When I ponder my love of horror, I trace it back to this crazy fear of death I’ve had since I was a child. Perhaps most of us are somewhat afraid to die, but for me, at points in my life, the fear has been quite stark. I wrote a little essay-type piece about it, since I’m trying to memoir more about my love of horror. The piece below is a little dark, and a little personal, but I was in the mood to write at 3:30 a.m. before going to sleep, so here it is.
It feels as though I’ve been afraid to die since I was born, 34 ½ years ago in a little lakeside town in Northwestern Pennsylvania. I don’t know how to describe it all succinctly.
I am, perhaps, five or six, and I start thinking of the concept of eternity, the notion of time unfurling relentlessly in endless spasms long after I’ve lost consciousness, and I realize nobody can save me from that; there is no alternative to eternity, and so I’m doomed by time’s infinity.
I’m then ten or eleven, and my family is sitting at a Ryan’s Steak House in Toledo, Ohio, visiting with relatives. The food is hot and the tables are bright orange and the parking lot outside the window is unceremonious and maybe a bit dismal. The reality that I will die someday suddenly re-occurs to me, rises from some internal abyss meant to counteract my happiness, and I veer off, contemplating the fact that I cannot escape my death. I still say, at that time in my life, the childish prayer I concocted at age six or seven, the one meant to prevent God from taking me in my sleep. “Please help me to wake up tomorrow morning in my own bedroom, in my own bed.” I practically beg God. In my fifth grade naivete, I reason that surely God can’t take me in my sleep if I routinely and faithfully chant these few lines.
Later I am sixteen, and I’m standing behind a cash register at a local franchise diner smiling effervescently and passing back handfuls of dimes and nickels to eclectic patrons when I pause for a minute and look across the lobby, out the glass door, and up to the sky. My eventual death and the endlessness of time dawns on me, and I’m thrust from the at least partial coziness of my surroundings, into the grim reality that awaits us all. I never saw chariots or heaven when I saw death; I saw nothingness, rotting corpses underground, and time going on and on without end. It all comes to me, in a flood of reality; we all face it, I tell myself, while absent-mindedly handing a six-pack of cinnamon buns to a customer. But death’s universality doesn’t assuage my fears of it. I do not want to face it. I want there to be some alternative to eternity, some antidote for time.
I’m a freshman in college, and some friends and I are talking about death in our dorm room one night. I tell my friend that I’m afraid of time’s infinity, that the thought of endlessness has always terrified me. She draws a line, and puts a little dot in the middle of the line. “This is your life,” she says. “This line is time, except the line doesn’t end. It was endless before you were born. It didn’t bother you then, did it?” Her reasoning is air tight, and it does help, at least a little.
I didn’t think about death and eternity constantly in childhood; the thoughts cropped up unexpectedly sometimes, or I’d go through long periods of mourning during which I’d lament death’s realities. Indeed, the thought of dying has always terrified me. Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death suggests that a complete understanding of our unavoidable, ultimate fate can lead only to madness, and maybe this is true. For me, it was scary and sad. Still, as a child, I was happy a lot, too. It’s just that death curled around me sometimes like an insidious black fog, reminding me that I couldn’t escape it.
Finally, around four years ago, I am thirty. It is autumn, and menacing, lighted, neon orange jack-o-lanterns adorn the house next door to my apartment. They stare at me, taunt me, remind me that every act is an act of futility because I will die eventually. I now know that I experience depression, and I’m in the throws of it. I’ve just met Michael around this time, and when he takes me to a play at his high school, I sit there, trying to watch the intricate choreography and the colorful costumes as I ponder the inescapability of my own mortality. There is really no point, I tell myself, and I hang on tight to some little nuggets of perseverance until the torrent passes, which it always does.
It has not been that bad since then, but I still think about death, sometimes.
In The Horror Film: An Introduction, Rick Worland constructs a definition of the genre. He notes that “while we are likely to experience anxiety and fright in other violent genres […] a horror film evokes deeper, more personal psychological fears in the starkest terms. The most basic fear in the horror story is the fear of death. But this is only the beginning of its impact and appeal” (7).
I wonder if the fear of death that surrounds the horror movie is more than the beginning of the movie’s appeal for me. There is no concrete event that made me love horror, no critical moment in childhood, or anything like that – although I’m sure my inclination toward the genre was aided by my materiality, the realities of my day to day existence. But I have to wonder if I’ve always loved horror because it makes that unknown, intangible, disruptive space called “death” more familiar and accessible, especially if it is true that we often love what we fear. I’m both fascinated and terrified by death – death, and, how death manifests in horror.
I have written about my first fright on this blog. Others have written about theirs. And I have written about why horror might be appealing for people. But really, when it comes down to what I know, I cannot speak for everyone. I know only that I fear death, and I’m fascinated by it.
My sister loved and feared sharks with gusto as a child, and so she would talk and read about them incessantly, then face the wall with her back to the tank when we went to the sea world exhibit. So it goes with me and death; I’ll watch it unfold a million times on the screen, and, paradoxically, I’ll remain thoroughly in the moment when I do – thinking of nothing in the future, not even my own death. But I hate cemeteries, and I really hate the thought of dying.
I wrote this little piece tonight when I read the line in Worland that I just quoted, because I’ve been stifling my urge to write in an effort to get reading done, but sometimes, when the urge to write hits, you just have to indulge. I also wrote it because I’m trying to memoir about my love of horror, and this is the first place I look, every time I sit down to write. I remember that I am afraid to die but weirdly fascinated by death, and so I watch characters fight for their lives in horror movies. It is a strange coping mechanism, but it seems to work, nonetheless.
Death. A love-hate relationship that’s perhaps indirectly yielded a blog full of writing and a possible PhD dissertation topic. I fear death less now, but it still looms in abeyance sometimes, saying “I’m coming for you, Kalie,” (think of Johnny saying “They’re coming for you, Barbara, in Night of the Living Dead as you read that line).
As T.S. Eliot says in The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, “I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat and snicker/and of course I was afraid.” I’ve been seeing that damn footman since I was five, and maybe that’s what makes me a little strange. But I think everyone has something that makes them a little strange, so I’m okay with that.