Horror Did Not Save My Life
Horror has always been a staple in my life. To me, it’s like one of my autonomic functions: my heart beats, my lungs take in air, and my eyes watch massive amounts of horror films and cement the images in my brain. I have loved all sorts of films for as long as I can remember, but I’m just not me without horror.
I’m frequently asked, “Why horror? Why not comedy or something?” The polite answer is because scary movies are the most fun and unique. They touch on taboo subjects and subvert society’s version of decency. The real reason for my love and devotion to the genre, however, goes a bit deeper than that.
There’s no real way to dance around it. My father was an abusive alcoholic, as well as a bigot. What’s worse, my household (4-9 people at any given moment) was home to several other relatives struggling with drug addiction. My childhood was tumultuous, to say the least. I often felt anxious and scared at home because of my father. I never knew which version of him to expect from day to day. Sometimes, he was a blubbering man-baby who would trap me in the kitchen and cry for hours about how much he hated his life. Most times, though, he was angry. His abuse usually took the form of words with the occasional belt, and his vitriol was almost always aimed at me. From a very young age, I was made to feel like I was worthless. I was targeted by my father because he believed I was gay. He hated my short hair, my choice of clothing, and the “boyish” activities I liked. He made a point to tell me I was ugly and “not right”. When I was 9 years old, he told me, “No child of mine will be gay. You are not my child.” At this young age, I didn’t know what “gay” meant, but I knew that I could consider myself fatherless.
He was sort of right, in a way. Looking back, I never felt right. I couldn’t fully relate to the girls around me, but I didn’t realize that this was unusual. I thought everybody knew I was actually a boy. Imagine my surprise when, in 5th grade, I told my crush how I felt about her and within minutes nearly every 5th grader was pointing and snickering at me. I didn’t realize that, to everyone else, I was a girl. I didn’t understand how everyone could perceive me in such a different way than I did myself.
Throughout all the turmoil, both within me and around me, horror played a vital role in helping me cope and in shaping who I am today. As a child, I would turn to reading Goosebumps books and to writing short stories and “scripts” with horror themes. I especially liked to write Twilight Zone-esque stories for my school assignments and picture prompt tests. I learned to channel my pain, sadness, and especially my fear, into writing.
The genesis of my fascination with horror movies probably begins with my older cousin. When I was really little, I would often scan her massive movie collection, in awe of all the titles she had on her shelves. When I was a tiny bit older, some of my favorite moments were spent with my sister, niece, and cousin at video rental stores, scanning the aisles for the most grotesque movies we could find (based solely on cover art, of course). We would each pick out a title and stay up until the early morning hours watching them. Whoever had chosen the scariest movie would win bragging rights. I loved this game, which exposed my young eyes to many inappropriate films that my peers would undoubtedly have to wait to see until they were nearly grown adults.
My pre-teen and teenage years are when my obsession with horror films began to take over my life. I had always loved horror movies, but I became full-on infatuated with them. The themes and characters were prevalent in all my creative outlets. I would (poorly) draw scenes from my favorite films and create songs and poetry based upon the villains I came to love. Horror movies were all I could think about, a welcome distraction from the verbal abuse and ever-growing dysphoria.
The genre also brought me closer together with my friends, who loved the films just as much as I did. Horror was almost all we could ever talk about. So often we would sneak into theaters when we couldn’t get someone of age to accompany us to screenings, we would go to conventions together, and even watch bootleg versions of things we otherwise couldn’t get our hands on (something I would never condone now). If one of us saw something the others hadn’t, that person was expected to recite the movie’s plot from memory, making sure to include any important lines and details.
With age, I became more aware that my home life was not only abnormal but severely toxic, as well as the fact that my body was only going to become less in sync with the vision I had of myself in my head. Not only was I constantly on edge, but I was pissed off about it. Coincidentally, horror films at the time seemed to become more pissed off, too. I came of age during the aughts, when the so-called “torture porn” and New French Extremity movements were in full effect. Needless to say, I took in as many as I could. Whenever I was hurting the most, I could turn to an ultra-violent gorefest to act out how I felt on the inside.
With each passing day, my father’s resentment towards me blossomed. He hated my misguided attempts at masculinizing myself. I was binding, shaving my own head to form a mohawk, manipulating my weight in effort to disguise my chest, wearing baggy clothing to disguise my body, and I was even trying to deepen my voice. My father berated me for these attempts. He would drunkenly scream at me and lecture me for being both “hideous” and gay. Simultaneously, the people in my household dealing with drug addiction all seemed to spiral downward at once. My life felt like a living hell with no escape. I felt like I had no control.
It seems odd to some, then, that I would willingly choose to subject myself to fear via horror films. I think to most people, watching these films in such a vulnerable state seems counterintuitive. The average moviegoer would likely choose to lift their spirits with comedies or romantic films. The logic is: if you’re sad, you try and make yourself happy. That just didn’t cut it for me. Those types of movies are fine, but I generally found it difficult to relate to the problems their protagonists faced. For me, the guy getting the girl wasn’t a real issue. But the terrorized girl fighting back and winning against her oppressor? That I could get behind. In a way, the outlandish horror movies, with their monsters and violence, better reflected my reality than other movies did.
There was something addictive about the release I felt when a movie scared me. I liked having control over when I felt fearful or anxious, rather than having those feelings all the time at home and never knowing when the scare was going to come. There was also the added benefit that, no matter how awful things were for me in real life, at least I wasn’t dealing with the problems the characters were facing on-screen. Horror movies comforted me and provided a sense of relief, if only for a mere 90 minutes.
I left home at 17 years old. I was fed up with how I’d been treated and I’d had enough of all the substance abuse around me. While all my classmates were thinking about prom and graduation (which I am proud to say I achieved), I was worrying about how I’d come up with enough money to eat. I was dealing with the loss of my brother, who had succumbed to his disease of addiction. I was trying to ignore the echoing words of my father telling me I was stupid, he didn’t care about me, and that, of all his children, he had always loved me the least. I was trying to suppress the overwhelming feeling that my body was somehow a mistake. I spent this time (and the next several years) living in my car, couch-surfing at friends’ houses or crashing with my aunt, and working myself to death. Just like all those final girls in the movies I loved so much, I was desperate to make it out of my situation alive and in one piece. Hell, maybe I’d even learn something along the way.
As it turns out, my father ended up abandoning the family and running off to Texas shortly after I left. He never said goodbye. That was about ten years ago, and I am only just now learning that the things he told me about myself were lies. This includes when he insisted I was gay. Surprise, dad! I’m not gay! I’m transgender, and if you (or you, dear reader) don’t like it, you can fuck right off.
In all the time since then, I’ve only leaned on my love of horror more and more. Genre movies acted as my escape from both my daily struggles and my own mind. They allowed me to shut off my brain while simultaneously flipping a creative switch within me. I am so thankful for all that the genre has taught me, inspired in me, and that the horror community has given me. That’s a big part of the reason I’ll never stray too far from these films.
Horror did not save my life. The kindness and generosity of friends and teachers, the unconditional love of my Aunt Eileen, the support of the people I held closest to me, and finally finding the strength to leave home and the courage to transition are what saved my life. That said, I truly don’t know who I would be without horror.
I feel like this genre is a part of me. Horror movies and stories were with me through every step of my life, always ready to share my pain and anger. These films would make me laugh when I was down. They would sometimes offer hope when I felt like life was too bleak. They brought me closer to my friends and helped me find new ones. Horror inspires me in every aspect of my life, from hobbies to career choice.
On closer inspection, I don’t think it’s any small coincidence that I was destined to be drawn to horror films, specifically. These films are largely overlooked, or worse, looked down upon. They are judged for their appearances. They’re treated like trash by the rest of the film community and seen as worthless. In reality, these same films are often beautiful, thoughtful, poignant, and bold. They have something to say but aren’t interested in trying to prove anything to anyone who doesn’t “get it”. Horror movies are the underdogs of the film world. Whenever people think horror is fizzling out, it manages to rise from the ashes and come back with a vengeance. Whether those who misunderstand the genre like it or not, these films will succeed, and they will only keep evolving and becoming greater. I can relate to that.