My first memory of reading something scary was my cousin locking me in the bathroom and forcing me to read a glow-in-the-dark book of ghost stories with her by flashlight. I did not enjoy the experience.
But then, at a formative age (I can’t remember precisely when, only that I was of just the right age), I read Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Headless Cupid. The book concerns, among other things, a young girl trying to impose some order on the world through witchcraft and studying the occult. She also happens to be of poltergeisting age–which, if you’re not familiar, is puberty.
The connection between magic and puberty and scary little girls is an ancient one. And to a girl who, like me, experienced fear, vulnerability, and helplessness too young, the prospect of an entity that can be blamed for your woes is a tempting one.
I never really believed that I was being hounded by a poltergeist. But I played with the idea a lot–it fascinated me, as did so many other things I picked up from The Headless Cupid. Being the type of kid I was, I read more. I checked out all the books on occultism from my middle-school library. Which, by the way, was a substantial amount–I have no idea what a middle-school library in the middle of an intensely conservative area was doing with so many books on ghosts and psychics and psychic cloudbusting, but here we are.
It scared me. I mean, it really scared me. There were scary things already in the world, and now there were all these things I couldn’t understand, too. But I didn’t look away from them. I kept reading, submerging myself in stories about poltergeists and exorcisms and aliens and hauntings. Superstitions were–are, more accurately–some of my favorite things to read about, particularly since I spent so much of my time being afraid of things like breathing in ghosts or becoming a vampire from someone hammering a nail through my shadow.
And now, here I am today, at once afraid of everything and entranced by it. I love horror movies and stories, but I also have to watch them in the middle of the day with all the lights on. Halloween is my favorite holiday. I let my friends draw pentagrams all over my house. But you won’t catch me looking into a mirror in the dark.
I’m fixated on things that scare me, always tempting myself to look a little longer into the darkness, like I’m pushing myself toward something. I don’t know what that something is, only that I find a kind of sick enjoyment in scaring myself practically catatonic, seeing ghosts out of the corners of my eyes and fearing that every creak or thump is a spirit come to collect my soul.
I find horror fascinating, but more than that, I find my own horror fascinating. Many of my fears make no sense, but I can’t stop myself from fearing them anyway. I don’t believe in ghosts, except when it’s dark outside and I’m home alone, at which point I believe wholeheartedly. Given half a chance, I’ll believe anything at all.
Despite my fear of literally everything I keep seeking out horror. I don’t like the feeling of being scared–I have anxiety, I get enough of random episodes of heart racing terror when I’m not actually threatened by anything–but I’ll stay up late reading ghost stories anyway, curling into a smaller and smaller ball beneath my blanket, unable to look away.
There’s something cathartic in that fear. I have a lot of non-literal ghosts haunting me, and horror, I think, lets me envision those ghosts as literal. Literal ghosts can be banished or chased away. Literal ghosts can be communicated with, can be understood. Literal ghosts, unlike my figurative ones, can be exorcised.
I think that’s the real draw for me–despite all the gore and guts and awful things that populate the genre, horror movies are surprisingly hopeful. Most of the time, someone wins and escapes the terror through their own virtue (at least until the ten sequels show up), and in modern times that virtue is less likely to come from virginal purity than from innate goodness or compassion. That’s a far cry from a lot of other genres, where sadness and pessimism and angst are treated like the only lofty emotions.
But fear is something special. I cry with happiness, I cry with sadness, but horror is a full-body experience, knuckles white, teeth gritted, muscles tensed. There’s something primal in fear, something powerful, and every moment I manage to peek through my fingers to watch the bloodsport is another moment I’ve beaten it. It’s not triumph in the traditional sense, but any moment I’m not afraid is a good one.
There’s a lot to talk about in horror–the fact that it’s one of the few genres where you consistently see women as heroes (regardless of its potentially sexist roots, you can’t stop my heart from singing every time I see a young woman emerge from an awful conflict, drenched in blood but triumphant). There’s the fact that violence is so crucial to the genre. There’s the fact that we want certain events to happen, and are upset when they don’t–a movie that subverts our horror expectations can be frustrating as a viewer, like picking up a romance novel and finding it full of drama between two non-romantic friends rather than a couple. Thankfully, I’ve already talked about this at length elsewhere.
I’ll keep channeling Dana Scully and Morticia Addams and Lydia Deetz, women who looked into the darkness and kept looking. Maybe someday I’ll even figure out how to stop being so afraid.