Spoilers for Split, Gerald’s Game, and Haunting of Hill House
At the doorway of my jujitsu instructor’s living room I proclaim, “Nerd!”
This is the first time I’ve dared to accept Jack’s invitation to come to his home for a cuppa. Despite having Jack as a jujitsu instructor for almost a year, my friendship with the war vet is new. Visually, Jack and I seem an unlikely pair: me with my green pixie cut and oxford shoes, waving a feminist flag, overeducated, and “queer as fuck,” and Jack, his body a catalogue of injuries from a lifetime of fighting, a marine in lifestyle and appearance with his military fade and combat boots. But together, we have enough meds to line several bookshelves, have had longer and more emotionally rewarding relationships with our therapists than with most other humans, and have all the paranoia of the deeply doped. (We share a few issues: PTSD, anxiety, depression, sexual trauma, persistent nightmares, self-harm behavior.)
“Such a nerd,” I tell him. “J.K., I am too.”
Frames from Marvel and DC comics, a watercolor of The Fellowship of the Ring, and a sketch of Batman’s hand around the Joker’s neck decorate the walls. Jack’s shelves are lined with graphic novels, comic books, science fiction, and horror.
He doesn’t offer me a seat on the couch because I recently told him I found his physicality intimidating. At the time, he was astonished. “What? I’m a teddy bear.”
He’s a 200-pound bulldog—broad shoulders, triangle waist, arms covered in tattoos, the eyes of Caligula, and the disinterested resting face of an Easter Island head.
I’ve only recently managed to make eye contact.
He has also told me stories of his bar brawls, biting noses, popping joints, and pulling ears, which I love hearing but make me think twice about sitting within arm’s reach.
But during martial arts practice, I noticed he too needed to leave class for a few minutes to reclaim a brain and body hijacked by anxiety. He would signal one of his blackbelt students, leave his belt and jacket on a bench, then quietly step off the mat and pace outside on the sidewalk in his bare feet, shoulders up to his ears, smoking like his life depended on it. Recognizing that flashbacks aren’t a reflection of age, gender, or physical strength was a revelation for me. I started to ask Jack questions about his healing process and coping mechanisms, first over text, then at a bar, both of us finding relief in our tiny support group.
Out of respect for my fear of humans, he has a chair set up for me in the corner of the living room, my back to the wall, several feet away from him so I can see him approaching and I won’t be surprised by anyone coming through the door. As a retired Army combat medic and Marine infantryman, Jack is intimately familiar with PTSD symptoms and wants me to feel safe.
While Jack brews coffee, I peruse his collection of King, Jackson, Rice, Barker, and Lovecraft.
“Are you a horror fan?” Jack asks, handing me coffee in a Game of Thrones mug.
“Survivor stories are cathartic.”
“I might have some books for you.”
Before I leave, he loads me up with Alice in Wonderland comics, retold through a horror H.P Lovecraft lens.
I was, until a few years ago, a horror neophyte, mostly because I’m a coward. (I was also a snob about stories, as if one genre of telling was a higher art than another—until I picked up Misery and couldn’t understand why was my heart pounding.)
Researchers postulate why some of us enjoy being scared, whether it’s out of mild sadomasochism, an outlet for what Stephen King calls our “anticivilization tendencies,” or simply for a rush of adrenaline. Horror also connects with viewers by showing us universal, cultural, or personal fears like being eaten alive or consumed by a pandemic. Hollywood has used the genre to reflect current events, comment on the real horrors of Vietnam (Night of the Living Dead, 1968), and reflect shifting attitudes toward sexuality during the AIDS crisis. I watch, as King would say, to dare my own nightmares. I embrace pretend horrors to “cope with the real ones.”
Embracing pretend horrors in films and books is one of my core connections to Jack. “Would you like to sit on the couch?” Jack asks. “Or am I still scary?”
“I’ll chance it.”
With his ADD triggering my anxiety triggering his OCD triggering my anxiety, it’s taken us a while to make it to the couch.
Jack sits as far away from me as possible, practically tipping over the armrest. His dogs, two white Westies and a behemoth Scottie, pile on in the space between us. I eat a Pop-Tart out of the wrapper while Jack sips yesterday’s coffee from a Marvel mug.
Today we’re watching Split. Kevin (James McAvoy), a man with twenty-three personalities, abducts three girls, Claire, Casey, and Marcia, under the alter personality named Dennis. The girls must escape before being fed as sacred meat to the twenty-fourth alter, the Beast. For simplicity, I’ll focus on Dennis.
This is my second time watching the movie. The first time triggered me.
“Hell,” he said, pushing play. “When I recommended the movie, I wanted you to be inspired. Shit. Fuck. I should not have sprung that on you.”
“I don’t even know what’s going to trigger me. You can’t hold yourself responsible for that.”
“Shut up. It’s starting.”
The film opens at a birthday party for teen Claire. We learn that the female lead, Casey, was only invited out of pity. In these early scenes, Claire and her friend Marcia are giggly phone-focused teens while Casey sits silent.
After the party, Dennis sedates and abducts the girls. He drags them to a locked room in the basement of an undisclosed facility. When conscious, Claire and Marcia scheme to escape however possible. Casey sits on the bed. As a result of Casey’s long history with an abusive uncle, she doesn’t try to fight or flee but instead tries to discover more about her captor.
Dennis and a few other alters believe that the Beast is the next step in human evolution and should kill people who seem unworthy of life. According to Dennis, there are two types of people: the sleeping and the abused. The teens qualify as unworthy sleepers because they have a false sense of security; their eyes haven’t been opened yet by trauma.
In the third act, the Beast emerges, veiny and sweaty. He devours the two bland underdeveloped teen characters, and then chases Casey down the hall. During Casey’s chase and scuffle with the Beast, he rips her shirt. She escapes and locks herself in a cage while he proselytizes from a corner, “Only through pain can you achieve your greatness.”
As the Beast darts closer through the darkness, Casey loads and shoots Dennis’s rifle, but bullets don’t drop him. The Beast puts his face between the bars and starts to pull them apart. Then he stops. This is a pivotal moment in the film; as the camera pulls back, we see a network of self-harm scars across Casey’s shoulders and stomach.
The Beast stops pulling on the bars and says, “You are different from the rest. …The broken are the more evolved.”
My broken trauma brain doesn’t mind that the film’s revelations are a crude rendition of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It took a year of repeated trauma for me to believe I was worthless, and now it’s taking longer to undo the damage. Sometimes those of us who are anxious and depressed need to hear that we are different and changed, and that it’s OK.
Jack agrees. “This ending is deeply moving to me. It shows possible responses to trauma, and for us the struggle is to heal without turning into monsters ourselves.”
Because of the misconceptions about the motivations of self-harm, this scene won’t land for every viewer.
“Some people view self-mutilation as a plea for attention or pity when it can be a coping mechanism for anxiety,” I explain.
“The Beast sees her internal damage in either case. It’s what I saw in you.” Jack gestures toward the white lines like stretch marks on my wrist.
Aristotle suggested that we are drawn to scary stories because we feel better after we purge negative emotions, a.k.a. the process of catharsis. The horror filmmaker John P. Hess, in the video interview “The Psychology of Scary Movies,” clarifies that while Aristotle was wrong in his theory that watching violence will make people less violent, “there may still be a correlation between watching horror and the reduction of fear.” Hess goes on to summarize Dolf Zillmann’s Excitation Transfer theory, which states that watching the protagonist overcome horrors can give us a more intense feeling of positive emotions by the end of the film (like my reading of Misery when, after 300 pages of torture, Paul Sheldon finally picks up the typewriter against his captor, Annie Wilkes).
Identification with the protagonist, or even the antagonist, in horror can help viewers process past trauma in a controlled environment, or as Hess explains, “a safe place to practice survival skills.” I feel that sense of catharsis when I watch characters shift from prey to predator, from passive victim to agency-claiming survivor.
Gerald’s Game is my pick. I tell Jack that I’m intrigued by the Netflix adaptation of Stephen King’s book because the conflict seems to be settled in the first few minutes.
He clicks the TV. “Will this be triggering for you?”
“It could go either way, but we can stop if it’s too-too.”
He hands me a Guinness and we plop into our places on the couch, dogs between us.
High-powered lawyer Gerald and his younger wife, Jessie, head to their lakehouse for the weekend to infuse their marriage with intimacy. Gerald is so focused on getting into bed before he loses his hard-on, they leave the front door open.
Gerald cuffs Jessie to the bed posts with real handcuffs because “the other kind just break.” Instead of some light S&M, Gerald wants her to enact a rape fantasy, and she is triggered when he calls himself “Daddy.” In their brief conversation, she tries to convince him to unlock her.
“Gerald!” I shout at the screen as he decides to ignore his wife and use her as an inflatable sex doll. “I hope your dick falls off, you manipulative, gaslighting chauvinist!”
Instead, he has a heart attack and smashes his head on the floor.
Jessie is crucified to the bed, there’s a spreading pool of blood under her husband’s head, and she can’t reach her phone, keys, or the glass of water on the shelf. What could possible happen next?
While Jessie sorts her shit and tries to break the bed posts, a stray dog drifts through the open side door and munches on Gerald. Gerald pops up from the floor to say, “What the hell?”
“Wait?” I ask Jack. “Is he not dead?” But then we see his body still on the floor. “She’s just lost her mind then.”
This version of Gerald represents one of Jessie’s inner voices, the negative self-talk voice that degrades and discourages her. But his toxicity is balanced out by her other inner voice, a stronger version of herself, the woman she would like to be that encourages her. Night falls and Jessie is visited by the Space Cowboy, a grave robber turned cannibal killer who carries around a bag of jewelry and bones he’s removed from corpses.
“Is he real?” I whisper.
The plot doesn’t need monsters. The real horror, as so often is the case in King’s work, is in Jessie’s head. Strapped with arms akimbo, she has no way to escape her past or her memories of childhood abuse and what her father did to her.
Through Jessie’s trauma memories, she remembers breaking a glass and how slick her hands were with blood. The sun is going down; Jessie’s voices are cautioning her to hurry up and try to escape before the grave robber will be back.
With shaking hands, she lifts the glass to the shelf and smashes it. She picks one piece from the broken shards. As she scraps the skin of her wrist against the shard, I grimace and put a hand over Jack’s eyes. “Don’t look!”
The loose skin bunches up around the metal cuff, and as she tugs, the force exposes nerves and sinews.
“Ew!” We both cry and cringe.
And then she’s free, her hand pealed from bone and slick enough to slip out of the cuff.
The scene that hits me comes at the end.
We discover that her creepy night visitor, the Space Cowboy (aka Raymond Andrew Joubert) was real, not just a figment of moonlight from her addled brain. By the end of the film he is arraigned for necrophilia, vandalism, murder, and cannibalism. Jessie walks into court to face him, less scary in the daylight and in a clean orange jumpsuit. Joubert is the physical representation of the men who belittled and abused her, and in his form, she sees her father, and then Gerald. She wants to run, but she faces him down and says, “You’re so much smaller than I remember.”
“That was good,” I say. I am just buzzed enough to risk eye contact with Jack. “She gets what I couldn’t have. Her confidence in that moment is what I wished I had, the power to speak and confront the men who’ve hurt me.”
Jack shakes his head. “Be gentle with yourself. Do not belittle the strength it takes to look down the gun barrel of your trauma every night in practice. All that matters is that you keep fighting, keep going forward. Look where you are now. You are not the same person that stepped on the mat a year ago. I am so damn proud of you.”
I don’t know what to say. “Thank you.”
When I leave, we hug for twenty seconds and I feel safe, safer than I have in a long time.
While it seems counterintuitive to voluntarily produce anxiety and stress, watching horror gives me a weird sort of relief from my own PTSD symptoms. In chats with mental health experts, HuffPost explains that horror can help the chronically anxious. Instead of catastrophizing about the end of the world and the death of everyone I love, I can distract myself with zombie cats, sexy vampires, or slimy aliens. According to Elias Aboujaoude, an author and professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, horror films can also comfort some viewers by confirming their sense that the world is a scary place; for others, like me, horror movies “are a way to place anxieties in a broader spectrum that includes much more severe forms…Paradoxically, horror movies can ‘normalize’ symptoms.” While I might have intense anxiety about being alone in my house at night, I don’t have to worry that the feral children I rescued out of the woods will reconnect with their ghost mother (Mama, 2013).
Watching films creates an environment where I can control the variables of the fight-or-flight response. I can’t control Covid-19, but horror lets me practice some agency over anxiety. I can look away when the ghost mother crawls out of the wall to take the human children back to the woods with her.
Scary movies also function as a kind of exposure therapy. While I often feel unsafe, my amygdala isn’t always right, and watching horror can train my brain to recognize real from perceived dangers. Just because I feel afraid of Annie Wilkes, doesn’t mean that I am in danger of being hobbled and forced to write sappy fiction in her farmhouse.
When Jack turns on his camera for our nightly Netflix party fright, he asks, “What will it be tonight? Contagion?”
“No,” I say, pulling my hood over my head.
“28 Days Later?”
“Hell, no.” We are #shelteringinplace a few blocks apart during the Covid-19 pandemic, and I need a film that’s distracting but won’t play on my current fears.
He’s silent for a moment then suggests Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, reimagined and loosely based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 psychological horror novel by the same name. The Netflix’s adaptation deviates from the book. Hugh Crain and his wife, Olivia, move into Hill House to renovate and sell it. The house-flippers and their five children, Steven, Shirley, Theo, Luke and his twin sister, Nell, slowly become aware that the house is an entity all its own. The house and the ghosts in it impact each family member differently. The family’s time in the house is traumatic not only because the house is haunted but because Olivia commits suicide; the series is an examination of how each family member deals with grief and how trauma continues to impact their daily lives. Jack and I both connect with the theme of trauma having a generational impact and that for us and the characters, healing isn’t linear.
Jack and I hunker down under blankets over screens to share the experience of being afraid of the dark. As the show starts, I ask, “How many people die? Does this have a happy ending?”
“It depends on how you define happy.”
On night three of Hill House, we make it to Episode 4, which focuses on Luke’s experiences in rehab and ongoing PTSD from growing up in a haunted house. In a flashback scene, Olivia finds an old bowler hat in the house. Luke asks if he can have it; later in the episode, the young Luke is woken up by a tapping in the hallway. An enormous elongated man floats down the hall, pulling himself along with his cane.
The ghost of the man in the bowler hat, always with his back turned, follows Luke into adult life, regardless of location or time of day. The man appears on the edge of a basketball court in the afternoon, and around a street corner at night. Luke paces and counts to ground himself, but the figure is still there. He paces away, and the figure floats up behind him, unshakable.
Hill House also explores one of my deepest struggles—that no place, even home, is safe.
All the characters can sense that the house is rotten. Luke spends as much time as possible outside, and when he is attacked in the basement, his father doesn’t believe him.
I was assaulted a block away from my home, and later in my apartment. Even years later, while I have healed in many ways, I still feel safest in the woods, safer than I feel inside with doors that can lock me in as well as keep people out. I ask Jack if he can relate.
“Absolutely. I lack the sentiment and attachment many have to buildings. I believe it’s the result of growing up learning that ‘home’ is not always a safe haven.”
When we finish the series, we both agree that while the end wasn’t exactly what we were expecting, we still love the core story because the writers took the time to explore how each character processed the aftermath of trauma.
Jack says, “The darkness touches them all, haunts them all, impacts them each in different ways.”
We say goodnight, and then Jack wishes me better dreams. “May you dream of riding a rainbow unicorn through your personal forest of the remains of anyone who has ever dared harm or hurt you as I flitter along by your side as your faithful fairy.”
“Wow, these goodnights get better every time.”
“I do what I can.”
We’re two months into quarantine, and Jack’s pixelated face looks nothing like the man I met a year ago. There is a picture on the wall behind Jack which shows him in full uniform after being honorably discharged. I don’t recognize the version of him in the picture, which is maybe how his family feels now, now that he is healing. Now he looks like he’s joined an ashram, with his fluffy curls, trimmed silver beard, permanent bare feet, and bracelets around his wrists. He smiles more, too.
Jack reminds me, as part of our new routine, “You are safe and loved and your anxiety is lying to you.”
In this moment, even in the dark, I believe him.