All art teaches us something, but horror art teaches us something about ourselves. It is a deeply personal experience when a story makes us feel the shivers of terror, touching on our secret feelings about existence and our own fragility. Horror movies allow us to tiptoe together up to the veil between life and death and take a peek before we finally reach the final moments alone. For those of us who are genre fans, I suspect, if our lives really do “flash before our eyes” in the moments before we die, there will be some clips from scary movies mixed in there.
Which is why Gina Nutt’s recent collection of horror-infused memoir essays Night Rooms (Two Dollar Radio, 2021) is such a revelation. It would seem a natural choice for memoirists to weave together recollections of their childhood and fragments of horror films and let them reflect and amplify each other. But, aside from a few standouts (House of Psychotic Women by Kier-La Janisse), it really hasn’t been done very often. And, perhaps, Nutt has given us an altogether new way of writing about the genre films we love.
Here is how she does it: in a series of 18 numbered essays, the writer offers short evocative paragraphs of poetic prose illuminating half-remembered visions from her childhood, facts about nature and death and how humans have related to both, and “clips” from the horror art we use to mediate our fears. So, for instance, the writer delves into her lifelong dread that “has no origin” but can “send me to bed for days,” and then she “cuts to”:
“Her boyfriend drugs her with chloroform. She comes to in a parking garage, tied to a wheelchair. Her boyfriend explains: This thing, it’s gonna follow you.”
She offers endnotes and a list of works referenced for the curious, although I suspect genre fans will have fun yelling “It Follows!” at this point. What there are not are Big Thesis statements or the Life-Altering Events we might expect to find in less experimental memoirs. Instead, Nutt lays out her images and ideas like tarot cards or dream memories for us to find our own answers and tell our own stories. Like the best horror tales, the essays leave us with lingering feelings of disquiet and foreboding.
There are recurring themes thoughout. Nutt went to school in Ithaca, New York, that land of gorges and thus the “call of the void,” that unconscious desire to hurl ourselves into the abyss. At least three men in her family have taken their own lives, and the writer herself feels the lure of morbid fascinations, the appeal of “dark tourism” and websites that might tell her who has died in her new home. She writes, “Horror movies are contained catastrophes.” They give us ways to imagine the unimaginable, discuss the unsayable, and explore our own terrible thoughts and anxieties.
Some of the writer’s anxieties come from growing up in a female body and the essays touch on emerging sexuality (Carrie and Teeth), the psychodrama of beauty pageants (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?), ballet schools (Suspiria), and predatory men (Revenge and so many slasher films). And some of her anxieties come from the nightmares and fears that plague all of us who are still above ground on the “right” side of the grave.
Looking back, adolescence is a perfect time to discover horror movies because it’s when most of us are discovering our own emerging unease about our bodies and our selves. But why do we seek out all those queasy feelings that most of civilized life is designed to avoid? Why we love horror films is, after all, the eternal question, but it might be that they bring to life and exorcise the vague sense of dread and disgust that accompany us throughout our years in these vehicles of flesh and blood. Nutt’s approach to remembering doesn’t give us answers, but she conjures up those eerie mysteries of mortality and lets them walk around with us. An essayist and a poet, she has created a new sort of horrific memoir here. Genre readers might be inspired to start our own terror journals right away.