Horror is as horror does: Susie Moloney on the genre’s ability to ease real-life pain

“Horror means something to me. It gets me through shit.” (Photo courtesy of the author)

Screenwriter and author Susie Moloney is the author of the bestselling novels Bastion Falls, A Dry Spell, and The Thirteen. She has written for television and wrote the screenplay for the feature film Bright Hill Road. She also teaches online courses on horror writing and screenwriting. In today’s guest post, she writes about how horror helped her process pain and grief from her mother’s death and COVID-19.

You’re alone. Not just metaphysically, but in your actual home. Maybe that home is isolated, far from civilization. It’s night, that’s for certain. If there’s a moon its purpose is only to cast longer shadows just outside your window.

And who could be casting those shadows, if you are far from civilization? Or far from, if need be, help.

Quite a word, “help.” It’s usually used in a benign way, to get someone to grab the extra grocery bag, or rake while you mow. Maybe it’s even used in fun, like lord help me, Jesus wept, or god help me if I hear “Baby Shark” ever again.

Sometimes it’s darker:

Help me. Help me please, oh god help me help me

Help! They’re coming!

Help! They’ve found me!

Help! Don’t hang up!

For the love of god –

Even just writing that wee bit of horror, I’m deliciously tingly. Every nerve is awake and alive. I am here, I am present, which has been tough for at least ten of the last eighteen months. Once the novelty of the pandemic died down (I can’t believe I just called it a “novelty”), I found it increasingly difficult to focus, to think clearly, to be present. To simply be awake and alive and not numb.

A tonne of people apparently have felt, are feeling, or will feel exactly like that. The isolation, the uncertainty, the unemployment, Tiger King, the roller coaster of fear – especially here in Alberta where our response to the pandemic has been more 28 Days Later than the first act of 28 Weeks Later, and the relentless parade of bad news has worn us down until we are mere nubs of feeling.

And what do people turn to? Horror movies. Think I’m lying? According to everyone, I am correct:

How horror movies can help people overcome real-world trauma

Nicole Johnson, National Geographic

Why horror movies may be good for your health

Nicole Karlis, Salon

Why horror movie fans are coping better during COVID-19 pandemic

Jackie Dunham, CTV News

In turbulent times, horror movies can be strangely comforting

– Cynthia MacDonald, At a Glance, University of Toronto

After losing her mother, Susie Moloney took refuge in horror movies, including Brian De Palma’s psychedelic musical Phantom of the Paradise, which she watched sixteen times.

Horror means something to me. It gets me through shit. Horror movies have literally saved my life. Maybe not life, exactly, but more like, just … saved me.

Case in point: my mom died when I was a little kid. Every adult in my life was grieving and mourning. I was left to run feral through the streets of Winnipeg. I don’t know what my siblings did, but I went to the movies.

Those were the early days of multiplexes. We had a large number of them in our city, with – again – very little supervision. What did I see in the years following that loss, and countless tinier losses that came with it? Jaws. M*A*S*H. The Exorcist. Halloween. Carrie. Don’t Look Now. Suspiria. Phantom of the Paradise (a record sixteen times).

These movies were all, probably, R Rated, and I saw them anyway – entirely inappropriately and no one stopped me. (I realize that M*A*S*H is not considered a horror movie, but you go see it when you’re eleven and tell me that the blood, guts, and gore is elevated by the Oscars it got.) You paid your money for the stupid Disney movie of the year, and then snuck into whatever theatre you wanted.

I got so used to going to the theatre by myself that when I was out on a first date years later, I headed for the movie of my choice once while my date went to the one he paid for.

“Hey,” he said. “Where you going?”

“I wanna see The Cotton Club.”

It was a bad break up, but I did get to see The Cotton Club. I forget what he saw.

So, while I was grieving for my mother, I went to horror movies I was too young to see, too young to really understand, and ultimately was unable to tell anyone why I couldn’t sleep at night, because probably some adult would have woken up and said, “Hey, you’re not supposta …”

Horror movies really, really distracted me from the most painful time of my life. Alone in the theatre for a couple of hours, being manipulated into screaming, swearing, and tossing my popcorn, I was transported – no longer a motherless daughter, but a possessed child, a doctor in a war zone, a swimmer off the shore of an island. And lots of other horrors.

Plus, truthfully, doing this brought me closer to my favourite memories of my mother. I was probably eight when she woke me up in the middle of the night to watch Burn, Witch Burn with her because she was too scared to be alone. I watched from under the blanket, and we howled and giggled, and screamed in glee, delight, and … horror. Maybe I was ten when we watched an episode of The Outer Limits that concerned a box that captured people and kept them inside, trapped. Mom sent me down to the basement through our trapdoor to get the laundry from the dryer and once I was down there, she screamed, “Watch for the box!” Absolutely ensuring that I would think of this moment every time I did laundry for the rest of my life.

Maybe I was six when Mom came home from the movies with a friend, having seen Frogs, so full of laughter and fun and joy, excitedly recounting the whole movie. Maybe I was the same when she saw Bonnie & Clyde in the theatre. Maybe I was younger. Maybe I’m making that part up because I’d know her reaction.

Horror movies, being gleefully scared: they are my mother.

It’s the closest I can get.

Horror is as horror does.

Horror is as horror does: Susie Moloney on the genre’s ability to ease real-life pain
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