The case for watching horror, as made by someone who used to hate it

You too can absolutely work through your dislike/fear/instinctive avoidance of horror movies

The case for watching horror, as made by someone who used to hate it

Some won’t do musicals and others have a distaste for romance, but horror might be the only genre with which a large percentage of the population simply refuses to engage. While plenty of us like a good ghost story, within any random group of five or six people you’ll probably find at least one respondent to whom the question, “Do you like horror?” elicits a polite but firm, “Absolutely fucking not, I don’t watch horror, can’t handle it, don’t like it.” It provokes a visceral reaction in a way no other form of storytelling can, and for an obvious reason: The purpose of horror is to scare you. For many—too many—this proposal is a non-starter. To the ears of the horror-averse, the question may as well be, “Hey, do you like subjecting yourself to a couple of hours of deeply unpleasant psychological damage?”

So this is for all you non-horror people out there; those who would rather scroll through the Wikipedia plot description of The Conjuring from the brightly lit comfort of your office desk while listening to the sounds of upbeat indie pop than ever subject yourself to a screening of it. I’m here to argue why you should absolutely work through your dislike/fear/instinctive avoidance of horror. I say this because I was once one of you, and for a very long time, too. And not only getting over my fear of horror, but becoming a dedicated devotee of the genre, might be the best decision I’ve ever made—for my own peace of mind, my personal psychological make-up, my own cultural education, and above all, my sense of fun.

It’s not like my fear of horror began with any one thing. Like a lot of young kids, I just found myself powerfully disturbed by anything intentionally scary. Maybe I got exposed to something terrifying at an early age; maybe I was just a sensitive little wuss. There’s no single reason someone develops an aversion to horror. (The snobby argument would be that I had good taste even as a 10-year-old, so watching one of the Friday The 13th sequels taught me straightaway there was nothing of value to be gained from this misbegotten genre.) Whatever the reason, I could. Not. Handle. Horror.

My earliest memory of something scary beyond my capability to process it was catching a brief glimpse of a movie my older brother had rented on VHS, the 1984 horror-thriller Dreamscape, in which Dennis Quaid plays a psychic who can enter other people’s dreams. At one point, he enters the nightmares of a young boy who imagines himself being chased by a murderous snake-man. It gave me nightmares of my own for months on end. When I finally looked up an image of the insomnia-inducing creature as an adult, I was, shall we say, underwhelmed. Maybe I really was a total wuss.

Regardless, by then I had learned my lesson: I couldn’t handle scary shit. Sleepovers were especially dire, because there’s nothing a group of young suburban Midwestern boys eager to prove their masculine bona fides liked more than to rent movies to play right before bedtime with the attitude of, “Try to sleep after watching this, dipshit.” This is how I found myself hiding in the basement of a neighbor’s home playing Nintendo while the rest of our friends watched Aliens upstairs. It’s also how I got repeatedly wedgied for my sensitive ways. And that was just the fifth grade; it got worse come middle school, when my sudden “stomach illness” and attendant need to leave a slumber party five minutes into a screening of Hellraiser was swiftly relayed to every person in the school. Whatever, I reasoned—my social life may have suffered, but at least I was sort of able to sleep with the light off, at least until I started imagining what terrors may have been lurking within the depths of those movies.

By the time I was in college, I had resigned myself to my scares-free existence. Sure, I could watch “dark” thrillers like Se7en or violent sci-fi action à la Terminator 2, but when it came to actual horror (of the Freddy Krueger, ghosts, and monsters variety) I was like a sentient Instagram feed of puppies frolicking in sprinklers—no downbeat stuff allowed. Still, I know exactly why I broke my self-imposed rules in order to attend a screening of the Sarah Michelle Gellar-led American remake of J-horror flick The Grudge: I was a huge Buffy The Vampire Slayer nerd, and anything featuring someone from that cast was getting my support. I went with my significant other at the time, who helpfully assured me she would tell me when any scary part was over and I could stop covering my eyes with my hands.

It scared the living shit out of me. Like, leave-the-light-on-all-night levels of fear. Or, in my case, the “getting out of a bed you are sharing with someone else who is trying to be understanding but also needs to sleep, heading down to the car at 4 a.m., and driving around for an hour by yourself with loud music playing until the coffee shops open and you can be around other people in brightly lit environments” level of scared. (The movie has a part where a killer ghost appears under the sheets of someone’s bed. It was panic-inducing for someone of my pitiful constitution, and meant beds were a no-go.) I didn’t want to go back to bed ever again. I didn’t want to be anywhere with fewer than a dozen people—cheerily talking about current events, or maybe their favorite memories of Sesame Street—ever again. It was bad. Every time I closed my eyes, I could picture that little pale fucker of a ghost crawling toward me with evil in its eyes, emitting the low-level death growl that haunted me.

It may have been a low-water mark in my personal history of dealing with scary pop culture, but the experience was so traumatizing that it sparked something. Clearly this situation could not stand. I wasn’t about to resign myself to sleeping upright in fast food restaurants during the day in order to avoid this new bed-ghost phobia. Decisive action needed to be taken to prevent this from negatively affecting my life for the foreseeable future. I couldn’t let a horror movie dictate my daily emotional state, much less my long-term sanity.

So, I went back.

Actually, that’s not fully accurate. I went back six more times. Screenings of The Grudge—daytime, nighttime, with friends, by myself. I watched until I no longer had to raise my hands over my eyes during the scary parts. I watched until the guttural growl of the vengeful ghost only elicited a momentary shudder, not a full-on panic attack. I watched until I literally knew what was coming at every moment, and no longer had to sit there waiting for the jump scare to rattle me to my core. By the final showing, I could roughly count down the exact number of seconds between when a character would look around during a tense part and when the loud scary thing would happen. I became intimately familiar with Sarah Michelle Gellar’s “I am very scared” look. I consumed a large amount of Junior Mints.

And you know what? It worked. I wasn’t scared of The Grudge any more. When the subject came up, I would still describe it to anyone as one of the scariest damn things I had ever seen, but it no longer held sway over my unconscious mind. I stopped having nightmares about it. More importantly, I stopped having waking fears of it. I had conquered this obsession, gained control over my own neuroses, and managed to file away the experience in a part of my brain that could manage to accept what it had seen without freaking out over it on a semi-regular basis.

But more than that, a realization had set in: If I could conquer this particular horror-movie fear, why not more of them? Why should I retain any lingering anxiety over the threat of Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers, or any other cinematic malevolence? The dam had broken, and with the flood of rational-brain endorphins rushing in to overwhelm the panicky dread of a vengeful ghost-child, I sensed an opportunity to vanquish this long-running phobia for good. Horror could become merely another genre, rather than an unseen threat behind an unopened door—or rather, I’d leave the threats and doors for the movies themselves, not my psyche.

Thus began my horror education in earnest. I had a simple procedure: I’d start watching a movie at night in my apartment, and if I got scared, I’d turn on the lights. If a particular film managed to creep me out even after illuminating my living room, I’d do something else while I watched—cook dinner, put on some music in the background, anything to diminish the intensity of the experience until it was at a level I could tolerate. Failing that, I would watch with friends, taking comfort in an atmosphere that usually included alcohol and the calming haze of cigarette smoke, among other vapors. In this way, I exorcised several long-running bugbears of my nightmares, including A Nightmare On Elm Street, Alien, The Blair Witch Project, The Exorcist, and more. Better still, it no longer took multiple viewings to interpolate a scary movie into my mind in a way that felt agreeable rather than exhausting. Once was enough; the demons and killers were now passing fears in my viewing experiences, not guests that overstayed their welcome in my frontal lobes while destroying my sleep schedule. Problem solved.

But that’s when I began to notice an unexpected benefit in my cultural diet of terrors: I started to look forward to being scared. A sensation that had previously triggered active revulsion was now being reworked into my pleasure centers, the adrenaline rush of nerves and tension a source of enjoyment rather than anxiety. And the more coruscating the intensity of the scare, the better; I actually wanted to be unsettled by the ghouls and ghosts and maniacs in masks. Like cilantro or the music of Bob Seger, what had once seemed unpleasant was now addictive.

What had changed? Obviously, there’s nothing inherently fun about being scared; why do some people love it while others have the seemingly more sensible reaction of wanting to avoid it? Most psychological explanations of horror fandom explain it as a way to encounter traumatic ideas and imagery in a safe and secure way—that you feel good afterward for having endured it. Having now experienced both, I can say that the generic idea of horror as some sort of “therapeutic” way to deal with the all-too-real prospect of death in an accessible way that nonetheless keeps it at a distance feels a bit disingenuous to me. Sure, there’s something about witnessing the horrifying consequences of mortality in especially gratuitous ways (Texas chainsaws, say) that gives the psychic rush of a near-death experience, but there’s a qualitative difference between the mental dread of a horror-movie scare and the holy-shit-I-survived exhilaration of a bungee jump from a bridge or leaping out of a plane. Horror movies were never therapy, even as I was consciously trying to use them as tools to overcome my fear. There was something less explicable in my growing fascination.

It wasn’t until I came upon a writer trying to explain a famous scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds that it really made sense. There’s a moment where Tippi Hedren’s character Melanie hears a strange noise upstairs, and goes to investigate. At this point in the movie, it’s well-established the birds are attacking people, and it’s even more obvious they would be the likely source of the sound. So why does Melanie go upstairs? As film theorist Cosimo Urbano puts it in his essay, “What’s The Matter With Melanie?”, the character should know the birds have invaded the rooms. So: “Is she stupid or what?!” It seems inexplicable to a non-horror fan, Urbano notes, but the reason for Melanie’s decision is the same one for why someone watches a horror movie:

Melanie goes upstairs because she wants to. And that suggests that unless one is willing to accept that Melanie’s reason for going upstairs is irrational, one will never be able to fully enjoy The Birds…or understand [the reasons behind] the genre’s success.

There’s a fundamentally irrational element to watching horror, above and beyond any therapeutic overcoming of fear, or masochistic endurance test, or roller-coaster-ride sense of fun, or any other rational justification. And that unjustifiable aspect is what slowly brought me around to horror fandom. It’s the willing participation in something that shouldn’t find willing participants.

A good part of the fun usually ascribed to the haunted house, the campfire ghost story, the nerve-rattling roller-coaster ride, is the pleasure that comes from quickening the pulse; but being scared is enjoyable not for any logical reason, but precisely because there’s no logical reason. I started watching horror to get over my fears, but I kept coming back long after there was no “good” purpose in doing so, outside of seeing a bunch of movies I wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to. But there are plenty of films (and books, and TV shows, and plays) I’ll never experience. I make time for horror, because it scares me. And there’s nothing reasonable about that.

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