Why I don’t watch horror films
How a childhood obsession with scary movies shaped my writing about fear
When I was five or six, I became obsessed with scary movies. I watched as many as I could. Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho, Poltergeist, Fright Night, Halloween, Sleepaway Camp, Children of the Corn, Day of the Dead, Pet Sematary, The Exorcist. I stayed up late on weekends to watch Tales of the Darkside, Tales of the Crypt, Werewolf, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone.
What it was that attracted me to the gore and terror that kept me up at night and made me cover me eyes and scream, or hide my face in my brother’s shoulder. Maybe I was trying to prove to myself that things weren’t as bad as I thought.
So what mom beat and neglected me.
So what I had to tiptoe around her, never sure what mood she was in, when she was going to reel into rage or crying fits, or completely ignore me.
So what the perverted next door neighbor showed me that the same coarse white hair that sprouted in tufts from his head, ears and the top of his button down shirts, also sprouted between his legs.
Things could be so much worse.
I could be hunted by Jason or Freddy Crueger.
I could be possessed by the devil.
I could be haunted by the various pet dogs that we’d buried over the years in the backyard. I imagined them clawing themselves out of their wormy graves. Their mangy skin hung off their bodies in swaths. An eye was always missing. Their teeth were always sharp and snarled.
There were places in the underworld and here on earth where things were really bad. I had to be grateful. And I tried to be. Lord knows I tried.
But, at night, when the lights were out and I could hear mom snoring through the door and my sister talking in her sleep in her top bunk, I trembled with fear.
I saw and heard things. A shadow in my peripheral vision. The scratch and skitter of the kitten sized rats from the junkyard next door that managed to get into our apartment every night, no matter how many holes mom found and shoved brillo pads into.
At first, I cried and knocked on my mom and second mom Millie’s bedroom door. Sometimes mom came out to comfort me. She said nothing was coming to get me, and showed me there was nothing under the bed, in the closet or the washing machine. I still shook hard and begged her to let me sleep with her. She blamed me for watching all those horror movies and shows. “Bueno que te pase.” Then she’d put me to bed and slam the door.
Sometimes my brother woke up and comforted me. He let me crawl into bed with him, wrapped me tight with a blanket and rocked me, but he fell asleep quickly, and I’d just start crying again.
My sister screamed at me from the top bunk, called me a baby and told me to shut the hell up.
It got so bad that I was forbidden from watching any more of “esas malditas películas.” I didn’t listen, and everyone started sleeping right through my crying fits.
I prayed. Begged God to save me. Protect me. “Don’t let the demons get me, please.” I wrang my hands so hard they ached in the morning.
I promised I’d be a good girl. I’d help mom more. I wouldn’t tease the nerd Caroline at school. I’d stop fighting with Marlene and her crew. I wouldn’t yank Melissa, my frenemy from the block, by her hair. I wouldn’t scuff my sneakers or play in the dirt. I’d keep my dresses neat and clean. I’d do anything. Just, por favor diosito, please, protect me.
But still, every night, for years, I whimpered into my pillow and shook with fear. I felt that fear in my chest and my stomach. It was like my insides were being choked with heat that tore into my throat and choked me. I gasped for air, but nothing came out. Just tears that wet my pillow and my nightgown.
I was convinced something or someone was going to come get me, cut me open so my insides spilled out. They would make me watch as they killed my family one by one. They’d leave our blood and guts strewn on the walls.
I convinced myself that the demons only came at night. That as long as the sun was out, they couldn’t come get me. So I’d lie in my bed, staring through our railroad style apartment, out into the pitch black back yard. If I dozed off, I startled awake, my heart pounding, body shaking.
I was six. Seven. Eight.
I didn’t let myself sleep until I saw dawn creep into the backyard. Only then would I drift off to sleep…only then did I have peace.
Until the following night, when my ritual of terror and desperately wringing my hands began again.
an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat."he is prey to irrational fears"
be afraid of (someone or something) as likely to be dangerous, painful, or threatening."farmers fear that they will lose business"
I’ve been writing about fear for a long time. The thing is because fear is an emotion I’ve felt so often, I tended to gloss over it, summarize it or skim over the details. Writing like this offers no surprise, no tension, no feelings for readers. I want my readers to feel what I felt when I was staring down the length of our apartment to the window leading to the backyard, willing the sun to rise. I want them to feel the grip of terror that made me tremble and cry and pray so hard and so desperately, I can still feel the pain in my hands when I remember. I want my reader to feel like they’re in that room, feeling all that anxiety with me. So what did I do? I read. I practiced techniques I learned from the writers I read. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I was obsessive.
I created the online Writing Fear Class to share some techniques I use to write fear. We’ll look at how writers like Melissa Febos, Kiese Laymon and Patricia Smith write about fear, because learning techniques and approaches from other writers’ work, and using what you learn in your own writing, is a good thing. The texts are read for the purpose of studying the author’s craft, or the way the author uses words and structures the writing. The goal is to provide students a model they can emulate in crafting their own pieces.
When: May 25th, 7-9pm EST
How much: $30 suggested donation
Registration & Inquiries: email@example.com
This is the last class in the All In My Feelings Series.
If you missed a class (Writing Grief, Joy, Rage), you can have access (for two weeks) to the private video for $40. Message me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In June, I’m launching the For the Love of Craft Series starting on June 1st with “Writing Fiction from Real Life”.
If you have a craft class you’d like to see me facilitate, let me know! I’m open to suggestions.
Finally, if you’ve enjoyed my classes, my writing, this newsletter, please share them with your people. I appreciate you.