Updated: Jan 12, 2021
The other day, the horror website Bloody Disgusting posted an article written by one of my favorite horror directors, Mike Flanagan (Doctor Sleep, The Haunting of Hill House), titled "Facing Fear in Times of Uncertainty." In it he speaks about how he acclimatized himself to horror movies as a child, the importance of the genre during times of crisis, and how it can help us get through our own legitimate fears.
Reading this brought to mind something I'd been thinking about for some time now, but could never quite figure out a way to write it. Mostly because it's such a personal topic to me. But also because it suggests a mind-over-matter concept I don't fully embrace: the idea that horror itself is a cure-all. In that regard, I probably should have called the post "Horror CAN Heal." But screw it. I'm gonna treat the thesis as fact and see where it leads.
This idea started from my own early experiences with fear. When I was eleven years old, I started to feel the first symptoms of Crohn's disease. Bloody, excruciating, messy stuff. I used to say it felt like someone using a rake on my intestines, and though I've never literally had my guts clawed by a garden tool I'd assume it's a pretty accurate comparison. I spent a fair amount of my teens sick in bed and/or doubled over from pain. From 1987 until 2015, I'd probably vomited on average five times a week. And that isn't even the worst of the symptoms I experienced.
Around that age, I was just beginning to grow obsessed with horror. To say that the pain I was going through at the time caused me to seek refuge in horror would be stretching the limits of my memory, but I can say that as one developed so did the other.
I remember watching A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, the one with the teenagers in the hospital, and feeling a particular kinship or solidarity with them. They were damaged. I was damaged. They overcame fear and trauma (both physical and mental) to beat a particularly nasty Freddy Kreuger back into dreamland, while I was trying to live through the symptoms of the disease and avoid the group of three bullies who'd started in on me in that same year. Dream Warriors was one of the first horror movies I watched intentionally, fully aware it would likely scare the crap out of me. I'd seen a handful of others before it, but that's the first one I recall enjoying.
In later years, I picked up horror novels. Mostly Stephen King, whose work I quickly devoured. I didn't have a lot of energy to play like I used to so I spent a lot of my following summers reading his gigantic tomes, followed shortly by Clive Barker's (there wasn't much of a variety of horror authors at my small-town library), as well as some great collections from the '70s and '80s.
I started writing horror within a year or so of picking up reading as a hobby. It helped me get through a lot of tough years. I was in near-constant pain throughout high school, with small bouts of remission from going on the steroid Prednisone, to drastic ileal-resection surgery, to only ingesting nutrients through a tube the width of a spaghetti noodle for six whole months.
During those times, horror kept my mind focused on something other than pain, discomfort and embarrassment. If not for horror, I'm not sure where I would be now. Or if I would still be here at all.
When I say that horror heals, I don't necessarily mean literally—though there is plenty of evidence for its psychological benefits. Studies have suggested watching horror movies causes a release of adrenaline, which may help people suffering from depression, where adrenaline is often low. It's also been suggested the anxiety caused by watching horror films causes feelings of euphoria from a release of dopamine and serotonin in its wake. Another study suggested "good stress," like watching or reading horror, can boost the immune system.
I don't think it was coincidence I chose to fully embrace horror again in my mid-30s, after several years of writing mostly comedic stuff, particularly spec TV pilots. I completed my first book of short horror fiction, GRISTLE & BONE, while recovering from a second ileal-resection surgery in 2013. I plotted the novel SALVAGE, my second published book, while I was still in the hospital, as well as a novella I hope to write in the near future called WE ARE DUST.
My time in the hospital was pretty grueling. What was supposed to be a five-day stay stretched out to eight. My roommate was constantly whining. Once he left, I partook in a bit too much of the morphine drip and had to be intubated to suck out the contents of my guts. I threw up the tube itself later that night, so that it looped through my mouth and nostril like a sideshow act, and I had to be intubated again.
Despite these medical setbacks, I promised myself I would finish the book in the following six weeks of sick leave. When I finally was allowed back home, I did.
And not to lessen the support of friends and family who cared for me during that time, but I truly believe writing and reading horror played a key role in my recovery.
Now, with a global pandemic in full swing, it's an especially important time for horror fiction. As Flanagan writes, "In those moments I look for various escapes, like so many of us do." Often the escape we choose is a mirror of our reality. Look at the recent popularity of Black Mirror. Or the fact that, while navigating the New Normal, many people have found a reinvigorated interest in Steven Soderberg's 2011 thriller Contagion.
As for me, I'm writing the sequel to GHOSTLAND which is looking to be a much longer novel about the events leading up to an apocalyptic war between the good and evil among the living and the dead. I also just finished replaying The Last of Us, a gritty, realistic post-apocalypse video game about a fungal pathogen that turns people into cannibalistic zombies. As soon as I finished, I felt a strong urge to play it again. For some reason, I wanted to stay in that world for a little while longer.
At least in the real world we don't have zombies.
For many horror fans, what repulses other people comforts us. It allows us to play out our legitimate fears in a safe environment. It lets us cheer for the underdog. Or in the case of slashers with annoying main characters, for the killers.
So why do you read/watch horror? Do you find it comforts you in times of strife or uncertainty, as Flanagan's article (and my own personal experience) suggest? Let me know on Twitter / Facebook.