The Healing Power of Horror

At the beginning of May 2021, my partner got exposed to COVID-19, which meant I definitely had it. We live together and interact, so obviously, I had been in close contact with them. Within a week we were both knocked on our butts, just trying to make it through the day. With the weakness, body aches, and breathing issues I developed, doing much of anything was like climbing Mt. Everest. So—we watched a lot of movies. And to be honest, I think it helped get me through it in one piece.

In her book House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Filmsauthor Kier-La Janisse discusses how horror can make us feel in control:

[…] watching horror films is cathartic because it provides a temporary feeling of control over the one unknown factor that can’t be controlled (death).

This definitely applied to my situation. I felt utterly miserable, and I admit there were several moments where I thought, what if I die? It was certainly a possibility—many suffer and pass from the virus daily. Every day I got worse. Then we started watching old episodes of The Last Drive-in With Joe Bob Briggs on Shudder.

One of the films featured was Mandy, which I’ve seen several times and love. Reliving the titular character being brutally killed while Nicolas Cage’s character watches was especially hard this time. I felt his suffering, his anger, his desire for revenge. I was also angry.

The frustrating thing is that we know the person that got us sick—they regularly would not wear their mask or act safely. They sent us a text while we were unwell and said, “Oh, most of that is anxiety. It’s not really that bad.” I felt like the scene of Cage having a screaming fit in the bathroom. By watching him take out the people who hurt him, I too felt relief.

Red has his hands tied above his head with barbed wire, as well as in his mouth as a gag. He looks off-screen

I’m not a violent person. In fact, I’d say almost all horror fans are peaceful people. It’s an unfortunate stereotype that because of the content of horror movies, we must be violent ourselves. In his review for the recent Spiral: From the Book of Saw, Johnny Oleksinski says this about horror lovers: “Fans of these films—whom I so look forward to hearing from!—are depraved lunatics who should not be allowed near animals or most other living things.

This view feels like such an archaic way to think about media. It harkens back to the “video games make kids violent” era of the ’90s and early 2000s. Also, what’s with getting people who hate horror movies to review them for big publications? Of course, they’re going to trash it. But I digress.

We understand that what happens in films is not reality. It’s entertainment! Storytelling notes apply to horror as well. Good vs Evil, revenge, love, and everything else. It’s satisfying to see the bad guys get their comeuppance. Ridiculous gore effects are fun. I couldn’t get out of bed, but I could lose myself in the story. I cheered extra hard when Cage shoves his axe handle down a cult member’s throat and later when he squishes Jeremiah’s head.

Another film we watched was Mayhem, about a virus that removes your inhibitions. It takes place entirely in an office building with Steven Yuen and Samara Weaving making their way to the top floor to get back at the nasty executives who’ve screwed them over. It’s a typical underdog story with a lot of violence and improvised weapons. 

Capitalism unfortunately is the ruling economic factor both in our own lives and in most movies. Halfway through our quarantine period, my partner got an email from his job: “When can you come back?” It didn’t matter that he might, y’know, not get better, but their primary focus was for him to return and help make the company more money. So let’s just say Steven Yuen throwing the big boss off a balcony was satisfying as hell.

Samara Weaving aims a nail gun while wearing sunglasses. Steven Yuen stands on her left, his clothing flecked with blood

Week 2 of being ill was progressively worse. Every day I could feel myself getting weaker. I barely ate. Late one night, I couldn’t breathe properly for hours, so we called the health line; they told us to call 911. Paramedics showed up and checked me out. Thankfully, I wasn’t bad enough to need hospitalization, but the whole experience was stressful. 

So we kept watching movies. Some good (The Exorcist III) and some bad (Hogzilla). Throughout all of this, Joe Bob regaled our sick selves with a huge quantity of behind-the-scenes facts, the entire life stories of actors and actresses, and long tangents of distinctly American life. I admit I had never watched his shows before this, but I knew of him. Consider me a fan now!

Unconsciously, as we continued our marathon the movies got goofier. Filling in our horror blind spots we got to Tammy and the T-Rex (previously I’ve only seen the PG-13 version) and Silent Night, Deadly Night 2. As I watched Billy say the famous “Garbage day!” line and then laugh maniacally, I laughed too. That felt like—Oh, things are funny again. I’m going to be okay.

I’m over the hill now and recovering well. While I may be grumpy about how we caught it, I would never wish this on anyone, and I send my deepest sympathies to those who have gone through it or lost someone.

One of the most obvious aspects of horror is that (generally) these situations don’t happen in real life, so the characters are going through events you will never experience—and these are usually pretty awful things, too. So while I was feeling terrible, at least I wasn’t being chased by a masked killer! Or dealing with demonic entities! (At least not yet). 

The Final Girl, who overcomes the odds and makes it out alive, sometimes destroying their attacker in the process, is inspiring and hopeful. If she can make it through that, I can survive this! Watching someone surpass what seems impossible rejuvenated me, bit by bit. 

Horror kept me from focusing too much on what I was going through, and I know it can be a huge comfort to many others. It will be there for us through sickness and in health, and I’m thankful to have it. That, and the Drive-In will never die.

Looking for more unpopular opinions? We’ve got you:

“Why Horror Movies Don’t Have to Be Scary to Be Good”

“Did Pelle Kill Dani’s Family in Midsommar?”

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Written by Lor Gislason

Lor is a body horror enthusiast from Vancouver Island, Canada who can be found chilling with their two cats and playing farming simulators. Find them on Twitter: @lorelli_

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