I’m really sad, guys!
“But, Wednesday, aren’t you always sad?”
Shut up! I’m extra sad right now, more than my normal levels of sad.
The spooky season is officially over, and it’s a real tragedy. The month of October is my absolute favorite time of year.
To cheer myself up and to perpetuate the idea that every day of the year can be a spooky day, I’ve decided to post this essay about why I love scary things so much. Stereotypically, it all started with a formative experience in my childhood:
I love horror movies. I absolutely love them. For all of my childhood, though, I was terrified of horror movies. Well, it was like I felt a terror that wasn’t quite mine. I had adopted my mom’s terror of horror movies, and it was covering up my true love of all things eerie and spooky.
It’s hard to explain why I love scary stuff. People who detest horror seem to have the moral high ground. They talk about how the depictions of violence are disgusting and how it’s creepy to be so gleeful about slaughter, even if it’s fictional and campy. They might be right, because when I have to come up with an explanation for why I love horror so much I can’t come up with anything much more substantial than, “I like the thrill.” I guess I find horror inherently fascinating.
So anyway, I was three-years-old, and the TV was on in our living room. My mom was watching the news or something, and when it went to commercial a horror movie trailer came on the television. The film being advertised was “Ghost in the Machine”. As the trailer played, complete fear filled my poor little body. I had never seen anything so frightening, and in my memory that trailer is the scariest horror movie trailer that has ever been made. I started screaming and crying, and my mom rushed in to snatch me away from the mean, old horror movie trailer and comfort me. Afterwards, she was extremely miffed that the television network would play a horror movie trailer during the dinner hour when young children would be watching TV with their families. This was the beginning of a trend that would last for my entire childhood. Shows like Goosebumps, Bone Chillers and Are You Afraid of the Dark would come on, and I would immediately flip the channel. I wasn’t allowed to watch those shows, and even if I had been allowed I would have been too scared to dare. Underneath my obedient fear, though, was a rabid and unsatisfied curiosity. Just what was it that was so forbidden and terrible about the horror genre? I wasn’t quite ready to admit to myself that I wanted to know.
When I got a little older I would desperately question my classmates about the plots of horror movies that they had watched. “What happened then? How did they get killed?” I would query hungrily. I didn’t know why I needed to know, but I just knew that my parents would never allow me to watch a horror movie, that I did not get invited to the kinds of cool sleepovers where horror movies were watched, and that there was a deep need inside of me that was satisfied only by chilling tales.
My first taste of horror came with the Disney Channel show, “So Weird”. It was a show about an unbelievably cool teenage girl who investigated a different paranormal phenomena every episode. The main character was named Fi, short for Fiona, (unbelievably cool name) who toured around the country with her rock star mom (unbelievably cool life), and everywhere they went Fi encountered unearthly occurrences. I was hooked from the first episode that I saw. Seeing as how it was on the Disney Channel, though, it was pretty tame fare.
Fast forward a few years, and I’m in high school. My best friend, Lisa (who is still my best friend) absolutely loves horror movies. She has accepted the sacred and imperative duty of baptizing me into the church of spooky shit, and at a sleepover at her house I watch my first two horror movies: The Village and the shitty remake of Thirteen Ghosts starring Tony Shalhoub. Yeah, yeah, I know. The Village is a weird-ass disappointment that starts out as a horror movie but then morphs into one of M. Night Shyamalan’s countless exercises in stroking his own ego. Thirteen Ghosts contains a flagrant example of the hip-talking, street-smarts-providing, black horror movie character, but at least it doesn’t add insult to injury by killing her off. Even though these definitely aren’t the best that the horror movie genre has to offer, they were enough to get me hooked. I think what really reached into my mind and pulled me in, was that fact that after a lifetime of having my mom tell me that horror movies were horrible and gross, I watched a couple and nothing bad happened. I wasn’t possessed by the devil. I wasn’t so scared that I died of a heart attack on the spot. I actually enjoyed myself. I could experience the exhilaration of thrills and chills while remaining safely snuggled on a couch with a friend. I was an exuberant convert. I loved horror movies.
My mom was not thrilled at the change. Throughout my youth and still to this day, when a horror movie trailer comes on the television she flips the channel and bemoans how dark and gory Hollywood has become. When the leaves start turning she dreads the proliferation of grisly rubber masks in store aisles and chilling TV spots. This isn’t such a surprise, though. My mom is a devout Christian, and when I was a kid we attended churches that held sanitized “harvest celebrations” where “satanic” Halloween costumes were forbidden and “Biblical” costumes were encouraged as an alternative to trick-or-treating. Even as a small child, I had the innate sense that being taken to the “harvest celebration” dressed as an angel rather than dressing up as a witch and extorting candy from strangers was unacceptably pathetic. Even the candy at the “harvest celebration” didn’t taste quite as good. When the Harry Potter books, one of the best-written and most valuable and edifying pieces of children’s literature ever created, came out, the church we were attending at the time denounced the series as promoting witchcraft, and my parents forbade me from reading them. The censorship went so far that when in middle school a friend of mine lent me the wonderful fantasy book by Garth Nix, Sabriel, about a young girl who comes from a long line of necromancers, my parents confiscated it from my room without telling me and only returned it when I asked if they had seen it, with strict instructions to give it back to my friend without reading it. This level of worry may seem ridiculous (it certainly does to me now), but this was the era when many parents (including my own) harbored very real and very inaccurate fears that Dungeons and Dragons was really satan worship in disguise.
My parents, especially my mom, were hell-bent on keeping me away from any media having to do with darkness, mysticism, gore, the supernatural and the occult. Ironically, as I grew, my fascination with these subjects only increased. I’ll never forget begging my mom to take me to my absolute favorite store, Hot Topic, and then totally regretting it when she began fretting over the fact that there were skulls all over everything and books that actually purported to contain magical spells for sale. With great concern, she wondered why I seemed to have “a penchant for darkness”. I could only respond with extremely teenage eye rolls. She wasn’t wrong, though. I did have an undeniable penchant for darkness, and I wanted to foster it.
By this time, I had completely thrown myself into my love of horror. Halloween was (and still is) my and Lisa’s favorite holiday. We spent the whole month of October planning our costumes. Lisa began working at local haunted houses. During my sophomore year of high school, I hosted a Halloween party at my house. My mom was aghast when I insisted on renting The Ring for my friends and I to watch at the party. She couldn’t believe that I was bringing a horror movie about supernatural forces that go around killing people into her house, and we actually argued about it. It was as if she thought that evil spirits were hiding on the rental store DVD, waiting to be carried into a house where they could leap off and curse the inhabitants. I won the argument, and The Ring was enjoyed at the party. After the TV screen had gone dark, and my friends and I lay snuggled in our sleeping bags on the floor of my pitch black living room I raised my voice in a sinister whisper. “Hey guys, what if the TV turned on right now, and it was just static, and we couldn’t turn it off?” “Shut up!” one girl cried out, frightened and perturbed. Gleefully, I complied with her request. Now that I had gotten over my own fear and become a devotee of all things horror, it was my joy to proselytize and terrify others.
The best moment came two months later, on New Year’s Eve of 2015. Lisa’s older sister worked as the night clerk at a hotel in town, and for the holiday Lisa and I were allowed to spend the night all by ourselves in a room…with Lisa’s mom sleeping just down the hall to keep an eye on us, but it still felt like we were super grown ladies, living large and partying the night away. We had not one, but two, rented DVDs, Scream and Chicago, and all of the snacks from the Wal-Mart snack aisle that our pubescent hearts could desire. Watching Scream was like a revelation, it was an awakening for my soul to how much I could actually love something, especially when I shared something culturally significant with a loved one. Lisa had seen Scream countless times before, but this was my first time. Scream was everything that we loved, it was snarky, it was funny, it was mysterious, it was funny, it was sexy, it had a quirky best friend, the slaughter was creative and not too gratuitous in its bloodshed. Lisa had a huge crush on Matthew Lillard, and I really wanted to go to the kind of house party where I could sit around with attractive people in their mid-20s pretending to be high school students and drink alcohol while Jamie Kennedy explained the rules of horror movies to me. That New Year’s Eve when we watched Scream became one of those legendary nights of my youth where I remember feeling a contentment and joy so pure and so distinct, because it is possibly inaccessible to me in my adulthood. Lisa sharing the miracle of Scream with me became part of the mortar that binds together the bricks in the fortress of our friendship, just like all of the poetry slams that we went to together and all of the crab rangoon that we shared. We chased away the post-Scream chills with a screening of our second DVD, Chicago (we also loved musical theatre) and then spent the rest of the night reminiscing about the past year, planning for the coming year, and snuggling in the warmth of friendship that deepens into a familial bond.
It’s weird, but when I watch a really good horror movie, underneath the thrills and chills, it’s almost like it touches something warm and fuzzy deep down inside of me. It seems counterintuitive, but horror movies mean comfort to me. They signal the close drawing in of the brisk, golden days of fall, the time spent huddling with loved ones in fuzzy blankets, sipping something sweet and spicy. When we watch horror movies, we immerse ourselves in a world of deep fantasy. There may not be magical swords or time-traveling telephone booths, but the glee that I get from watching Michael Myers stalk Jamie Lee Curtis, is similar to the glee I feel when Legolas and Gimli fight together to defend Helm’s Deep.
If I’m really honest with myself about why horror movies are so sacred and core to my identity, it’s because I really do have a “penchant for darkness”. When my mom said that about me, she definitely didn’t mean for it to be taken as a positive attribute. She wanted to exorcise the shadows from my soul and leave behind a child who was holy and obedient, who loved going to church and listening to gospel music and memorizing scriptures. I was never going to be that child, though. For awhile I felt bad about that, but I think I’m turning into someone who would rather embrace darkness. Maybe that’s why I’m not a Christian anymore. At the core of them, the Abrahamic religions are about a cosmic battle between a force of pure good and a force of pure evil. Everything is very cut and dry. If you don’t emphatically declare yourself a follower of the things that are good and light, you are automatically doomed to be consumed by all that is base and dark. As I grew, I felt myself constantly being marked as sinful and wrong for following my natural proclivities. I wanted to be righteous and good, but it just wasn’t in my nature, and I felt drowned in shame because of this. Finally, I had to wonder, what was the point of always trying to be good when deep down I was hungering to know all about everything I’d been told was bad. It’s hard for me to believe in one force of supreme goodness and one of supreme evil, when everywhere I look, including inside myself, I see a duality. No living thing is all good or all evil. I just don’t see how it can be so. Sometimes, things that exist on the darker side of life: demons, murders, disappearances, spirits, madness, can be morbidly fascinating and undeniably tempting. I don’t know why I’m like this, but something about darkness and horror resonates in a deep and thirsty part of myself. I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I’m fascinated by the ways in which people get hurt. Ya know, with the exception of children, animals and elderly people.
One day in the recent past, out of curiousity, I looked up the trailer for Ghost In the Machine. It’s stupidly easy to find on YouTube, and it’s only about two minutes long. It’s kind of ridiculous, because even though I watched The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby without flinching, my heart started to flutter as I watched the trailer for a super cheesy horror movie from the early nineties that nobody remembers. If you need a chuckle, you can watch the trailer here. One day when I feel like I have time to waste, maybe I’ll give the whole movie a watch. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that it won’t be nearly scary enough to satisfy me.