Healing through Horror

An Ode to 'Bad' Horror Movies

When I was in high school, I was accepted into a summer program at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts. Govie school was a five-week, free, live-in experience for sixteen- and seventeen-year-old artsy kids. After reading and discussing modern short stories for the first time in my life, I and the other nine fiction writers huddled down in our computer lab to build a daily writing practice. We also workshopped, a new experience for us. Away from home for my first extended period, I felt free to explore things I had never written before. My first workshop contribution was a five-page, god-awful story about a high school girl who has a fling. gets pregnant, and considers abortion. This was as not-me as I could get--virgin that I was in a Catholic high school. While writing the story, I felt invincible and imaginative, but workshop was brutal. I remember my fellow govies digging into the awful come-on line that the guy had whispered in the heroine’s ear in the booth of a pizza parlor, “I wish I could be what you needed.”

My fellow writers repeated it to each other. “I wish I could be what you needed.” Laughed. Repeated it again.

That didn’t work, I thought. With four weeks remaining, I was determined to do better. Looking out hadn’t worked, and so I turned inward to pick at my scars. I had been eight years old when my brother died. His leukemia diagnosis came a few days after the Super Bowl, and by early March, his body had shut down from the chemotherapy. There’s a picture of me from that period celebrating my February birthday at the hospital, a new Winnie the Pooh baseball cap atop my head and my sixteen-year-old brother smiling beside me in a hospital gown. Less than a month later, a priest gave him the sacrament of last rites in our living room.

Passing his age, becoming bigger than my big brother, unsettled tectonic plates I didn’t know had separated in me, and so for my second story, I experimented with autofiction. I hid behind the child-narrator’s voice, changing the names and keeping everything else largely the same. Grief is hard to workshop. My story-not-story met with no workshop teasing, and I read it on stage to the other hundred govies to wide applause. This story-not-story won me college scholarships and a trip to the White House as a Presidential Scholar of the Arts. I excelled in the interviews when the subject of the story came up for additional scholarships. One interviewer patted my hand and told me she was sorry. Grief as a personality substitute felt convenient and potent, but grief had a brother, too, in my latent and persistent fear of death.

My parents did all the right things after my brother’s death: they sent me to a class for grieving children, where I got a bubble chart with pictures of faces on it with emotions I had never heard of before. Anxious. Aggravated. Glum. Despite the help, I struggled. I had been an imaginative child, but my imagination attacked me. I sat on my closet floor and thought, on an endless loop, this moment I could die. Or this moment. Or this moment.

My next-door neighbor growing up had an endless cycle of fascinations, cycling through Star Wars, Pokémon, pogs, and marbles. I followed him dutifully into each new craze, and spent a lot of time at his house—he had cable TV and a video game system, where I did not. After my brother died, my neighbor’s new hobby became connecting with the dead. My neighbor bought a Ouiji board. He lent me Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which I did not read, in the dark or otherwise. A month or so after my brother was buried, my neighbor conjured Bloody Mary in the mirror in his upstairs bathroom. Words already felt imbued with so much meaning—after all , what had last rites been to my brother in my eyes but words and water, which somehow brought God there. Here we were, with words and water again, staring into the dark mirror. You were, my neighbor instructed, supposed to say Bloody Mary three times.

Bloody Mary.

Bloody Mary.

I left before the third time, whacking against the counter in the dark, afraid of what I would see in the mirror. Afraid of what would see me.

On Saturday nights during college, my friends and I would physically go to Blockbuster-- this dates me-- and choose low-budget campy horror films to hate-watch together. Sipping vodka and juice, we’d cackle as we watched Death Bed and the entire Final Destination franchise. I had never been able to watch horror movies before, but sitting in that dark felt different than the dark I experienced in my closet alone thinking I could die this moment. This moment. This moment. Different than the bathroom dark. In Final Destination, death was inescapable-- logs through windshields and elevator shafts disasters and tanning beds locking like clam shells-- but it could be mocked. Death Bed, subtitled The Bed that Eats, is divided into segments around eating times: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and at the end, Just Desserts. It eats people, and mostly, it eats women, and specifically, women who just had sex. My favorite horror movie is Chopping Mall, where coeds throw a party at a mall after-hours and get hunted down by the security robots run amok. It’s ridiculous in the way that bad horror can be, as unbelievable as my early writing about romance in a pizza parlor. Bad horror movies always have a way to get the heroine out of her bra just before she dies.

Write what you know, writers are taught, but don’t write yourself. Most people I know who write novels have an obsessive streak, like picking at a scab every day until it scars. Some novels are bloodletting, active and conscious, about the trauma of our pasts through the gaze of another character. In an interview with PEN America, Brandon Taylor discusses this process for writing his main character in Real Life: “ [He is]... similar to me, but not me. And then I let the story work on him. To me, you can take situations and scenarios from life, and run them as a kind of simulation in fiction. Fiction is this virtual space where you can revisit things and view them from other angles.” Twisting reality, replaying past relationships through concave mirrors, can cause you to actively question the past and wish to remaster it, or perhaps, master it for the first time. Add the lasers, remove the strings.

In writing what became The Butterfly Effect, I tried to examine the complications and comfort that siblings can bring when offering care to one another. In the plot of my novel, Greta’s brother has a health emergency. In my case, my brother’s cancer came when I was too young to truly understand, let alone offer support. While publicizing a book, authors often write essays about intention, and many authors—especially female-presenting authors—are asked, “Did your real life inspire this?” or “Are you the main character?” I didn’t write this novel just because my brother died, but writing this novel did help exorcise part of my latent survivor’s guilt. I first found a not-me to hide behind, but her threat and mine were similar. Writing Greta and Danny’s relationship felt like telling my brother’s memory over and over again, “I wish I could have been what you needed.”

My father died ten days after the release of my novel. Because of pandemic shipping delays, he never got to hold my novel in his hands or find out that I had dedicated it to him. I have been hit with a second wave of grief, this time, as an adult. I am trying to swim in it, not drown. I try to tread water as the detritus of the relationship with him that can never change floats around me. But I am not scared of death because of his death, as I was as a child.  

In a way I didn’t understand until my late-twenties, the act of watching horror rewired my assumptions about myself. I could meet the thing that scared me on my terms. I could watch Bloody Mary without her watching me back. I could understand and grapple with my fear, which held me back. I could disconnect from death by mocking it. An anti-memento mori.

I don’t watch much horror these days, but I read it-- actively search it out and read it past dark. I skim other people’s nightmares even though, I am always conscious of terrible possibilities. As a woman, I still fear the dark and noises outside my window. Sometimes when I stare into the mirror after a year of pandemic and new grief, I think that things that could look back at me couldn’t be scarier than what looks in at them. Sometimes my anger feels like fuel, something possessing and hot, and I think I could break this mirror this moment. Or this moment. Or this moment. And my action, my ability to stare at shadows, feels like escaping.