I've loved horror movies for as long as I can remember. But around the time I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in my late 20s, my relationship with them started to change. You might think being nervous all the time and running on adrenaline overload in my daily life would make me steer clear of anything that would deliberately jack up my already-hyperactive fear response—but the more anxious I am, the more I crave horror movies. It's more than just a desire to sprawl on the couch with the TV on and tune out the world: I deliberately seek out the most nightmare-inducing stuff I can find, and if I go too long without a good scare, I can feel my always-tenuous grasp on emotional stability getting shakier.
It's not counterintuitive when you realize that the standard horror movie plot is basically an anxiety sufferer's dream come true. In the beginning is the fear: The protagonist, usually a woman, often disempowered in some significant way, sees something scary. Or hears something scary. Or perhaps she just senses that something is wrong in a way that no one else can. Often she has some form of trauma in her past that makes her hypersensitive to red flags but, at the same time, allows those around her to dismiss her intuition as hysteria.
The details may vary, but in the first act of a horror movie (especially a supernatural one), a woman is afraid and no one believes her.
Not only is she not believed, she's often talked out of trusting herself. People half-convince her that she's overreacting. This is what it's like to live with anxiety: around every corner waits some sound or shadow that hints at a monster no one else can see. You are always glimpsing it out of the corner of your eyes, and you see just enough to know it's there, but not enough to prove it. Everyone keeps telling you it's not real, that you just need to relax, maybe do some yoga. And when you close your eyes at night, you hear it breathing.
In real life, there is no closure or catharsis. Sometimes the monster is farther away, sometimes it's closer. Sometimes you think you've outpaced it, but that motherfucker will be back again for the sequel. There are no great victories, just the long exhausting struggle against the fear that wears you down. No one understands why you're so tired because they can't see what you're running away from.
But for the horror movie protagonist, there's always a moment when the monster emerges from the shadows. Once it's standing before her, the question is no longer whether she's imagining things. It's how quickly she can reach for a weapon. The struggle is gory and usually people die, but at least both antagonists can acknowledge the life-or-death struggle in which they are participating. The fear is vindicated, the monster is real, and it can be fought.
And at the end—even now, 25 years after Carol Clover published Men, Women, and Chain Saws—almost always, the Final Girl emerges bloody and scarred and very much alive. We might not like to think of horror movies as wish-fulfillment fantasies, but for an anxiety haver, there's something irresistibly appealing about the idea that the thing you most fear could become solid: that it could have a body, a name, and best of all a weakness. That it could bleed.
Some small thing inside me heals when I watch a scary movie and see the protagonist achieve a triumph that will never be available to me. That's one part of the anxiety and horror movies equation: the diegetic catharsis. But there's another facet too, which I might describe as the equalization effect.
Part of the reason mental illness is so horribly isolating is that what's happening inside you doesn't line up with your external reality. You can be miserable without being able to point to one thing in your life that's wrong, or pulse-pounding terrified when you're safe in your own warm bed. It's hard and tiring and so, so lonely, knowing with your brain that what you feel in your body is wrong. But when you watch a scary movie, you're supposed to be scared. If I put something frightening on the television when I feel panicky, then the panic isn't an aberration anymore.
It's a relief to see a monster on the screen instead of feeling it in my chest. Watching a scary movie, fear isn't some faceless broken thing inside of me—it's Leatherface, it's Freddy, it's ghosts and demons and evil porcelain dolls.
Horror movies make our worst fears real, then show them defeated. It's satisfying on an emotional level that has nothing to do with how well-crafted the story is. I enjoy careful attention to craft in a horror movie, but I don't need them, because ultimately what I crave from horror isn't a surprising narrative or a deep exploration of a theme. It's a really fucking scary monster—or at least a monster that I can hitch my "really fucking scared" to.
I know it's not a replacement for treatment. I know I can't live in the world of "monsters are real, let's punch them" all the time. But it's an incredibly necessary form of escapism. Sometimes nightmares are the only thing that can help me get a good night's sleep.
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