THE STRUGGLE OF SURVIVAL: Horror Films and Real Life Recovery

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There’s a lot of dying in horror films.  A Lot of dying.  Even if there isn’t a single death in a horror movie, we can safely assume a great deal of the horror comes from the fear of dying.  For the most part, the comfort we feel as an audience member is either when our final girl triumphantly survives her masked killer, or the swift relief of a tortured soul finally exiting their pain by leaving the mortal world.  While we are completely entangled in the lives of these characters for the 90-120 minutes we share with them on screen, we quickly leave them at the theater once the credits start to roll.  While it isn’t uncommon for the characters we see on screen and the stories they tell to resonate with us long after we turn off the film, we’d be somewhat certifiable if we genuinely cared about what happens AFTER the story ends to these characters.  After all, they’re not real.  Sally Hardesty in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE has clearly lost it, but how often do we consider the tragic and traumatizing life she’s going to lead having survived it all?

One of the things that I admire most about Icons of Fright is the encouragement to write about how horror affects us personally.  For those unaware, I’ve been spending the last year fighting pancreatic cancer. I’ve written about it a lot before and perhaps many of you have grown weary of hearing me talk about it.  Unfortunately, this is a huge part of my life, and the decisions I make from here on out are going to have to take my cancer into account.  Similarly to the way having a child makes you view killer kid/child deaths in films completely differently, surviving cancer has completely changed the way I view those that survive horror films.

the_house_of_the_devil_18Right now my recovery can best be described as a Fisher Price “My First Cronenberg” script.  Thanks to a stitch-n-bitched gastrointestinal tract, missing organs, radiation fall out, chemo pills, a hormonal imbalance that makes wage disparity seem even, an ever-changing cocktail of pain medications (of varying strengths), and the bodily changes that go along with it all…I’m constantly and unpredictably changing.  My brain doesn’t work the way it used to, and I have to actively solve brain teasers and puzzles every day just to make sure I can still make coherent sentences.  My vocabulary has been cut in half and sometimes my brain legitimately forgets what syntax is.  I’ll think about a phrase for ten minutes before remembering it’s said, “I need to do laundry” and not “Need laundry to do?”  The worst part about it all? I’m 100% aware my shit is haywire.  This isn’t like having memory problems where you’re unable to tell what you’re doing is wrong, I am 100% aware that my brain isn’t working right.  I remember what it feels like to watch a film and have thousands upon thousands of words to express myself with and at the same time I’ll look at the words “affect” and “effect” and cry because no matter how hard I try, I can’t remember how to use which one for which scenario.  Of course, I can open up Google like any other idiot and figure it out for me, but it’s the fact that my brain doesn’t work the way it used to that horrifies me.

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Mind aside, my body feels like a warzone.  I’m covered in scars that Greg Nicotero would use as makeup inspiration, I have so many track marks from injections and testing that I could easily be mistaken for a junkie, the follicles on my head are so damaged from treatments that my hair continues to fall out daily, and now that my hormonal tumor has been removed my body is essentially going through puberty again (meaning my face is breaking out and my chest is growing).  My insides are now on an entirely new tract, so I have days where I constantly feel as if they’re being wrung out like a wet towel.  Some days are better than others, but there is literally nothing I can do to plan ahead and try to make things easier.  Every day feels like a step into page 1 of the next CONTRACTED, THE THING, or THE FLY.  It comes out of nowhere, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do to stop it.

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I’ve written plenty about how horror has been therapeutic for me as I face my own mortality, but I haven’t really addressed how my interpretation of these films has completely changed.  I find myself increasingly worried about what happens after the credits roll.  For example, I recently exposed my best friend of over a decade to Ricky Bates’ masterpiece, EXCISION.  (HERE’S YOUR SPOILER ALERT) I knew how it ended, I knew what was going to happen, and yet I found myself choking back tears as Traci Lords screamed while clutching to her sobbing daughter.  Pauline is going to go to the looney bin (if not jail). Mom is going to live with her resentful husband who will leave her, and they now have a dead kid! Jumprope girl’s family just lost a daughter. All because Pauline had a problem that they never sought out to really fix. ALL OF THEIR LIVES ARE RUINED FOREVER.  Why do I care about this? These aren’t real people, this is a movie!

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Like Emily Dickinson’s famous poem, “I like a look of Agony, Because I know it’s true.”  Fear and sorrow are emotions that remain universal, and I find myself caring so much about these characters because at the heart of every horror film is something very real.  The fear that the person we love isn’t who we thought they were like in HONEYMOON, or the fact that there’s something growing inside of us that we cannot control like HOUSE OF THE DEVIL.  Or, our bodies are morphing into something alien and we can do nothing about it, like in THE THING…or when we have cancer.  It’s probably unhealthy for me to invest as much time as I do worrying about the aftermath of fictional characters in horror films, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it has helped me when dealing with my own trauma.

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And then there’s the worst of it all: guilt.  Survivor’s guilt is a very, very real thing and something that I unfortunately deal with…poorly.  With the exception of Sidney Prescott in the SCREAM series and a few others, we don’t really ever see the horrid truth that is “all of my friends and loved ones died and I’m still here” despite having movie after movie after movie of everyone close to our heroes dying.  Hell, there’s even a song in EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL! dedicated to how every man that has ever come close to Annie has been “killed by Candarian demons.”  My cancer boasts a 4% survival rate, and there are days where I am filled with overwhelming guilt because I can name at least a dozen people off the top of my head that have died from the very same disease.  I know why Nancy Thompson cries, and it’s an awful and overwhelming feeling.

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I think what keeps me inside these stories for so long is that deep down it’s coming from a very real pain.  Whether its a response to a real life event or a fascination with something that exists in nature, or emulating something out of a nightmare, horror films are inspired by things that are real sources for real pain for someone out there.  I’m scared of how my life is now. I wake up every day scared if I’m going to get a call from the doctor and get bad news. I’m scared that the financial damage I’ve done to my family just to survive is going to be too much for any of us to get out from under it. I’m scared that while I’m alive, I’m never going to be able to live.  And while Parker O’Neil may have gotten to go home and feed her dog after the events of FROZEN, I take solace knowing that she’s just as scared as I am.

And for a moment, I feel okay.

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2 Responses to “THE STRUGGLE OF SURVIVAL: Horror Films and Real Life Recovery”
  1. This is incredible. I am sorry for the pain that you are going through because of the unpredictability of cancer. I know to some degree what it feels like to have your body constantly fail you. Over the last year I had to a polyp on my uterus removed, a gallstone the size of a plum removed, back to back kidney stones, the possibility of having to indure a root canal, and now the chance of infertility after trying for a baby for over three years. It sucks so incredibly much. I just want my body to work right for once, which I am sure you can relate to.

    Keep on with your amazingly written words. You are an inspiration to us all.

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