Photo credit: Elisa Roupenian Toha
There was a point in my life, not very long ago, when the only kind of movies I wanted to watch were horror movies. The Purge, Paranormal Activity, Honeymoon, The Conjuring, Wolf Creek, It Follows
. Slasher films and haunted house stories, feminist revisions of the genre and the bloodiest, most pointlessly misogynistic garbage. They say horror movies are good entry points for aspiring filmmakers, because horror fans are the sole subset of the movie-going audience who will show up at a theater to see every single movie in their chosen genre, regardless of the skill of the director, the size of the budget, the star power of the actors, or the quality of the reviews. For a time, I was one of those avidly consuming, nondiscriminating fans. I was hungry, starving for horror movies. I could not get enough of them. And I talked about them all the time
Enthusiasm is an admirable quality in a fan, but from the beginning, there was something overly fevered about my horror movie evangelism, something a little… off. In an essay on fandom, Jonathan Lethem
once wrote about his passion for the band Talking Heads, “At its peak, in 1980 or ’81, my identification [with the Talking Heads] was so complete that I might have wished to wear the album Fear of Music
in place of my head so as to be more clearly seen by those around me.” I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a person who would like to wear Texas Chainsaw Massacre
in place of her head is a person with some issues she needs to work out. By talking constantly about my love of horror movies, I must have been trying hard to broadcast some important signal about my inner life, to be somehow better seen
by those around me, but exactly what I was trying to say about myself by rhapsodizing over, say, the cult death scene in V/H/S 2
remained obscure even to me.
Partly, of course, I was bragging. It was an easy party trick, talking in revolting detail about the slasher movie I’d seen over the weekend; a low-risk form of affiliating myself with danger, to make myself seem (in my own mind, at least) cool, daring, brave. I love this thing that you can’t handle.
And some guys, in particular, really ate it up: You’re into that? You enjoy it? Can you explain it? That’s so strange, I would never have guessed that you liked that kind of thing.
The questions were accompanied by such a voyeuristic curiosity that I sometimes found myself wondering if we’d secretly shifted from discussing horror movies to talking about something more taboo, like kinky sex.
Which — fair enough. Because when you say you are a horror fan, aren’t you also saying, in essence, I like pain
? The pain of others, yes — that’s what moralizers emphasize when denouncing movies like Saw
for being torture porn. But also, maybe more to the point, your own? In all the horror movies that I’ve ever watched, I’ve never once identified with the villain, the person or thing or monster inflicting harm. But to watch a successful horror movie is to engage in a well-choreographed dance with your own suffering. A well-constructed horror movie makes you flinch and gasp; it gut punches you so hard you feel a little sick, then torments you by allowing you to relax for a few sweet seconds even though you know it won’t be long before it reaches out and grabs you by the throat again. Horror movies, like roller coasters, like skydiving, and like BDSM, are all about controlling the uncontrollable: we allow ourselves to be hurt and scared within certain constraints because doing so allows us to feel, if only briefly, as though we have mastered pain and fear.
Soon, instead of hiding from the fear, you start to chase it.
At the peak of my horror movie fandom, my fiancé and I were living together in Boston, and he was fighting his way through the miserable final stages of a seemingly endless PhD program. The experience was brutal and draining to the both of us, but we kept trudging forward, living off the hope that once he was finished, everything would be different. We had a plan: when he was done with his degree, we were going to leave horrible grim Boston and move out to LA, where the sun shone all the time and you could go to the beach year-round. With an engineering PhD in hand, he could easily make enough to support the both of us, and I would be free to just be a writer
, despite the fact that I’d only ever made about $100 dollars with my writing over the course of my life. I’d do some editing work, maybe teach a few classes here and there or take on some tutoring clients to ensure that I occasionally got out of the house… but mostly I’d just write, which was all I’d ever wanted. The plan was a masterpiece of egalitarian communication, and I’d hammered out the details of our future with him, piece by piece. I hadn’t just agreed to the plan; I had been the one who’d taken the lead in making it. It benefited me, in lots of ways, more than it benefited him. Which is why it was so strange that every time I thought about the future, I found it hard to breathe.
At a summer writing workshop, I made friends with a man who lived in LA — another writer, another horror movie fan. Once we got home from the workshop and were back on our separate coasts, we talked nonstop, mostly about horror, recommending movies to each other, along with stories, books, creepy Wikipedia articles, and reviews of extreme haunted houses. We talked about cowriting our own horror movie — no, even better, we’d write a pilot for a horror TV show. We sent each other ideas back and forth, exchanged plot treatments, and hammered out a first draft. We called each other on the phone to watch horror movies together, called it research, listened to each other scream. Over the course of three months, I probably exchanged more words with my friend than I’d ever exchanged with another human being. Our communication became, like my horror movie fandom, fevered, intense, and ragged-edged. My fiancé slept until noon and worked until three in the morning. Meanwhile, I woke up in the morning and fell asleep at night thinking about horror, thinking about my friend. Without ever having met or even spoken to each other, our partners confronted us on the same day — gently but firmly, using almost the exact same words: I trust you but I think you know this is not okay.
They were right. It wasn’t. My fiancé and I stayed up all night in agonizing conversation, and I fell into a panic attack that lasted days.
To feel true fear is to be constantly aware of something ominous lurking at the edges of your vision. It’s to know that something you’re too afraid to look at is inexorably closing in. Horror movies play with this sensation. They tease you with glimpses of the threat — a shadow here, a creeping hand there, a drop of blood, a flashing knife: Here it is
, the movies whisper. See, see. You’re brave enough. Don’t look away.
Soon, instead of hiding from the fear, you start to chase it. The characters run and hide (and die), but you do not. You bully yourself into bravery, practice looking at what scares you. The movie is a training session: each scene building, showing you a little more, a little more, in preparation for the brutal revelation, the full reveal. At the climax of the movie, you sit still, white-knuckled hands gripping your armrests, eyes wide open, and you force yourself to see.
The morning after my fiancé confronted me, I sat in our bedroom, folding laundry, while he played guitar and sang in the other room, and a monster came to visit me. It was squat and ugly and very hard to look at. It stood in the doorway and it said: The future is not going to turn out the way you imagined it.
It said: More pain is coming
. It said: You are going to hurt someone that you love.
I looked at the monster for as long as I could stand it, and then I looked away. I thought about going out into the living room and telling my fiancé I was not going to move to LA with him. I thought about telling him that I was a coward, that I wasn’t strong enough to keep my promises, that I wasn’t ready to just be a writer
, and that my fear was going to drastically disrupt both our lives. But instead, I kept folding shirts, and I listened to him sing.
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graduated from Barnard and holds a PhD in African Literature from Harvard. She is a Zell Fellow in the University of Michigan MFA program, and she has received numerous awards for her work. You Know You Want This
is her first book.