and Language, while the 4 is a 4/10 for Violence & Gore.

Image courtesy of Dream Works

Kids in Mind breaks down the reasons for the ratings in each category. The anxious side of my brain was like FOUR OUT OF TEN VIOLENCE NO WAY CAN WE HANDLE THAT, but then I read the description: “A woman fights off a bunch of men using “Matrix”-like moves … An ogre knocks a woman into some shrubs (they are having a shoving match) … a donkey talks about the effects of eating gas-causing food.” Oh, never mind, my brain admitted. This is totally our kind of movie.

I’m pushing thirty and I still use that website on a regular basis. Recently, a friend invited me to a free screening of Red Sparrow, and Kids in Mind was like NUH UH, GIRL. RED SPARROW HAS AN 8/10 VIOLENCE RATING BECAUSE SPOILER ALERT SOMEONE GETS SKINNED ALIVE AND THAT’S NOT EVEN THE WORST PART.

In the words of the great Valerie Cherish, “I don’t wanna see that!”

On the other hand, a group of pals were going to see A Quiet Place, which I was positive would be too scary for me. But once I checked it out on Kids in Mind and saw it had a low gore rating, I felt way better about paying $15 to see it. Plus, BONUS, I knew exactly when all the jump scares were coming, so I actually came off as extra brave compared to all of the grown men who yelped in surprise.

If you get movie anxiety, I bet Kids in Mind could be a great resource for you!

For those of you who are wondering, yes, of course I’ve talked to a therapist about this. And she told me to keep doing what I’m doing. We all have unique fears or anxieties or reasons we cry in public restrooms. Sometimes, getting “better” isn’t about finding a cure, but finding ways to work with what we’ve got. So, yeah, I have movie anxiety, but I’ve found ways to work with it.

No matter what your version of movie anxiety is – maybe you have a fear of public speaking or of commitment or of driving on the highway – YOU WILL FIGURE IT OUT, TOO. You’ll find your own version of Shrek.

I believe in you!

Annndddd, now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch Shrek 2. Love you byeeee!

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