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Binging Horror Movies Helped Me Through the Numbness of My Grief

Monday, January 03, 2022

By Caroline Leavitt

There were three deaths to deal with in one month alone. I had known my beloved friend Jimmy and his wife since we were teenagers. When they moved from Boston to Manhattan, I moved with them, living blocks away. Jimmy was healthy, slim, and walking his daily 15,000 steps in Manhattan when he had a major heart attack and died.

Just like that.

We were all in shock, and I wrote my first eulogy, weeping with every word.

Two weeks later, my 101-year-old mother-in-law, Gert, was dying upstate, and we went there to help her transition. Bearing witness to someone dying is a different level of grief and a sort of wonder as well. As I sat there holding her hand and talking to her, it didn’t matter when someone said she had had a good, long, life or that she had been so lucky.

All I could focus on was that she wasn’t going to be here with me much longer. My whole self was cracking open because even as I gently told her that she could let go, I wanted more than anything for her to stay.

A week after that was the anniversary of my mother’s death, which also heralded my sister’s estranging herself from the family and particularly from me, whom she now considered dead to her. Two losses in one, and I couldn’t bear either one.

I couldn’t write.

I couldn’t eat.

I couldn’t sleep.

I sat at my computer staring at the words. I tried to exercise and failed. But what worried me the most was that I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t feel.

I certainly knew about grief. I had lost a fiancé two weeks before our wedding. I had lost a baby in utero at four months. I knew that every grief is different, that there are no rules for sorrow. But I had always been able to cry, to get release from my tears.

This time, though, my grief felt like too much.

I tried to read, hoping that might get me to cry. Instead, I felt more depleted, more abandoned.

I don’t know why I put on a horror movie. I’m a scaredy-cat, believing that wolves live in our basement, that my nightmares are real, that ghosts can come in the house (I leave all the lights on all night long and snuff them out only in bright daylight).

I was laughing, almost delighted, because I felt something that wasn’t raw grief. Yes, something terrible had happened, but it hadn’t happened to me, and that seemed like progress.

But I felt so numb that I thought maybe I could watch something. At the very least, it would kill grief time.

I put on Oxygen, a movie about a woman trapped in a pod with decreasing levels of oxygen and disembodied voices around her. It held my interest, which I saw as a plus, so I graduated to a series of horror shorts called Smiling Woman. A woman at an open subway station, alone at night, is anxiously waiting for a train. Another woman standing opposite her on the other side of the track is barefoot and smiling, in a screamingly yellow dress.

I felt my usual slump of sorrow becoming energized by terror. The smiling woman begins sending ominous texts, getting closer and closer until the fabulously scary ending. I was laughing, almost delighted, because I felt something that wasn’t raw grief. Yes, something terrible had happened, but it hadn’t happened to me, and that seemed like progress.

Of course, I began watching more horror. These films echoed my anxieties about how life worked — or didn’t work. My friend Jimmy was healthy, so why did he die? Why did the baby I was carrying die when I had done everything right, even giving up eating chocolate? Why didn’t my mother-in-law die easily in her sleep instead of gasping for breath for days?

There are no answers.

But, in horror films, unlike real life, there always seems to be a reason for what happens. You’re told not to go in the dark basement, but you go anyway. You’re alone at night and don’t even think to call a cab but instead keep walking. Or that smiling creepy woman grins at you and you don’t immediately call 911. In other words, you create some of the horror so you can fix it. There’s actually hope!

I next watched Midsommar. The star, captive in a terrifying cult (one, I must note, to which she willingly went all on her own) is screaming and crying in fear, but all the other girls in the cult surround her and scream and cry to her, along with her. There is something very comforting about others understanding and sharing your pain. I know I felt comforted watching it. She wasn’t alone! There was a hint that she would be okay, albeit still in a cult, but that seemed to be her choice.

Then I watched The Blair Witch Project, a movie in which every character’s demise is one that could have been prevented. At first, that upset me, but then I realized there is still a survivor in that film: me. Not only could I turn it off and step away, but what happened in the movie couldn’t happen to me! I wouldn’t get into a situation like that, because the moment someone suggested looking for a witch in the woods, I would wave goodbye to them and go home.

I don’t know what happens after death. But horror movies offer plot lines that suggest possibility. You could end up in Hell, but you could also end up escaping and even being alive again. Yes, there is a body count in horror films, but there are always, always survivors. People who fight and survive and even win. And that made me feel better.

Maybe, at least for me, my grief right now is like the proverbial monster hiding in the basement: always there, waiting and watching, ready to spring. And in watching horror movies, I can actually be in the dark with that monster. Experiencing that raw terror, I can release my own sorrow, my anxiety, and my dread, even if just for the running time. I can survive. And sometimes, that can be enough.


Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You, Cruel Beautiful World, and With or Without You. She is currently watching horror movies nonstop.