How horror films are getting me through COVID

COVID Horror Films "Midsommar" and its perfectly, comfortingly trapped protagonist -- an avatar for how we feel during quarantine.

Six months into COVID and the other anxieties of 2020, the apocalyptic cloak of horror might just be what we need to weather them.

2020 has been, in a word, horrifying. There’s political upheaval, nightmarish unemployment, and a literal pandemic ravaging the world. In times like these, there’s a persistent belief that when we turn to media, comfort food is our balm for the soul. Something like the warm hug of Jonathan Van Ness’s playful squeal or the glistening of butter on a hot cross bun in the GBBO tent. We need The Office, dammit! No matter how many times we’ve seen it before! But for some strange reason, I’ve found myself drawn to an unlikely source instead: horror films.

It’s especially unlikely for me because I’ve spent most of my movie-going life actively avoiding horror. In fact, I’d only indulge under two specific circumstances. The first being the month of October, because I love Halloween and am deeply committed to the holiday, my fear be damned. The second being when certain films garnered a level of buzz that made them impossible to ignore. 

Films like Midsommar or Get Out were huge parts of the film discourse and their relevance outweighed the fear. But outside of that? Let’s just say I had no interest in squirming in agony on my couch on a regular Wednesday after work.

COVID Horror Films
“Repulsion”

Then quarantine hit and everything that used to fill my days disappeared. I’m not what you’d call a homebody, to put it mildly. I’ve always fed on the change of scenery and the energy of others, so to suddenly be confined to my house 24/7, a dissonance began to form between myself and the media I consumed. I was lonely and cut off from all my regular respites. This was an alien kind of loneliness and so almost subconsciously, I started seeking things out that mirrored my feelings of isolation.

So I turned to outer space, the loneliest and most distant place you can go. I put on Alien and Event Horizon. But that didn’t scratch the itch I was looking for. So I started to look for films that I knew would disturb me.

It started with fun jump-scare-laden fodder like Crawl, then the morbid transcendence of Silence of the Lambs. But it didn’t fully click until I put on Repulsion with a total disregard for its specific subject matter. I told my partner what I planned to watch and I still remember his stammered reply, “Uh… are you sure you want to watch that?” I shrugged him off. I’d always meant to see it, why not now! 

Commence 106 minutes of a woman confined to her apartment while slowly losing her mind in a swirl of sexual violence and aggression. I texted him after it ended, “I’VE MADE A TINY HUGE MISTAKE.”

This was an alien kind of loneliness and so almost subconsciously, I started seeking things out that mirrored my feelings of isolation.

But I hadn’t. I’d put on exactly what I’d needed to. 

It tapped directly into all of my stir-crazy feelings and external fears. And ultimately, it’s the mirroring of these feelings that’s such an important process. When our hearts break, we have the sad-song playlist ready at our fingertips. We dust off films we’ve designated as devastating sob fests. We press on our pain in a way that makes us ache, yes, but it’s also validating our feelings. It is directly reassuring us that others have felt this way, too. Because most of all, we hate to feel deserted at our lowest. So we turn to movies not only keep us company, but to cry with us. 

But I’ve always been good at finding mirrors for sadness. Fear, however… that’s a different beast. It’s an emotion we only tend to explore when we already feel safe. That’s what makes the fright so delicious. It’s not about tackling our fears, it’s about dancing around the edges of them. It’s about flirting with the fear when we’re certain we’re far from harm. Just some spooky ghost stories that dissipate as soon as you turn on the light. But now in 2020, fear is ubiquitous. It’s around every corner and being locked in our homes only exacerbates it.

We’re afraid of getting sick. That our family or friends will get sick. That they could die. We’re afraid of the police violence in our streets. We’re afraid of losing our jobs or that we’ll never find a new one. We’re afraid our election will be compromised or that our postal service will stop functioning, preventing us from voting at all. We’re afraid the world will literally never look anything like what we’ve known. We don’t know what tomorrow holds so all we can do is mourn it all in an endless today. 

For me, these feelings are also competing with a new one—an angrier, almost survivalist instinct that’s been pushing me in all sorts of strange directions. I now realize it’s been part of the unconscious and almost animalistic instinct driving me toward horror.

That instinct recently peaked when I finally decided to watch The Strangers, a film I’ve been specifically and explicitly avoiding for over a decade. It combines my greatest fears in one terrible package: senseless, inexplicable (yet realistic) violence, home invasion, and also extremely upsetting masks (The burlap!). I even watched it while house sitting, a setting I knew would only heighten the fear. It was honestly one of the scariest viewing experiences of my life. And as I watched, I kept asking why do this to myself? Why watch what only upsets me?

Because it was the only safe avenue to explore the feeling that’s been overwhelming me in my day to day reality. It’s a chance to play in the space with my fears and allow myself to be completely overwhelmed by them. I can jump and scream and let the panic wash over me without crumpling into an unmovable heap on the floor.

But more importantly, I can do this with complete freedom because I’m almost always watching these movies alone. There’s no one to erupt in laughter at a scene that petrifies me, no one to roll their eyes when I start to shrink behind a pillow.

And that’s what I think we all need in this moment: a space to validate our fears, not push them aside. What other outlet do we have to do this, especially in the lonely lives we lead in quarantine? It’s the perfect way to experience all the fear from the day we’ve been holding onto. Once we do, there’s a beautiful release of tension. Our shoulders can relax. We let go of our breath. It’s the way to give yourself permission to not “grin and bear it.” 

When we’re sad and overwhelmed, we can cry. But I don’t know that I’ve ever really known what to do when I’m so deeply afraid so consistently. Now I do.

I can scream.

So, if you’re someone who has always been too scared to turn to horror, to really give in to it, but has been constantly butting up against the list of things to fear in life? Then I suggest turning off the comfort food and letting in the dark.

Granted, I take zero responsibility for nightmares.

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