This Is Fine. is a weekly newsletter from VICE about the personal tactics people use to make the world feel less harrowing. In this edition, Sofia Barrett-Ibarria scares herself calm. Sign up here to receive an essay about a dealing-with-life strategy via This Is Fine. every other Sunday evening.
I have anxiety, and my most vivid and disturbing fears are about my everyday life. I spend a lot of time imagining catastrophic, worst-case scenarios, wondering if my family is dead because no one picked up the phone when I called, or if my boyfriend secretly hates me because of something I said six months ago. I worry that I’ll die in my sleep, and, after my death, my internet search history will somehow be made public and everyone will know what kind of porn I watched last.
Therapy and medication help a lot, though they're not always an option at 2 a.m., when my anxiety feels like a series of nightmare scenarios strung together into a horror movie of my own. Instead, as I discovered almost 20 years ago, watching scary movies can be surprisingly soothing. When my anxieties creep in, I can imagine myself as a fearless protagonist, and feel a sense of calm.
The first time I watched Carrie, I shouldn’t have been watching Carrie. I was an anxious 10-year-old, and the only fifth grader I knew who had gotten a period. My mom wouldn’t buy me tampons—only giant maxi pads that made so much noise when I unwrapped them in the bathroom at school that I was too embarrassed to use them. I bled through my shorts a lot, and just hoped that no one saw.
For weeks after I watched, I saw Carrie’s blood-soaked figure, bathed in red light and surrounded by flames, every time I closed my eyes. Her rage was terrifying—and comforting. Like Carrie's, my body was powerful and special in a way that I didn’t ask for and didn’t know how to control. Like Carrie, I knew what it was like to feel horrified by my body and what it could do, to feel blood trickling down my furry leg and into my sock, to feel humiliated and ugly and unclean. Her story helped me connect to my everyday horrors from a safe distance. When I pictured Carrie, my thoughts quieted, and my body relaxed.
I don’t like slashers, torture porn, or gross-out films. Instead, I’m drawn to horror movies that allow me to confront my fear and anxiety about death, loneliness, and inadequacy. Engrossing myself in a narrative that I can start, stop, and look away from at any time grounds me when I feel like I’m losing control of my own.
Horror helps me through bigger, deep-seated traumas and disturbing memories, too. The body-horror drama Contracted came out in 2013, the same year a man I dated sexually assaulted me. In the movie, a young woman watches her entire body physically disintegrate after a man drugs and rapes her at a party. Her skin sheds, her teeth fall out, and she starts shedding maggots. It’s completely gross, and it’s never quite clear why any of it is happening, but it was so close to what I feared was happening to me in the months that followed my assault: Despite testing negative for STIs, I was convinced I was infected in some way, that I was being punished, and that I’d lost all control of my body. I was certain I was dying. My hair started falling out from stress.
I felt my own shame eating me alive, and, as much as I feared what I thought could be happening to my body, I wanted proof that I hadn’t imagined what happened to me. I wasn’t spontaneously leaking body fluids or molting at work, but part of me wished that I were. I didn’t want to admit that my boyfriend could rape me and that nothing would be different; that we’d keep seeing each other, and no one would ever see how nasty I felt inside.
As I sat through Contracted, I felt completely disgusted. But when it was over, my nightmare temporarily ended, too. The movie uses extreme physical decay as a metaphor for the shame many sexual assault survivors feel—that literally consumes the main character from within. It allowed me to imagine my nightmare scenario of physical decay, and experience a cathartic relief that my fears of sickness and infection could be replicated with expertly applied prosthetics and special-effects makeup. I saw my sense of disembodiment and disgust with body play out to its most horrifying extent, and made it through to the other side. I still had all my teeth and nails. I watched my fear of illness, infection, and total loss of bodily control unfold in front of me, and I was OK.
I like knowing that deeply fucked up women experiencing deeply fucked up things can make it out at least somewhat alive, and that antagonists who prey on others shame, abuse, and gendered violence don’t always have to win. It’s soothing, and even relaxing, to see a woman get through the scariest possible situations and emerge the last person standing—the "final girl." Carrie’s hand will pop out of the grave in the last few seconds of the movie. The Shining's Wendy Torrance makes it out of the Overlook Hotel alive. The villain in Jennifer’s Body—a man-killing bisexual succubus—becomes the hero (and assures me, once again, that I am severely bisexual for hot women with the power to destroy my life and make me like it). Samantha, the main character in Contracted, is both the victim and the villain when, in the end, her mysterious disease turns her into a zombie-like killer. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s satisfying to watch her weakness turn to rage, and ultimately, power.
Many horror films could be triggering to survivors of violence, abuse, and assault, and their formulaic plots and archetypes don’t always leave room for nuance. For me, that can be a comfort: I want to see myself as a final girl that survives, gets revenge, and looks insanely hot doing it. I want to yell at the screen, and see how stupid some of my fears look drenched in fake blood and shot on a soundstage. I still think horror movies are scary—which is also the point: I can control my fear, and even enjoy it. I remember that I don’t have to let my thoughts and fears just happen to me. I can challenge them, embrace them, and learn to laugh at their absurdity.
I still go to therapy, take my medications, and enjoy more typical forms of mental health–promoting activities, like yoga, meditation, and watching Sex and the City reruns. But horror movies make my fears feel smaller, fictional, and less threatening—and, so, more manageable. My anxiety is always waiting around the corner, but I’ve survived it before, and I’ll survive it again. In watching horror movies, I can see how to be the final girl.
For more stories like this, subscribe to This Is Fine.
Follow Sofia Barrett-Ibarria on Twitter.