How Horror Movies Helped Me Get Over My PTSD

After my house burned down, horror films gave me back my normalcy. In them I saw my tragedy depicted constantly, reverently, in all sorts of different forms.

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Jun 5 2015, 5:29pm

Image via the House of the Devil theatrical poster.

It's happened many times: I open Netflix, pick something recommended through their delightfully specific algorithms ("Supernatural Cult Horror Movies Featuring a Strong Female Lead") and sink into the couch to watch. Then, either at the beginning but more usually toward the end, someone's house will catch on fire (in The Haunting In Connecticut, the protagonist discovers corpses in the house's walls, and sets them on fire to expel ghosts). Or maybe it's a high school gym (like in Carrie, where the title character telekinetically starts the fire as part of a bully-murdering rampage) or a car (in As Above So Below, a character relives an incident from his childhood where he accidentally killed someone in a car fire). During that scene, my muscles tighten a little. My stomach clenches, maybe I feel a bit sick. It used to be bad, really bad: coming across a scene like that without expecting it might cause me to shake or cry. But I never stopped watching.

When I was numb from pain, horror brought the thrill of adrenaline back, forcibly, like a roller coaster. After my house burned down, the first DVD I bought was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There's no ecstasy purer than Sally's laughter when she finally escapes Leatherface.

On July 10, 2010, I was home for the summer after my first year of college. My mom came into my childhood bedroom, wringing her hands, to tell me she'd found my healthy cat mysteriously dead on the back porch. Our tiny shih-tzu was beloved, but he was Mom's dog. The cat was mine. My parents went to bed and I went on a blogging spree, funneling my despair into a LiveJournal entry, sitting cross-legged in a bathrobe on my bed with my laptop plugged into the wall.

A summer thunderstorm rolled in, rocking the house from above. It seemed to me like the weather understood the pain of my cat's unfair and unexpected death. Thunder boomed, a sharp crack rocked the house, and electricity ran from my fingers on the keyboard down my spine—jarring, but not painful, like a gag electric hand buzzer placed on the back of my neck. The lights went out. I thought it was a power surge until I heard my mom screaming. I flung open my bedroom door. The house was on fire.

Everything after that is a bit of a blur—scooping the dog up, running toward the front door, my parents' voices behind me but not following. I stood by the mailbox, the quivering animal in my arms, the rain hammering down and soaking through my bathrobe as I waited for my parents to emerge. A lightning strike had started the fire in my parents' bedroom, and the flames had spread along the back of the brick ranch-style house, creating a dull, flickering red-orange glow. The heavy rain held the smoke low to the ground, obscuring the scene in an eerie fog.

A few days later, I walked into the wreckage. The flames had scorched the walls black and left them peeling, and I thought, This looks like something out of Silent Hill. In the video game and film franchise, a cursed town is ravaged by an underground coal fire, and all the buildings are spookily burnt and crumbling. I'd never seen anything like it in reality.

Horror gave me back my normalcy. In the movies I saw my tragedy depicted constantly, reverently, in all sorts of different forms.

My parents and I were unharmed, but we lost everything. The house had to be gutted. We bounced around hotels until landing in a tiny apartment. I lost my job. I went back to school thinking routine would help—it didn't. I dropped out.

The tragedy was so unexpected, bizarre, and inconveniently timed that none of my friends really knew how to provide any emotional support. And I didn't know what I needed. It was difficult to explain why it hurt so badly—no one died, right? Well, except the cat. So it's all good. You get a whole new wardrobe! And books, films, furniture, toiletries, kitchenware, shoes, photographs, schoolwork, souvenirs, letters.

Though I considered myself fairly minimalist, I had no idea how much I relied on my stuff, accumulated over 18 years. People are social, and it's through our relationships with others that we understand ourselves. And how we relate to others begins with how we choose to present ourselves, using our clothes to create a first impression. Losing all that in one fell swoop is like losing a language. Our belongings are not just utilitarian. By their nature of being used, they carry our personal histories in them. It's raining? Too bad, those perfect galoshes you bought for six dollars on a family trip in Fancy Gap, Virginia, are gone. Chilly? Well, you don't have that sweatshirt you picked up at a thrift store with a friend you haven't seen in two years, but here's one from Target. Grandmother, years sick, looks like she might die soon—uh-oh, you don't have any funeral clothes. It was a constant series of tiny crises. Separately, the crises didn't seem so bad, hence my friends' excitement that I got all new clothes! But it was crisis after crisis, all day, every day, and to my traumatized mind it seemed insurmountable. A few months after the fire, I was diagnosed with PTSD.

When I wasn't spending all day at a mall slowly rebuilding my life with a credit card, I threw myself into learning new skills, seeking a way to define myself that didn't rely on my material possessions. I learned bass guitar and played in a handful of shitty bands. I wrote. I got a new job making jewelry by hand. On bad days, I drank a lot, then woke up and escaped into Supernatural marathons on TNT and whatever horror film was in the Redbox below my apartment.

I made it back to school, and a year or so later I wrote about the experience in a fiction writing class. "A lightning strike?" one classmate scribbled in the margins. "This doesn't seem realistic." I laughed when I saw it. Of course it's unrealistic! Lightning strikes don't happen in real life. House fires don't happen in real life. Except when they do.

I was a horror buff before the fire, but afterward, my fascination ramped up. Art was familiar. My personal tragedy was a plot device in all my favorite stories—like The Haunting In Connecticut, like Carrie.

Burning is a trope in horror because it's powerful: fire destroys, and after destruction, can provide warmth. Fire symbolizes humanity's climb to civilization, a force so powerful it had to be stolen from the gods. It can't be controlled, it has no ideology, no motive. Just burns and spreads and burns some more. Horror taps into that primal knowledge that, if she wants, nature can destroy everything we've built. In horror, the pervasiveness of destruction by fire showed me what I perceived to be a non-reaction in my peers was not apathy, but a simple inability to relate or understand. But since fire appears so frequently in art, I knew that culturally, my experiences were valid and worthy of discussion. Just, to my peers, unreal.

Horror gave me back my normalcy. In the movies I saw my tragedy depicted constantly, reverently, in all sorts of different forms. I saw animals predicting death and destruction, alerting their owners something terrible was on the horizon, like my cat's inexplicable death two hours before the lightning strike. I saw fires as points of exciting narrative climax, moments of terrible understanding, as stories of rebirth.

Talk therapy didn't really help. Horror films were my self-treatment: a kind of exposure therapy. The memories of my house fire became less singular and terrifying. The tragedy lost its power. It's like driving again after being in a bad car accident; the best way to get over the fear from the accident is to get back in the car. It's harder for me to get to the root of my fear (there isn't a surplus of flaming houses) so horror films allowed me to relive, and realize that the story ends. Life goes on. I couldn't find support for my pain, but in horror I found respect for the thing that caused it, and evidence that it isn't the end of the world. And that is close enough.

Since she's moved to LA, my best friend and I continually ping each other horror recommendations. "Watched a Netflix movie that weirdly had Daniel Craig in it the other day that was pretty good," she texted me. "Called Dream Home but it has a house burning down in it..........."

"#tragicbackstory," I texted back.

I ended up watching Dream Home on my friend's recommendation. As Daniel Craig rushed to escape the burning building I thought, Well, that doesn't look so bad.

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