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Horror Films: Tales to Master Terror or Shapers of Trauma?

The authors review the literature of cinematic-related psychiatric case reports and report the case of a 22-year-old woman who presented with intrusive thoughts of demonic possession and flashbacks of the film The Exorcist. Cinematic neurosis may be considered a form of psychological crisis shaped by exposure to a film narrative that is emotionally and culturally significant to the individual. The structure of horror films are examined from the perspectives of trauma theory, narrative theory, and borderline personality organization theories, using the film The Exorcist as an example. Within this framework, the horror film can be seen as a cultural tale that provides a mechanism for attempting mastery over anxieties involving issues of separation, loss, autonomy, and identity. An individual will identify with narrative elements that resonate in personal life experiences and cultural factors embedded within the film, which carry levels of either stress that will be mastered, or act as a trauma to the viewer. The outcome of this exposure is related to how the individual’s personality structure is organized in combination with the stresses they are experiencing.