Updated: Dec 21, 2022
[Discussing the use of horror as a coping mechanism as a survivor of abuse]
I wrote a Twitter thread a few years ago, and I've been thinking about it ever since. These two Tweets are the real inspiration behind this post:
This is an emotionally-based essay and not something with Proof and Facts; it's an exploration of the role of horror in my development as someone full of mental illness and trauma, and maybe it'll resonate with other people.
Without getting too in-depth into specifically what traumatized me, I faced abuse from my father and cousin (and enabling and apologism from the other adults in the household), alcoholism, and inherited generational trauma on top of mental illness that runs in the family. I didn't have the emotional vocabulary or capacity to reflect on what was happening enough to deal with what I was forced to endure, so I subconsciously and desperately looked for outside sources of all my fear/anxiety/depression.
In other words, I didn't know why I couldn't just go to school like the other kids without fighting tooth and nail. I didn't know why I wished I was dead in first grade. I didn't know why I prayed to a god I never believed in to transform me into a dragon, a Pikachu, a horse--anything free from living this life. I didn't know why I felt sick and afraid whenever my weekends to go to my father's approached. Those were all supposed to be easy things. It was so easy for everyone else to come to school without a fight. They didn't miss school as much as I did. They weren't full of shame.
So I had to find a reason why I felt like that.
I watched Child's Play when my age was still single digits in the late-90s; I loaded up on horror movies like the Gremlins series, Tremors, and Poltergeist, all at my best friend Johnny Miller's house when we were probably in 4th grade. I had to sleep with the lights on after my first viewing of The Exorcist at around 12 or 13 years old. Urban Legend. The Craft. Sleepy Hollow.
A lot of those movies weren't age-appropriate for me; they were at least PG-13 for violence and gore or other horror themes. But my life wasn't age-appropriate, either; I was forced to mature faster because I wasn't allowed to remain a child by my abusers. Does that mean magically I was able to handle mature movies like an adult? Well, no, but.
I was drawn to horror the same way people are drawn to metal; there was no pressure to have a message of positivity. I couldn't relate to a lot of the more mainstream media, even the shows I actually enjoyed, because the families didn't reflect mine. There wasn't abuse, there wasn't fearing parents shouting because of their hangover, there wasn't coming home to parents passed out drunk on the couch, or trying to kick you because they were drunk, or nastiness under the guise of helping. It was just standard teenage "You Just Don't Understand" vibes. Ultimately valuable, but not for me.
And even if horror didn't specifically have families like mine that I could see myself reflected in, a lot of them had messages of hope at the end: this is survivable. The one who lived might not be unscathed. In fact, they'd probably be scarred, doubted, traumatized, and institutionalized, but they'd be alive. And that felt, on some level, more in line with my own experience.
Some of it was a way to work through my own feelings of helplessness and confusion and fear vicariously; if I could see people fighting against the things they were afraid of, the things that were killing them? I could work through my own considerable anger through them. With them. I couldn't stab anyone myself, obviously, but I could watch Brenda Bates threatening to cut out Natalie Simon's kidneys, and I could find catharsis.
And, yeah, I was afraid of the monsters and slashers. But it was an easier fear to deal with than being so afraid that I'd lay in my upper bunk above my father's for hours until one of my grandparents came to get me, protect me, as I climbed down and came to join my (abuser) cousin. Even though she was abusing me in the most lasting way of them all, I wasn't afraid of her, so I saw her as the one good thing about being in that house. I couldn't process my fear or the reasons for my anxiety and hatred; I just knew that I felt them. It was irrational to fear my family, but I was supposed to be afraid of Chucky.
I was anxious and traumatized, and I needed to find a rational reason for those fears. Goosebumps was my favorite series aside from Animorphs, and Are You Afraid of the Dark? proved to me that, yes! I was! I was afraid of the dark and of basements and frankly of the daytime in the right conditions. If I was afraid of looking out my window and seeing The Thing outside my window? That, at least, would make more sense than a growing feeling of dread about normal parts of my life; it would make more sense than being so, so angry at my mother staying out late to drink, leaving me at 12 to make my own dinners (usually something like cereal or candy, because I was 12, angry, and no one taught me how to cook).
The world didn't give me an explanation, my therapists didn't give me an explanation, and my parents didn't give me an explanation, so I found one for myself. Akimbo Comics has pretty much the perfect visualization for why horror appeals to me.
I still feel like this when I watch a lot of darker media; it's why I create media the way that I do. I want my protags to go through it, but I want them to come out in the end. They won't be unscathed, there will probably be some ghosts, some scars, some trauma, but they'll be alive.
I wasn't looking for a message of hope from horror on purpose, but it was still a sign that I'd be able to come through the horror of my childhood just like the teens in the 80s could come through Freddie or Jason or Michael Meyers.
Horror doesn't really scare me anymore. I've glommed onto monsters and skeletons and ghosts and made them into my friends; I know now that it was real people who hurt me. A ghost never hurt me. A skeleton never hurt me. Monsters never hurt me.
Humans did this to me. People who I should have been able to trust and look to for safety. And now I look to monsters for safety.
I can pretty much watch horror whenever I want; I put horror on in the background for white noise while I'm working; I've watched IT and the Final Destination series and Halloween and any number of other movies repeatedly just because I found them in the list of movies on demand and I wanted something other than silence as I worked.
When I was talking about horror as a coping mechanism, I said this:
The one type of horror movie that I can't handle even now is Hitchcock-style tension. I have anxiety of my own, thank you very much. But also that's what it was like staying with my father every other weekend. I was never able to relax; I was waiting for something to go wrong--for my cousin to bully and manipulate me, for my father to yell at me through his hangover or mock me, for my grandparents to excuse it all away or make me feel watched and judged. For my abuse to start up for that weekend. My whole life was the buildup to something awful happening, so I don't need it in my movies.
When horror uses buildup like that, the scary thing happening feels like a relief. No more waiting for the shoe to drop; it's on the floor, and now I can deal with the consequences. The yelling or misery never lasted as much as the fear, even if it intensified the buildup for the next time. The tension of waiting and being hypervigilant is too real for me and probably for a lot of other trauma survivors.
To be fair, there might be an equal amount who like this style because it lets them feel in control of that anxiety; in the real world, you can't turn it off and go do something else or pause it until you're ready to face it again, unlike with the movies.
I started watching horror because it was a thrill, it was Taboo, it was a sign of adulthood, and because at least on some level it helped me cope with all my Too Big feelings since I wasn't normal according to most other media. Scream queens got it; they were prey, chased down by pursuit predators no matter what they did to try and escape. I couldn't escape having to go to my father's or escape my family's alcoholism no matter how much I kicked and screamed and fought and cried. They would be caught, they would suffer, they'd try to get away again, just to face the same problem: When Will The Murderer Find Me? How Long Until This Starts Again?
Even Laurie Strode was waiting for Michael Meyers for 40 years, preparing her home and her daughter for Meyers' return. She had panic attacks; she was stuck in the same cycle that I was trapped in during my childhood abuse: When Will Something Happen? When Will My Wait Be Over? Of course Laurie was an adult when Meyers came looking for her after 40 years, and she had a chance to prepare her home and her family for the reality of having to defend themselves and kill Meyers, the only way to escape the cycle. And now that I'm 32, an adult, I'm still struggling with and trying to prepare like Laurie, to fortify my home and myself against the next encounter with Meyers (a metaphor for abuse, here).
I'm not saying I learned how to deal with my abuse from horror or that it has some secret fix-it formula, but I am saying that seeing something that reflected the fear and the darkness and turmoil that was inside me, put there by the trauma that came out of years of abuse, helped me to put those feelings outside of myself. It gave me an outlet when I was too young to know what was happening or how to ask for help--I was too young to even know I needed help.