Horror Lives in the Body
Watching horror films stirs up trauma, but it also reminds me that I don’t suffer alone
When I was six, I opened the door of a friend’s mobile home one afternoon and almost stepped on a snake. He was curled up on the porch a few dozen inches from my bare feet, basking in the late day Florida sunshine. He had alternating bands of red and yellow and black that glistened in the light, his black nose almost vanishing against the black of the doormat. As I considered him, my mom peeked her head over my shoulder. Most mothers would have screamed, but mine liked snakes.
What’s that rhyme again? she said.
I knew what she meant. In a state like Florida, which boasts half a dozen species of poisonous snakes, we learned how to identify them early on. My elementary school formalized that education. Okefenokee Joe, an expert in animal lore and wilderness survival skills, visited our school every year to remind us how to tell a Southern copperhead from a water moccasin and what kinds of places the timber rattler and the dusky pigmy liked to hide.
But the most important lesson Joe taught us was how to tell the difference between a scarlet king snake and the rare but deadly coral snake. Unlike the rest of the state’s pit vipers, the coral snake can’t control the amount of venom it injects. Most people, said Joe, are taught a variation on the “red on yellow, kill a fellow” rhyme, but when people comes face-to-face with a snake, almost everybody panics and remembers it wrong, rendering it useless.
Keep it simple, said Joe. You only have to remember one thing. You see a snake that’s red and yellow and black and also has a black nose, it’s a coral snake.
I don’t remember the details of what happened next, just sensations: my mother snatching me up — my raspy voice as I screamed it’s got a black nose, it’s poisonous! — thunderous footsteps — the tremendous, shuddering thwack! as our friend Chuck chopped the snake’s head off with his axe.
What imprinted upon my mind was the way the snake’s headless body whipped back and forth like a downed power line, spewing droplets of blood that lit up like sparks in the sunlight. I remember Chuck picking up its body and dropping it into a Mason jar so his sons and I could study it more closely.
I also remember that the snake writhed in that jar its own blood for hours, long after it should have. When we went to bed that night, Chuck’s sons put the jar on a shelf in the bedroom. When we turned off the light, I could still see its body moving in the dark.
Logic tells me my memory of this incident is faulty. I’m certain that last part about the body moving for hours after death is untrue. But some primal part of me not only believes it, but feels it. If I close my eyes, I clearly remember the sensation of lying in bed in the blackness and watching the writhing silhouette of the snake’s headless body inside the jar. I can even remember putting my hand against the cool glass and feeling it jump slightly beneath my palm.
Horror is arguably the most bacchanalian of all of the film genres. It far outstrips even the hyperbolic content of action movies because it infuses violence with a cocktail of other muddled emotions that action movies frequently treat in isolation. Horror’s orgiastic excesses are only matched by pornography; along with melodrama, these are the three categories that film scholar Linda Williams calls “body genres.” As director Edgar Wright notes in his reflections on George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, most horror even follows the rhythm of porn, “with some kind of splat every 20 minutes.”
Barring the fetish-specific searches for either misogynistic violence or consent-based BDSM, most of the top-searched porn delivers a reliable product: sexual titillation and either simulated or real coitus designed to facilitate the sexual release of its viewer. Porn certainly provides us with fascinating insights into hidden cultural patterns of desire and deviance; according to Pornhub’s 2017 Year in Review, for example, the most searched-for porn was porn for women, Rick and Morty porn parodies, and porn involving fidget spinners, although highlights also include increased searches for ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response), Hentai porn, and the only “old reliable” of the sexual fantasy landscape that maintained a strong showing: cheerleaders. But it’s horror, not porn, that establishes firmly as its domain that gratuitous mesh of terror, violence, rage, sexuality, and humor that most of us know as its hallmark.
Scholars have long written about horror through a variety of frameworks — sociological, biological, intersectional, psychoanalytical, and affective, to name a few. Some, such as Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Carol J. Clover, Laura Mulvey, Robin R. Means Coleman, Toni Pressley-Sanon, rightly focus on the specter of problematic race and gender depictions that haunt horror films. That’s admirable work, but it’s not my project. Instead, this essay is something of a love letter to horror, the film genre I always return to. What fascinates me most are the ways in which my body responds to horror and what that means. What this self-professed gorehound wants to know, then, are the answers to simpler questions: what does horror do? How do we know it when we see it?
The first horror movie that made a lasting impression on me was The Shining. According to my mom, any time the trailer came on TV and Jack Nicholson put his head through the fractured wooden door and shouted “Here’s Johnny!” I ran screaming from the room. It was years before I’d watch a horror movie all the way through.
In the summer of 1987, when I was nine, I finally did. My sitter’s older son — a longhaired metalhead whose ink-black bedroom walls were already a gore-spattered wasteland of Iron Maiden and Metallica posters — was often left in charge of us while his mother watched soap operas. In return for leaving him the fuck alone, he’d give me and the other younger kids the remote. One afternoon, I turned HBO on during the opening credits of Firestarter.
The gruesome medical testing scenes drove the younger kids upstairs to play, but I just covered my eyes. The scenes that transfixed me were the ones with Drew Barrymore’s character Charlie. There’s a particular scene near the climax that stands out in my memory, where Charlie and her father face off against at least a dozen government agents. Charlie is standing on the porch of a farmhouse, a little girl not much younger than I was when I first watched the film. When the agents attempt to take her and her father away, the music becomes an electronic hum. Charlie begins to hyperventilate. Her hands become fists. Her hair swirls around her face like Medusa’s. The agents begin to sweat and pull at their neckties. And then she torches them. She watches, shaking, as they scream and burn. She blows up each of their vehicles one by one until the field before her is engulfed in flame.
Even now, when I watch the first agent’s arm catch fire, my mind conjures up that coral snake from three decades ago, whipping back and forth like a downed power line. Each time I watch those cars explode, I can feel the jump of the headless snake writhing in that Mason jar.
Susan Sontag’s first note in “Notes on Camp” defines camp as “a certain mode of aestheticism,” or “one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon,” but not aesthetic in the sense of beauty. Instead, she claims it is aesthetic “in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” In this sense, it’s clear to me that horror shares a kinship with camp: it, too, is highly stylized and highly artificial. Horror consistently sports a veneer of low light and screeching violins. It’s populated by screaming women and the destroyed bodies of people of color. It’s a riot of blood splashed across a landscape canvas of what writer Lincoln Michel calls “lush rot”: not only the overabundant, kudzu-laden landscape of many horror movies (often the South) but also the backdrop of corpses against heaving breasts and even corpses with heaving breasts.
In its innate campiness, horror also shares a relationship with ancient theater. Think of The Exorcist as a twentieth-century incarnation of the ancient Greek Satyr plays, the bawdy tragicomedies threaded through with burlesque. Think of Norman Bates dressed as Mother, knife in hand, center stage as Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Think of Scream or Suspiria as a modern iteration of nineteenth-century French melodrama.
But I don’t just identify horror by its aesthetics. I also identify it by the effect that it has on the human body. There are a number of studies that suggest that horror might actually be beneficial. There’s evidence, for example, that watching horror films can burn calories (The Shining, quelle surprise, burns approximately 184 calories) and boost your immune response through stress and the accompanying adrenaline rush.
I know just what that feels like, and my guess is you do too: the pupil dilation, the quickening heart, the sweat forming on your upper lip and the surface of your palms, and the nearly overwhelming urge to cover your eyes or run from the room. That fight-or-flight feeling, the body’s warning system, is what horror regularly exercises. It reminds you to stay alert because danger could present itself from the depths of any shadow, from behind any door, from the cab of any passing vehicle.
When I was 24, I worked for a while as a bartender and server at a chain restaurant outside of Nashville. I had earned my MFA in fiction a couple of years before, but my professors (one older white male in particular) had eviscerated my work, and it gutted me. After I graduated, I couldn’t write, and I found myself drifting. I ended up in bartending school because I thought it might give me something to write about. Your writing has no life, Old White Male Writer had said to me in front of a class of my peers. I was desperate to prove him wrong. I drifted into a job earning $2.12 an hour with tips, making drinks with too many maraschino cherries. My manager taught me to dribble a few drops of liquor around the edge and down inside each drink straw so that the first sip would taste thick with liquor and customers would think were getting more than a short pour.
After closing each night, a bunch of us would drive over to a pool hall about 20 minutes away and hang out for a while before going home. After one particularly shitty shift, a guy named Daniel offered to give me a ride. Sure, I said. I liked Daniel. Everybody liked him. He was handsome and had an easy smile and he made us all laugh when we were in the weeds. He also had a beautiful pregnant wife at home whose picture he showed to everyone.
In his truck, Daniel cracked jokes and I laughed, rolled down my window, enjoyed the night air against my face. Daniel pulled into a spot near the back of the lot, and just as I put my hand on the door handle, he said, hey, can you help me with something? and I turned and saw that he had pulled his erect penis out of his pants. He had his hand around the base and was stroking slowly up and down. He was smiling.
My zipper’s broken, he said. I could use a hand here.
I bolted from the truck and into the bar. There were at least ten people from work inside, and I started toward my manager, Paul. But what could I say? That Daniel showed me his dick? I knew from the cant of his smile, the lilt of his voice, the way his hand gripped his shaft and stroked it that he was angling for a blow job or sex, but there was no way I could prove that. Everybody loved Daniel, and Daniel would make the whole thing out to be a joke. Nothing he’d said was actually a come-on. I wasn’t as popular as he was. No one would believe me.
I sat at the bar near the pool table for an hour, immobile. I was surrounded by people, and I couldn’t say a thing. No one could help me. Worse, every time Daniel passed me, he ran a hand along my lower back or touched my hair. Each time, I flinched. Each time, his smile got wider. Slowly, the rest of the people from work trickled out, until only Paul and Daniel and I were left.
Need a lift? said Paul to me.
I got her, said Daniel. I watched Paul walk out the door.
Daniel took his penis out as soon as we were back in the truck. He stroked it the entire ride back. He said he wanted both of us to get naked, drive naked down the road, pull over, fuck in the bed of his truck. Every so often, he’d take my hand and try to put it on his penis, but I jerked it away. I curled up in the corner of the cab, looked out the window, tried to pretend I wasn’t there. When we pulled into the restaurant parking lot, my car was the only one left. Before I could get the door open, Daniel was across the cab, almost on top of me. I put my hands against his chest and tried to push him away.
I don’t want this, I said.
Yes you do, he said. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have let me give you a ride back.
Some time passed. It was a minute, probably less, I know that, but when you are trying to convince someone not to rape you, time becomes elastic. It elongates and expands. Each second becomes like a drop of water falling to the bottom of a mile-deep cave. Each millisecond becomes a universe that you and he inhabit alone.
Behind us, a door slammed. We both looked out the back window. It was Paul. He was walking toward us. Daniel slid back across the cab, and I grabbed the handle of the door and yanked it and fell to the concrete, scraping my knees and palms. I felt Paul’s hands on my shoulders and almost cried out with relief.
You okay? he said.
Yeah, I said as Daniel slammed the door and pulled away without a word.
Forgot something inside, said Paul. I never do that. Shitty day made my memory shitty too, I guess.
I watched the taillights of Daniel’s truck recede into the darkness. I thought of how Paul was the only thing that had kept me from becoming Mari Collingwood or Phyllis Stone, the girls who are raped and killed in The Last House on the Left. Daniel did neither of those things. But I could still feel a scorching anger welling up inside me. In a matter of seconds, I became not Mari or Phyllis, but Jennifer Hills from I Spit on Your Grave, the rape and revenge film that had called up old memories and given me nightmares for a month the first time I watched it. I had tried to forget about that film. But now it felt like my territory, my home. I could feel Jennifer unzipping my skin like a dress and climbing inside me. I imagined cutting Daniel’s dick off, clean as Chuck cut off the head of the coral snake. I imagined spitting and pissing and shitting on Daniel’s grave. And then, just before his truck disappeared behind a dark curtain of trees, I became Charlie. I willed Daniel’s truck to explode. I wanted his body to sear in the white-hot flame of my fear and shame and rage until there was nothing left.
In her discussion of the films featured at the 2012 Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Rachel Riederer talks about the relative safety of watching The Exorcist for the first time in college. “I was already an adult,” she writes. “safely away at school, and drifting in and out of nightmarish visions was a luxury I could afford. In a safe life, at least, being frightened is a novelty: with a scary book or horror movie we get to feel the pain of loss without losing anything, experience terror without ever really being in danger.”
I’m sure some people take pleasure in horror because they enjoy one measure of remove from trauma. It’s especially pertinent to Riederer’s larger point about how the real-life accounts in the film festival eclipse the imagined horrors of cinema. And we all know that some viewers take pleasure not just in the safe remove but also in the destruction of bodies because the cruelty itself excites them.
But I don’t believe that most horror movie fans fall into these two categories. As the audience demographics from movies such as Annabelle 2 and Get Out prove, plenty of women, people of color, LGBTQ folks and other marginalized populations enjoy horror, and we all know it is virtually impossible to walk through the world in unqualified safety. Many of us also know firsthand the pain of trauma and have no desire to inflict it, or even to see it inflicted, upon others. Why then do we watch?
If those other viewers are anything like me, they watch horror movies because they recognize the horror, because its familiarity is strange and terrifying and unavoidable. It is the lure of the uncanny filtering into the cracks and crevices of the cinematic landscape and drawing us in.
In Freud’s landmark essay on the subject, he makes several points that flesh out the aesthetics of horror. Like Sontag, Freud reads aesthetics not as beauty but as something more. In Sontag’s case, of course, aesthetics is representative of stylization and artifice. Freud, however, reads aesthetics as “a quality of feeling” and designates the uncanny as a province within that area that (until Freud wrote about it) was remote and often neglected. The uncanny, he notes, is “all that is terrible — to all that arouses dread and creeping horror.”
Among other things, Freud speaks of the uncanny as manifesting as the “double.” What I see in horror when I watch it — something I suspect that others see as well — is its tendency not just to double but to reproduce itself exponentially. For example, when I watch the opening scene of Jaws where the girl is swimming alone in the ocean at dusk and the shark attacks her, I also remember the acquaintance who showed me the scar from a sharkbite on his calf; a shark turning swift and sure as a cheetah in an aquarium tank; being four years old and splashing in the ocean and my father snatching me up while behind us, three lone fins slice through the water not far from where I had just been standing. On and on these images play in my mind like a highlight reel, conjuring up one after the other like a visual echo.
For me, the horrors of the cinema are familiar, but they aren’t safe. No matter the plot or the characters or the location, there is always at least one element of a horror movie that invokes in me what filmmaker Tariq Tapa says is the most disturbing kind of terror: the kind that is close by, plausible, ordinary.
On the morning of February 7, 2011, my sister-in-law called my cell at 8:13 a.m. I saw the call coming in as I was taking the dog out, and I remember thinking that’s strange. She never calls this early. I picked up.
My dad was hit by a car while walking the dog this morning, she said. They took him to University Hospital. Can you tell Jonathan?
Do you know anything else? I said.
No, she said. I’ll call when I do.
The morning was cold for North Carolina. The frost on the grass shimmered; my shoes were thick with it. The dog caught the scent of something in the grass and pulled the leash tight as a bow. She pointed, her nose the arrow.
I didn’t want to go back inside. I knew if they were taking my father-in-law to University Hospital, it was bad. There was a community hospital five minutes from my in-law’s house. University was a half an hour drive away. But University had a head trauma unit. And fuck, I didn’t want to have to tell my husband bad news. But I had to tell him something. He had to know.
I woke him gently. I told him of the call and said we didn’t know anything more but that we should get a suitcase together so we could drive to Kentucky. But just as I was opening up the dresser drawers, my husband’s phone rang. It was 8:33. I don’t know what his sister said to him exactly. All I remember was his horrible scream, the way he collapsed to the floor, the way the scream went on and on until his voice gave out. I gathered him up and let him cry in my arms. After a long while, he finally went quiet. I finished packing.
It took us eight hours to drive to Kentucky. We stopped first at my sister-in-law’s house, but everyone was just standing around. Nobody knew what to do. I finally told everyone we should go home and get some rest. I drove a carful of us back to my mother-in-law’s house through the darkness and a thickening snow. When we walked in the door, the first thing I saw were my father-in-law’s shoes sitting near the washing machine, the coupons he had been cutting before he took the dog for a walk still lying in a pile on the kitchen island.
There’s so much I’d like to write about the days and weeks following my father-in-law’s sudden death. Much of it by necessity will have to wait. But there is one moment in particular that, even now, seven years later, rises up like a mountain above that landscape of horror and grief:
Two days after the accident, when the house was still filled with family and food, I heard a knock at the back door. It was a policeman.
Here, he said, and handed me a plastic garbage bag. It’s his clothes.
I took the bag. It was heavier than I expected. When the policeman left, I stepped out into the garage. I didn’t want my mother-in-law or my husband to see it, so I took it to the back porch and set it on a bench out of view of the kitchen window. I stared at it. I wasn’t sure what to do. My brain was muddled; I’d been having horrible dreams, most of them of crash scenes from movies: the horrific accident from Final Destination 2. The body on the side of the road in I Know What You Did Last Summer. When I woke up after each one, my heart pounding in my chest, I knew they brought me a strange kind of comfort. We’re not the only ones, I remember thinking. They make movies about this. Awful things happen to other people too.
But one night, I dreamed of Daniel. I dreamed that the horror I’d wished on him had come true and I had set his truck on fire, watched him burn. I woke up in a sweat, unable to go back to sleep. I was 33, not 24; I thought I should have been able to make peace with what happened, to get rid of my horrible rage. What frightened me most was that even in the dream, I knew how my father-in-law would die. Still, it made me thrill to watch Daniel burn to death on the side of the road. When I woke, I felt sick. I felt like I’d betrayed myself and everyone I knew. I thought I could never wish that kind of a death on anyone. But the dream made me wonder if I was lying to myself.
The minute I opened the bag, I could smell my father-in-law: a hint of unwashed skin, Old Spice. It was so real, like he was standing right next to me, that I almost turned to look. I took out each item in the bag and put them on the porch bench. There was a folded plaid shirt, a single shoe. There were socks, a red hat, a pair of his Coke-bottle thick glasses with flecks of skin near the bridge. They looked so innocuous. If I hadn’t known better, I never would have thought that they’d been the audience for someone’s death.
The final object I pulled from the bag was his leather jacket. I couldn’t seem to unfold it; something was holding it together. I held it up to the light. Red speckled the lapels, the collar. Blood. I quickly tried to shove the jacket back into the bag, but it came apart in my hands. Dried blood had sutured it together briefly, but now I could see that it had been cut in half, the leather sliced quick and clean as the cleave of an axe by someone trying to clear it from my father-in-law’s body, by someone trying to save his life.
Joanna Scholefield notes that what she calls the “blurring of sensory boundaries” or the “sensory confusion” that happens when a person is watching an affective film can take place “crucially between sight and touch.” I’d say it goes far beyond that. In fact, it’s probably more akin to using your whole body, similar to the way percussionist Evelyn Glennie talks about her work. Routinely in interviews, Glennie states that she doesn’t just listen with her ears; she’s learned to listen with her whole body. That’s because Glennie has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12; her ears, she says, communicate only a fraction of the vibrations that other parts of her body are capable of picking up from her instruments, such as her feet, her hands, and her chest.
“The body’s like a huge ear,” she says. “It’s a simple as that.”
Glennie’s description of the body is remarkable, but its comprehensiveness also gives me an affective language for discussing horror. As horror replicates exponentially, it moves beyond the bounds of visual and auditory fear and into the kinetic. Think, for example, of the clink of the spoon in Get Out and how it lulls you and grates simultaneously, how Chris’s drop into the Sunken Place makes your throat tighten and claustrophobia set in. Think about how you want to put your foot to the gas pedal when you watch It Follows and you see the thing that never sleeps walking slowly toward an unaware Jay as she and her friends sit in their car. Think of how when Su-an screams and reaches for her father Seok-woo near the end of Train to Busan, you want to reach your hand out too.
This is more than just the fight-or-flight response. It’s about the way that the movements in horror echo in our bodies and how we listen to them. The shocks and jumps we experience while watching a horror movie are adrenaline, but they also signal an awakening of our own traumatic experiences, experiences that we are then compelled to relive. This makes the genre, and our bodies under its influence, something akin to a living archive of human trauma, a collection of bodily and psychological horrors, the things that we can often see coming but ultimately cannot escape.
Five months after my father-in-law’s death, his brothers organized a family reunion. We all drove to a lodge in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania to spend the July Fourth weekend. The older adults wanted to spend time reminiscing, but those of us who were younger wanted to do something fun. Few of us had kids, and we needed to blow off some steam. The family had lost their grandmother, the matriarch, three weeks before my father-in-law’s death. We were sick of funerals, sick of grief. One of the aunts suggested we go whitewater rafting and booked us all a trip.
When we arrived at the staging area at Horseshoe Bend on the Youghiogheny River, there were 20 rafts full of people and only four college guys walking us through how to paddle and how to keep from falling out. My husband and I had never been rafting before. It seemed strange to me to send inexperienced people out without guides on a river that had Class III and IV rapids.
We don’t get a guide in our raft? I asked my sister-in-law and her husband, who, along with a cousin, were sharing a raft with my husband and I. They all glanced at each other. My sister-in-law shrugged. Guess not, she said.
Not long after our raft hit the water, I knew something was wrong. Even on the completely calm river, the five of us couldn’t control our raft. We tried working in tandem, but our raft spun in circles and stubbornly refused to move to the left side of the river, where the guides had told us to hit the first rapids. And hit we did: our raft went exactly where the guides told us not to go, so we took on the roughest part of the rapids. We came out on the other side gasping, rattled.
Things got worse as we traveled down river. We were all nervous at the roughness of the rapids, frustrated that we couldn’t seem to control our raft. By the time we’d been on the water for half an hour, half of our people had fallen out at least once, and we were unable to communicate even the simplest commands to each other.
Each time we hit a new set of rapids, I could feel panic setting in. My teeth would begin to chatter and my legs would begin to shake. We rammed into rock after rock; we got stuck on sandbars, on branches. We spun our raft and went down the rapids backwards, unable to see what was coming.
It was a seven and a half mile trip down the Youghiogheny. By the time we reached the halfway point, my fingers were swollen and sore from gripping my paddle, my legs aching from bracing myself. I couldn’t imagine taking one more rapid. In fact, I wanted to get out and walk away and never look at that fucking river again. Soon, the guides waved us all over to a calm cove. One of them, a lanky blonde kid who couldn’t have been more than 20, had a sober look on his face that I hadn’t seen yet.
The next section is a difficult bit of rapids, he said. Class IV. You’ll have to be very careful about how you approach it. There’s a large rock called Dimple Rock to the left, and it has what’s called a pillow, where the water hits the rock and falls back on itself, which can easily flip your raft.
He cleared his throat. I felt my stomach go sour.
Sometimes, he said, people who have fallen out have gotten sucked under the rock by the current and gotten trapped. People have died here. So if you aren’t feeling confident about your rafting skills — and then his blue eyes look straight into mine — then you should pull over to the right and walk your raft down below the rapids.
Let’s do that, I said. Let’s get out.
Nah, said my husband. We’ll be fine.
Okay, I said. Let’s take a vote. Who wants to get out?
A couple other people raised their hands, then put them down.
As the guides gave us directions — when to start paddling to pull ourselves to the right at a two o’clock angle, the safety line that we’d need to look for if we did flip because it would keep us from riding the rapids alone — the feeling of dread that had started in my stomach took over the rest of my limbs. Even now, I can feel it: a dark water rising up from inside me, filling me up limb to lips so that everything becomes both hyperreal and distant. The world was bright, but its sound muddied, as if I were already under water. I moved to the back of the raft, away from the others. My husband and brother-in-law joked about the adventure we were on.
As soon as we rounded the rock at the top of the rapids, I knew we were in trouble. There was a bearded guide standing on top of Dimple Rock, waving frantically at us to move right, move right, his eyes brimming with fear. We were paddling as hard as we could, but the current took us anyway. We hit Dimple Rock dead on. The pillow of water flipped our raft in an instant. I was in the back, so the yellow raft rose up in front of me, then above me, blocking out the sun, and all of my raft mates rose up in the air above me, and then they were on top of me and we hit the water and went under.
There’s a reason why people use some of the same language to talk about rape and death: it’s because in both moments, time slows and collapses in much the same way. Even though I couldn’t have been under the water for more than a second or two, the clarity of my memories are as precise and specific as they are from the minutes surrounding my sexual assault: I remember looking up through the churn of water and seeing the legs of the others above me, kicking their way to the glittering surface. I remember watching them grasp the safety line and the roar of the water in my ears. Most of all, I remember the suck of the current on my feet and legs and how it dragged me slowly toward the underside of Dimple Rock. I knew that the only reason I wasn’t under already was because the upper part of my body was still caught in the pillow, but if I were to just give up, stop moving, in a moment, the suck would take me. I could see it: a dozen sharks circling in the underneath; the mouth of Jaws opening and its eyes going white; Daniel’s hands reaching up to grasp my ankles.
And then I fought and kicked, as hard as I’d ever have in my life. I was once a competitive swimmer, and it served me well: my head broke the surface. But the current had already pulled me down river and I was out of reach of the safety line, so the rapids took me. I ricocheted down the river, slamming my shoulder against one rock, cracking my ribs and an ankle against another, and then a kayak was beside me and a guide grabbed my vest and pulled me across the front like a dead fish and navigated through to the calm.
I will never forget the feeling of standing on the bank of the river after we all crawled to shore. I was shivering, my teeth chattering. The water dripped down my back and into my shoes, the safety vest tight across my chest. I took deep, shuddering breaths. Alive, I thought. I’m alive.
But a small voice said: what if you weren’t? What if they had dragged your body from the water like they have dozens of others? What if the family that has already lost two people this year lost another? What if?
I will never forget the screaming argument I had with my husband that night, my anger like a raging fire inside me, consuming everything. I don’t remember everything I said — I know some of it was terrible, unforgivable — but I do remember this:
Why did you say we’d be fine? I screamed at him. You knew we couldn’t handle that.
I knew we’d flip our raft, he said. I’m sorry. I just thought it wasn’t likely that any of us would die. What are the chances?
My husband has always been an optimist. Most of the time, I find that comforting, because I am not. But in that moment, I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to hit him and shake him and tell him what an utter idiot he was. What are the chances, I thought, that Paul would interrupt Daniel just before he raped me? What are the chances that my father-in-law would be hit by a car while walking the dog, something he’d done hundreds, if not thousands, of times before? There was no real way to know the answer to any of those questions. The horror was in the not knowing.
Sometimes my horrors resolve themselves. The snake’s body desiccated in that jar. Daniel (whose name is not really Daniel) was arrested after a half dozen women at the restaurant accused him of harassment and assault. We buried my father-in-law’s clothes in the woods near my parent’s house. I have never taken another whitewater rafting trip again. Sometimes the categorization of horror is simple. The monster. The evil incarnate. The horror of loss. The horror of the unknown.
But not every resolution is so neat, not every category so tidy. There will always be another snake and another Daniel. There will always be things trying to mow you down and things trying to suck you under. I chose to tell these four stories because they are the ones that horror movies most often dredge up for me, but they are also the ones that had a relatively swift, clean end. There are dozens more that come to me during horror films that I cannot, will not, tell you about. For some, it’s because the horror is too awful to name. For most, it’s because there is no resolution. Those horrors are mine alone.
When I was 14, I borrowed Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory from my local library. Most of it was over my head, but the idea of memory as an actual location stuck with me. Ever since, I’ve often imagined my mind not as a palace like Yates mentions, but as a large, solidly-infrastructured country. My memory is a vast metropolis there, filled with buildings and roads and lights across its skyline. Each of the horrors I’ve mentioned has built a tower in that metropolis, and in each tower there is a bell. When I brush up against something that is near enough to the original horror to remind me of its presence, it causes that bell to ring.
But horror by its nature is both a personal and a cultural reverberation. Each time I see horrible things happen in a film, or horrible things happen out in the world, these incidents ring all the bells of my own horrible things. But I also remember where I’ve seen them before. It gives me comfort. It reminds me that I don’t suffer alone. There are others out there, living in the world, watching the film at the same time that I am. There are others out there experiencing the horror too. We are in it together.
Horror is stylized and artificial. But that’s just a veneer, a permeable skin over something viscous and alive that quickly bleeds out of its genre and into other things. Horror is a mimetic representation of human trauma frequently paired with human strength, and it can crop up almost anywhere. Just recently, I recognized it in in Michelle McNamara’s posthumously-published book about the Golden State Killer; in Childish Gambino’s music video for “This is America”; in the narrative Dr. Christine Blasey Ford crafted to describe her sexual assault and in Brett Kavanaugh’s ranting, indignant denial. We know horror not just when we see it. Sometimes we don’t even know it then. But we always know it when we feel it.
If this is a love letter to horror, then this is the part of the letter where I confess that my love is undying. I will always watch horror. Now, more than ever, I realize how important it is to keep myself acquainted with it, because for me, at least, horror isn’t an escape. Just as Michelle McNamara noted about the Golden State Killer, the reverberations from horror films often spill over into real life. In my case, as in McNamara’s, “the monsters recede and never vanish.”
But horror is also redemptive. It’s the place I go to remind myself that no matter how bad it gets, no matter whether I can’t see or sense the terrible thing that’s coming, no matter whether I know the outcome, I can’t give up, and I am never alone. At this one thing, at least, I’m an expert. After all, I’ve watched hundreds of horror movies, maybe thousands. I know all the tropes. I can identify all the patterns.
Most valuable of all is that horror has taught me to recognize the most vulnerable people in my little band of misfits, the ones who most need protection. Protection is a partnership we enter into, and the ones who need it most are also the ones most willing to fight. It feels good to look into the eyes around me and to see the fight reflected. It feels good to have a place like, people like that, to come home to. But looking at them — looking at you — also makes me painfully aware of horror’s other lesson: no matter how hard we fight, only some of us are going to make it to the end.