Horror is like a serpent; always shedding its skin, always changing. And it will always come back. It can't be hidden away like the guilty secrets we try to keep in our subconscious.
This is a quote from the Italian film director and screenwriter Dario Argento (and in case I need to even mention this, he’s most known for seminal films including, Suspiria, Inferno, and Opera, among many others). As horror fans, I would conjecture that Argento’s quote, particularly the final sentence, is relatable for many, if not all of us.
I say that because within the horror genre — whether film, novel or other — there’s an ability to shine a light on the darkness and repressed material (aka our unconscious) that many of us have avoided due to any of the numerous ways in which life can absolutely suck. The horror genre offers us this lens: one that is raw, unflinching, and visceral, in a way that other genres really can’t (or at least typically don’t).
I mean, have you ever taken a moment to look beyond the gloriousness of all things blood, guts, and macabre that we love about horror, and utilize the aforementioned lens to inquire as to why else horror movies are so beloved to you (and me)?
Much of my life has been spent living in fear, anger, hurt, and sadness. This resulted in drug addiction, empty sex, poor eating habits, cutting, suicide attempts, ad infinitum — all of which culminated in a perfect storm, a tempest that shattered my heart and left me nothing more than the shell of a man. As a result, rehabs, jail cells, detox units, psychiatric hospitals, and emergency rooms were my norm for many years.
Many have suffered much worse than I have, while others have suffered significantly less. Either way, we have all suffered. It’s an unavoidable part of this being human thing, and regardless of its severity, it’s awful. Always.
Life is hard; it’s so goddamn hard, particularly when we feel different from others (as so many of us in love with the horror genre do), but I believe these quirks and eccentricities are what make the most beautiful humans. That said, unfortunately, most humans shun, hide, or suppress these aspects of themselves. I know I certainly did for many years, particularly in relation to the suppression part, which was a major contributing factor to the hell I experienced. It wasn’t until I began embracing my strange self for exactly who I was (which is easier said than done, and still very much an ongoing process) that my relationship with myself, others, and life in general changed for the better — a large part of which is thanks to the horror genre.
I’ve loved horror movies since I was a child, but it wasn’t until later in life that I began to look at them through the aforementioned lens and absorb, when possible/applicable, the deeper levels of meaning held within. Through this lens, there’s so much that horror films can teach us about ourselves; others; life’s grace and grit; overcoming adversity; loss and tragedy; and much more.
Personally, 2019’s Joker is a prime example of this. What’s that? You don’t consider Joker a horror movie? In all fairness, I understand how one could argue (and with merit) that it’s not a “traditional” horror film, but have you ever lived with mental illness or known anyone who has? I certainly have (both scenarios) for the better part of my life, and while I’ve worked through much of it, there’s always more work to be done. It’s something Joker shined such an important light on.
Aside from being a thrice-published author and public speaker (trust me, there’s no ego in that statement because I’m still baffled by it personally), my main passion is the work I do helping those who struggle with various mental illnesses (particularly teenagers). I don’t know of much that’s more terrifying in life than living with mental illness. During a scene in Joker, the camera briefly pans down to Arthur Fleck’s (The Joker’s) journal where he’s written, “the worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you DON’T” (with a smiley face drawn in the letter “O” of the word “DON’T”).
Like Arthur Fleck, I, too, kept journals. Today, when I look back at them, it’s a sobering reminder of the horrors I have lived through. Many pages are covered with splatters of blood and the musings/rantings of a man on the brink. It’s a painstaking experience, reading the hopeless sentiment held within the majority of those words. One, however, that in the end, also reminds me of the limitless power of hope, which I know beyond a shadow of a doubt is the underlying reason why I’m still alive today.
When I revisit those journal’s pages, ones filled with depression and despair, I find I’m often most affected by the words I would write while I was in detox. I think that’s because those were the times my head started to feel some semblance of clarity after what had surely been weeks, if not months, of an unbearably painful relapse experience.
I say “some semblance of clarity” because I was still under the influence of benzodiazepines in detox, which is a narcotic that sort of helps with the pain of withdrawals. More importantly, it helps keep seizures from occurring during the process.
The mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical places I would find myself in while in detox were extremely raw, vulnerable, depressed, and surprisingly, open. “Open” in the sense that I was so tired and so broken by the time I would reach detox that I didn’t have the capacity to keep up any sort of façade, which resulted in some of the most honest, albeit still chemically influenced, writing from the darkest places in my life. The following are two short examples —certainly nowhere near my darkest — to provide you with a frame of reference:
Fuck. Detox again. I’m trying to let go and remember I am in this dark place for a reason, but to no avail. It may sound crazy but I can sense the demons all around. In the corners, under the beds, crawling on the ceilings, everywhere. I don’t know where the angels are though. Perhaps once the ambulance stretcher hits that front door, they’re not allowed in. This place is just so dark and cold and littered with living zombies. It’s as if I can actually see tombstones in some of their eyes. The dates may be blurry, but the tombstones are there nevertheless. I wonder if these zombies see the same in my eyes too. I wonder if I’m even seen in the first place. And the scariest thing down here is that there’s shadows in places there shouldn’t be shadows.
The cuts on my wrists are making it hard to write right now, but I want to say this — detox truly is you against you. It’s not like there’s anyone here encouraging you, there’s no one here to say, “Hey, nice job detoxing” or any shit like that. It’s literally just you experiencing the hell of the drugs leaving your body and while the heavily medicated state in which detox leaves you in helps mask some of the pain, there’s no medication that can stop you from feeling parts of your soul decaying … and that’s fucking tough.
Therein lies one of the reasons I find so much potency at the end of Argento’s quote, “It can't be hidden away like the guilty secrets we try to keep in our subconscious.” It was my repression of all things uncomfortable in my life, or again, as Arthur Fleck suggested, living with a mental disorder (or disorders) but pretending like I didn’t because that’s what “normal” society expects, that kept me so sick and suffering for many years.
When I turned toward this repressed material, that’s when my real healing began. Exploring the unconscious parts of myself that I’d long since hidden away (under the guidance of therapists — particularly trauma-based therapists rooted in EMDR and ART) is what truly began to change everything for me. I’ll get back to how horror helped my healing process momentarily, but I would like to provide a crash course on our unconscious/shadow self (interchangeable words coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung).
In his book The Integral Vision, Ken Wilber offers an accessible version of the shadow self and explains why it’s not only important but necessary for us as humans to work with and uncover our hidden shadows. Wilber writes:
The “shadow” is a term representing the personal unconscious or the psychological material that we repress, deny, dissociate, or disown. Unfortunately, denying this material doesn’t make it go away; on the contrary, it returns to plague us with painful neurotic symptoms, obsessions, fears, and anxieties. Uncovering, befriending, and re-owning this material is necessary not only for removing the painful symptoms but for forming an accurate and healthy self-image.
Another way to sum up our shadow self is any time we feel a strong emotional response to something outside of ourselves — another person, for example, or, even horror movies — is the first sign our shadow self is acting up. For most of us, our experience of these emotions is typically followed by criticism and blame toward those outer elements in order to divert our attention away from the unpleasant parts of ourselves that we would rather not acknowledge. And to be fair, the shadow isn’t only negative. If we find ourselves appreciating/enjoying something in another person, or film, or whatever the fuck in life, that, too, is a mirror.
When it comes to horror movies, I know my love for them is partly because there’s a guilt-free association with projecting some of the denied aspects of myself onto them. I’m not saying I have a hidden or denied taste for blood or murder, but there is a lot of pain and fear in horror movies, and there is definitely a lot of pain and fear within me as well (though it’s noticeably less today than it used to be).
The shadow acts as a “shadow” for a reason; we’re afraid of what we’ll find out about ourselves when we shine a light on it and look. The good news, though, is that as we work on overcoming our fear about these hidden places inside of ourselves and take a closer look at the denied aspects of our shadow, we liberate a lot of pent-up energy that previously had been reserved for keeping those unsavory parts of ourselves hidden.
When we bring awareness to our emotional states and the corresponding ways in which we act toward others as a result, we take back control of our internal well-being — well, either that, or we can continue living on autopilot, and, as Pinhead so eloquently said, “Your suffering will be legendary, even in hell!” Whichever you’d prefer.
It’s not my intention to overromanticize the horror genre because realistically, sitting around watching horror films all day (as amazing as that is) won’t bring about deep and lasting change. There have to be action steps, just like the Dream Warriors in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3 had to learn to harness their dream powers in order to give them the best fighting chance possible when confronting Freddy. Sure, it didn’t work out great in the long run for most of them, but still, it was something. Even if we don’t live on Elm Street, or hell, even if we do, and are looking to make serious, lasting change, action needs to be taken. Things such as therapy, meditation, exercise, art, creating music, writing, skateboarding, yoga, eating a bit healthier, or spending more time in nature, are just a few examples of ways we can start making said changes (and most of the aforementioned we can start doing immediately, as in today).
As I wrap this up, I’d like to share that no matter how deep your experience of pain, despair, and emptiness is (or has been), I get it. I’ve wanted to fucking die. I’ve tried to fucking die. I’ve been hopeless and broken beyond what I believed I could (or would) ever return from, but with time, patience, anger, acceptance, heartbreak, and persistence, I’m still here, and I’m a stronger, better person today because of it. Punk icon and actor Henry Rollins once said, “Scar tissue is stronger than regular tissue. Realize the strength, move on.” That’s what we do. We show up, find what strength we can at this moment (and of course, watch some horror movies while we’re at it, finding inspiration and insight wherever we can in them), and move on.
Making positive life changes isn’t just for new-age hippies and won’t ruin your horror cred. And if someone judges you for it, fuck them, it’s just their own shadow material rearing its ugly head, much like Reagan in The Exorcist. Except in our case, it’s the power of blood, guts, brains, upside-down crosses, and all of the things that go bump in the night that compel us.