I was in graduate school when I realized the importance of having a Designated Horror Friend. I spent a lot of time in creative-writing workshops, moderating my tone to sound “productive” while offering my peers feedback on their work. We were all careful with one another, but a layer of brutality ran just below the surface, an implicit understanding that sometimes calling a classmate’s story “interesting” meant you actually thought it was trash. Our politeness kept the program from descending into violence, but it sometimes left me craving a more honest, instinctual response.
One thing that helped keep me sane was horror cinema. Horror is a natural companion to the experimental fiction that I love – Clarice Lispector, Renata Adler, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce – in the sense of its belief that beneath ordinary reality lies a second and darker layer of existence. In these films, mood is not subservient to message: The mood is the message, working to disperse the sedative haze of the everyday. Not everyone in the program was receptive to this point of view.
Horror deniers often claim there’s nothing emotionally valuable in the experience of being frightened. I disagree.
So it meant something to me when a classmate named Angie suggested that we meet up to see “Let the Right One In” at the second-run movie theater in town. It was not a natural pick for a friend date: huddling together in the dark and watching the story of a child-size vampire ensnaring a young boy into emotional slavery. Even the theater was strange, its lobby full of humming, buzzing, life-size animatronics you had to walk past to get to the box office.
But Angie seemed excited, and I said yes, trying not to let myself hope that this would be more than a one-time thing. After getting our tickets, we settled in with cheap popcorn and soda, and as the lights dimmed in the theater, Angie leaned over and whispered in my ear about a “Twin Peaks” -themed Halloween party they were planning to throw and a classic slasher movie we should watch together soon. I saw the future unspool before me: more frightening, less lonely.
A lot of people hate horror movies, but I do not. In fact, I frequently find myself strong-arming my friends and loved ones into watching something scarier than they would prefer, just for the company. It’s a difference of philosophy as much as a difference in taste. Horror deniers often claim there’s nothing emotionally valuable in the experience of being frightened. I disagree. When I first watched “The Last Unicorn” (a horror movie masquerading as a children’s cartoon) at age 8, the image of a naked harpy devouring a witch was burned into my brain, but so was the realization that the conditions that created the harpy also allowed for the unicorn. The existence of horror is inevitably proximate to the existence of wondrous possibility.
Meeting another person who loves horror as much as I do, then, is like meeting a fellow traveler from my home country while stuck somewhere distant and strange. There is a shiver of recognition, a sense of immediate union. Of course, I can watch horror movies by myself – and I frequently do, because my husband does not like them – but choosing to be scared with another person means choosing to be vulnerable together, which creates a bond that can not be replicated any other way.
Angie and I built our friendship on horror cinema of all types and quality, from David Cronenberg to David Lynch to every installment of “The Purge.” We cringed at the body horror in “Goodnight Mommy” (lips sealed with superglue; a cockroach crawling into someone’s mouth) and celebrated when Florence Pugh’s bad boyfriend in “Midsommar” was burned alive inside a bear. But it was not just the movies that we loved. It was the fact that when we watched them together, our mutual appreciation amplified their strength. Horror movies articulate that the world is horrible and that the most horrible thing of all is simply that we are alive and fragile and bound for death. There is no protection from this, no other way out of this life. People you love will get sick – maybe you will. Violence will be done by charismatic strangers and, worse still, by lovers and friends. But sharing that understanding with someone makes the world, perhaps paradoxically, less scary. You can’t undo what is terrible about the universe, but you can stand against it together.
Recently I was outside exercising when my dog started barking by the back gate. I looked up and saw a man in a black ski mask standing in my backyard, by my bicycle – an image simultaneously so legible (man, mask) and incomprehensible (stranger; why?) That my mind went blank. The man noticed me staring and gave a casual wave before strolling to the fence and jumping over.
There are places in the world where reality bends: dark alleys, calls from unknown numbers, a sudden face where a face should not be. These are tropes in horror fiction for a reason, and one of them had just appeared in my yard. I was vulnerable, and never had this fact been clearer to me. But strange to say, I found it as exhilarating as scary. Perhaps because I’d been preparing for this moment my whole life, and because I knew that I was not alone; because someone had been preparing with me.
I ran inside, and after my husband and I called the police, I called Angie.
Adrienne Celt is the author of “The Daughters,” “Invitation to a Bonfire” and, most recently, “End of the World House.”