As someone with a pretty significant anxiety disorder, I get asked a lot why I write (and read, and most of all watch) horror, and most of the time I don’t really have a very good answer. In her latest essay for Nightmare Magazine, Nadia Bulkin certainly hits on part of it. That desire for control, that need to experience our fear in digestible quantities, in a safe space. It’s not a new idea. It’s been trotted out to explain our fascination with everything from scary movies to Halloween haunted houses to rides at the state fair. But it never quite rang true for me. My relationship with horror, as I said on social media when sharing a link to Nadia’s essay, has always been more chummy than cathartic, for reasons that I still haven’t completely figured out.
I think a part of it is quite simply this: Horror doesn’t really scare me. Not the way that it’s supposed to. Not in the hands-over-your-eyes, middle-of-the-night-call-from-the-hospital way that Nadia describes. Maybe there was a time when it did. When I was a little kid, hiding behind the couch from the dog body strung up in C.H.U.D. or getting nightmares from the dead mother with a dog’s head sitting at the foot of Edward Furlong’s bed in Pet Sematary 2. (As a kid, I was pretty scared of dogs. Still am, if they bark, though I’ve gotten more used to it.)
Mostly, though, it was real life that scared me. Horror felt like a place I could escape to. One that acknowledged the darkness and pain of the world–that, in fact, elated it, to some extent–but that also offered something else. Beauty, sometimes, and the opportunity for transcendence. Someplace where pain became elegaic, rather than quotidiain.
That’s part of it, sure, but there’s also this: Horror didn’t scare me, but it let me feel scared. What’s the difference? I’m honestly not sure I know, let alone can explain, but I’ll try. My particular condition causes me to “get out of my body,” as my therapist says. I stop feeling much of anything. Feeling anything becomes dangerous and scary all on its own, regardless of the nature of the feeling. Horror movies let me feel in a way that also feels safe. I can wrap myself in them, and then I’m both in my body and not at the same time.
I think that may be why I can’t do it in the light. Why I need horror to keep at least some ragged vestiges of its edge to work. Why it isn’t enough for a thing to have monsters, it needs to also have a little bit of atmosphere. That atmosphere is the dark room; the place where fear bleeds in and reality bleeds away, so that I can feel without feeling too much.
Or maybe I just like monsters.