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Confessions of a reformed scaredy cat

How I learned to stop worrying and love the horror genre

Janet Leigh’s iconic scream in Psycho Photo: Paramount Pictures

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I remember sitting on my little sister’s bed when I was nine. She and I took turns reading scary stories to each other in the golden light of the setting autumn sun.

Once dusk had settled, my sister triumphantly pulled a book out of her backpack: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Stephen Gammell’s black-and-white illustrations were already burned into my brain from staring at the cover at my school library. I’d never been brave enough to pick it up.

I looked at the book in my sister’s hands, light-headed from how fast my heart was pounding. She opened the cover and began to read and I loved it. That feeling, the adrenaline rush. Being scared engendered a closeness between my sister and I, two very different people who clashed often. We screamed and laughed together, checked her overflowing toy chest for monsters together, hid together when we thought we heard a noise.

On another late fall afternoon, a storyteller held an after hours event, when the familiar halls of our elementary school took on an eerie, unfamiliar light in the sunset, to tell folklore-y tales about fishermen and washerwomen and orphans. There was enough supernatural influence to entertain, but not enough to offend any religious listeners. I was bored — until “Click Click Drag.” (Just typing those words still sends a tiny shiver down my spine.)

Cover art for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Illustration: Stephen Gammell/Harper & Row

The gist is this: A young girl asks if she can go to her friend’s house after school. Her mom agrees, but insists that she be home before dark. She loses track of time and the sun is setting as she walks home. She hears something behind her, it sounds like “” She speeds up. So does the sound. Turning around, she sees a man’s torso, carried along on long fingernails that have been filed down to sharp spikes. She sprints the final few yards to her house and starts pounding on the door. This next part is confusing — some confusion has convinced her parents she’d already returned home and was studying upstairs. The point is that they ignore the pounding and the young woman never makes it inside. In the morning, her parents find her heart staked to a tree in the front yard underneath a note written in blood saying, “Thank you for not opening the door. Signed, Click Click Drag.”

I barely slept that night. I lay on my bottom bunk, eyes wide open. When I finally did fall into a fitful sleep, it was riddled with nightmares.

My parents were outraged with the school. I got the impression that I wasn’t the only kid traumatized by this story. But the terror felt personal. That little campfire tale settled in a corner of my little brain and left me terrified of scary stories for the next decade. I never read a Scary Stories book with my sister again.

I was forever the horror baby.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself (and clowns)

Being a scaredy cat became a personality quirk. I was so freaked out just watching the trailer for Wes Craven’s Red Eye that I talked to my middle school guidance counselor about it. I read Harry Potter alone in another room instead of watching The Ring with my cousins during a family beach trip. I pouted and sulked at my own Halloween party because my friends strong-armed me into watching Friday the 13th. When my friends wanted to watch the It miniseries, I looked away the whole time, twisting my body around the arm of the crowded couch so that I could stare at the wall.

The thing about seeing yourself as a horror baby is that you really do convince yourself that you’re scared of everything. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that has wide-reaching applications. I wasn’t just scared of horror movies, I also panicked when someone suggested telling scary stories at sleepovers. (I insisted on playing Truth or Dare or Never Have I Ever instead.) I flatly refused to go to any sort of spooky attraction, even though some of my friends worked at the local haunted house for most of our teenage years.

Pennwise holds a bunch of balloons Photo: Warner Bros.

When I talk to people who don’t like scary movies today, they can usually point to something they’re afraid of. “I don’t do well with jump scares,” or “I’m really scared of devil stuff.” But what it all comes down to, I think, is being scared of being scared. (Maybe Roosevelt was onto something.) I was worried something would stick in my head the way that scary story I heard in elementary school did. I wanted to avoid that feeling of lying in bed, listening for the sounds of click, click, drag coming down my hallway.

In a 2018 article, The Cut interviewed several experts in the field of psychology and fear to find out why some people seek out scary experiences while others avoid them entirely. Many of them pointed to a natural inclination towards heightened emotions, but that didn’t seem quite right to me. I loved roller coasters and melodrama — I just couldn’t handle psychological fears. Margee Kerr, sociologist and author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear put forth another possibility that seemed to fit.

She explained that our early associations with scary stories can affect how we view them later. “If we start tying scary things to friends, family, it comes together in this full picture of this is entertaining, this is a fun thing that we do,” she told The Cut. “If, on the other hand, you never really had a reason to build that mental bridge between fear and fun, then taking in a scary movie just supplies you with the fear, and not the pleasure of warm and fuzzy memories to temper it.”

The good news, though, is that associations with scary stories can be changed if we want to change them. Kerr and her colleagues released a study in the psychology journal Emotion, which found that voluntarily engaging in something that scares you can actually make it fun. Just like you go to the gym to get buff, you can watch scary movies to become a horror buff.

FOMO > FOSM (Fear of Scary Movies)

I wish I could say that I modeled Kerr’s study and decided to start watching scary movies because I wanted to grow up and face my fears. The truth is, I was perfectly happy to go through life as a horror baby. But in young adulthood, I found something that scared me more: FOMO, the fear of missing out.

The first time I made the active choice to watch a scary movie rather than be left out, I was 19 and on summer break. My high school boyfriend and I had gone off to different colleges after graduation and were trying to maintain a long-distance relationship. He was home for a week and I wanted to spend as much time with him as possible. I was outraged when he told me that we had been invited to see a horror movie with his friends and he wanted to go. Grumpily, I agreed.

The movie was The Cabin in the Woods. I was dreading it. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s 2011 film is full of exactly the kind of atmospheric chills and gory deaths I’d been avoiding. Teens are chased through the woods by a “zombie redneck torture family” and gruesomely murdered with rusty instruments. It’s both an homage and a satire of the entire slasher genre, so there were plenty of references that went right over my head. I loved it.

A bloodied Fran Kranz wields a telescoping bong as a weapon in The Cabin in the Woods Photo: Lionsgate

I didn’t know horror movies could be funny! I didn’t know they could have a distinct point of view! I didn’t know that I could enjoy the feeling of being scared when surrounded by people who were also scared! It was a watershed moment for me, a feeling of total and absolute relief as I realized that not only could I get through a horror movie, I could enjoy it. That night, I was a little spooked as I lay in bed, but it was nothing like the sleepless terror I’d been expecting.

It would be a few more years before I started exploring the genre in earnest and shed the horror baby label once and for all, but just the idea that I could handle watching a scary movie with friends excited me. It took a little peer pressure (and a lot of internal freaking out) but I could do it!

The difference between that moment and all of my friends’ previous attempts to make me watch scary movies is that I actively chose to go to the movies. I could have stayed home and no one would have blamed me. They knew I was a horror baby! Just like Kerr’s study indicates, choosing to do something scary actually made it fun for me. The fact that I only did it because I wanted to be included didn’t matter. What matters is that I made that choice.

I stopped being a scaredy cat (and you can too)

As a reformed scaredy cat who now watches a lot of horror — not to mention someone who’s building a career out of telling people what to watch — horror-averse friends will sometimes ask me to suggest horror movies for them. I’ll usually ask questions about what they like and don’t like in movies, and offer a few staples. Get Out and Halloween (both the original and the 2018 remake) tend to be good entry points. The Wicker Man if they’re down for weird.

But really I think that more important than what you’re watching is how you’re watching it.

In their podcast miniseries The Scaredy Cats Horror Show, horror fan Alex Goldman tries to help his cohost, avowed scaredy cat PJ Vogt, get into horror. (Goldman and Vogt are best known as the hosts of the excellent podcast Reply All.) Goldman tells Vogt that he has to watch the movie alone, in the dark, without looking at his phone or otherwise being distracted. While that might make good fodder for podcast banter, with all due respect to Goldman I think that’s terrible advice for actually diving into horror as a genre.

The masked Michael Myers in the 2018 film Halloween, looking quite haggard and glancing to the right. Image: Universal Pictures

I started loving horror because I loved the experience of watching a scary movie with my friends. I loved screaming at the same time and I loved being made fun of for jumping and I loved talking about the best moments after the credits. I got back the feeling of reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark with my sister.

That’s not to say things don’t still stick around in my brain the way “Click, Click, Drag” did. After watching It Follows, for weeks I avoided rooms with only one exit. I still don’t watch horror movies alone, I don’t like haunted houses, and I can’t watch anything with clowns or sharks. But my brain now has context for those fears. When they show up I can categorize them as the result of something scary I watched, take some deep breaths, and go to sleep.

So, my advice to current horror babies is to stick together. Gather (safely) with friends and pick out something that scares you. (There are lots of apps that will let you watch movies together online!) If you need to leave the lights on or go “get a drink from the kitchen” to take a break, go for it. Keep doing this until the idea of watching a horror movie goes from terrifying to thrilling. Eventually you’ll be able to talk about horror movies like any other movie, dissecting directorial choices and praising individual performances.

Or just keep reading the Wikipedia summaries. You do you, baby.