I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies after my assault.
This surprises people, women in particular — horror as a genre is so overrun with male fears and fantasies that it’s almost impossible to separate the human desire to feel fear in a safe, contained environment from allyship with the male fear narrative. They are conflated. Empirically, depending on how broad the range of movies you watch, they can be identical. Because in the same way that a nearly all-male literary canon shapes our personal narratives, male identity also shapes our fears and our perceptions of what should be feared.
I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies after my assault. Not immediately after; immediately after I lied in bed (I always forget the correct verb. Chickens lay. Chickens lay. If I’m scared, then, what do I do?) through the entirety of the L Word and drank too much and went out too much and walked around with my fists clenched and experienced the internet with my internet-fists clenched — everything made me jumpy and defensive and my base anxiety level was basically terrible. I yelled at a lot of men on Facebook and then hid in my room.
I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies after my assault. It might have started with Lucia Peters’ series Scare Yourself Silly on The Toast. I read it and something clicked and something previously-clenched relaxed and the next time someone recommended a horror movie I watched it instead of saying “I hate horror movies.” It was Pontypool and it was about language in a ridiculously interesting way and it passed the Bechdel Test and suddenly I was super into this thing I’d assumed was 24/7 Violence Against Imaginary Women. I had not even imagined that “horror” could mean something else, and when I realized my mistake, I was hooked.
I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies after my assault. This regular exposure to fear in a controlled setting was a slow but effective cure. I watched. I read. I walked around my apartment with the lights off and didn’t panic and I made it home most nights without imagining shadows creeping behind me, which I regularly imagined even though out-of-the-bushes isn’t how assault happens for most women, and it hadn’t been for me.
I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies after my assault. A friend of mine got robbed once: a robber climbed in through his first floor window and demanded his wallet and had, in my recollection, some sort of weapon. A gun? A knife? My friend got out of bed to give the robber his wallet. My friend is six feet and some inches tall. The robber saw his height and was like OMG SORRY BYE and went back out the window. What are horror movies like for you, friend? What are your nightmares?
I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies after my assault. Where are the male ghosts? Our horror canon is a flat landscape of male serial killers and female revenge ghosts. What do men seek revenge for? What archetypes do women want to murder? Julien Maury, director of French horror film Inside, said, “The first idea with the story was to change the sex of the killer. In horror movies it’s always a guy chasing after young girls; it’s one of the clichés of the genre. So the first main idea was changing the identity of the bad guy. We wondered, what was the motivation for a woman to hunt another woman?” It didn’t occur to him to change the gender of the victim.
I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies after my assault. Around Halloween, I didn’t think I could handle going to a haunted house so I watched a movie about one. A found-footage style documentary, it contained interviews with haunted house-goers about why they go and why they want to fear. Shocking no one, the clips showed mostly men and the men said mostly things like I JUST WANT TO FEEL and what they wanted to feel was fear — a strange, alien emotion to them and such an annoying, common, always-there part of my daily life. I keep re-reading this last sentence and seeing the word “cloying.” Fear is cloying, too; it’s like a cheap, terrible candle that’s been lit in a room you can’t leave. What is fear like when it’s not this?
I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies after my assault. When they’re not depicting women being simultaneously sexualized and murdered, our horror movies tend to focus on things that are frightening specifically to men — there is a lot of weird fear-of-woman, fear-of-vagina, fear-of-birth going on, and almost every single ghost is a rape revenge ghost or a domestic violence revenge ghost, which is a confusing type of ghost because ideally ghosts are villains. To make the horror experience work, to provide you with this safe, satisfying dose of fear, the ghosts must be the villains. Yet when these revenge narratives are written by men and directed by men, the horror experience is that of the man describing his own personal fear of a revenge ghost. What’s supposed to be scary is that your human actions, as a man, can cause such a ghost to come after you. As a woman, it is difficult to find horror movies horrifying when the ghost has a very good fucking point. Team Revenge Ghost.
I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies after my assault. One evening was devoted entirely to pizza and scary pranks on Youtube. A scary prank is to trap women in the back of a cab and then later put on a werewolf mask. A better scary prank would be to trap a man in a woman’s body in the back of a cab. Men go to haunted houses to experience the kind of fear that is a woman’s lived experience.
I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies after my assault. I also love creepypasta. The best and most relatable stories are frequently about children, I guess because the way children experience fear is not yet gendered. Children aren’t haunted by rape revenge ghosts, unless they happen to be around an adult is who is haunted by a rape revenge ghost. Children are haunted by ghosts they haven’t offended; they are scared with a pure fear, a fear that comes from a primal place and not a lifetime of avoiding dark alleys, of crossing the street.
I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies after my assault. Since I was around 18, I’ve experienced occasional instances of sleep paralysis, which usually presents as being unable to move, audio-visual hallucinations, and feeling the presence of something very evil in the room. In an essay on sleep paralysis, Jenah Shaw describes the historic names of these “terrifying nighttime visitors: incubus, succubus, the Old Hag. Newfoundland gives us the terrifying expression of being “hag rid,” or ridden by the hag. In Chinese culture it is called, in pinyin, guǐ yā shēn (ghost pressing on body), in Turkish karabasan (the dark assailant), and in Vietnamese ma đè means held down by the ghost. The Hungarian term boszorkany-nyomas means witches’ pressure, while German has alpdrucken, or elf pressing.” I want someone to study the gender of the “hag” in sleep paralysis relative to that of the dreamer. In Western stories, at least, the demon seems almost always female.
I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies after my assault. Why are the ghouls that you summon through a mirror a woman and a black man? A group of white, teenage boys is snickering in a dark bathroom — where is their reflection?
I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies after my assault. I used to scare myself by recalling the worst scenes from movies before bedtime, because why not? The Tooth Fairy floating by the ceiling in the one good bit of Darkness Falls. Sadako, crawling out of the well. The dead lady in the bathtub of that one version of The Shining that I didn’t realize wasn’t the one everybody else watched. Why have I been conditioned to fear female ghosts? This is internalized ghost-ism. This is the male gaze of horror. Solidarity, sister.
I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies after my assault. And I’ve been reading and writing and exploring the possibility of fear, the thrill of fear, the potential of fear to heal and to prod gently at all of us as humans. To highlight something unique and chilling and cathartic. And I relish this growing muscle that uses an instrument of oppression as an instrument of freedom, that lets me walk at night, that peels back layers and undoes my years of conditioned terror and replaces them with the joy of grabbing a partner or a pillow or a cat and shrieking at a screen and then going to bed and falling asleep. That asks for something beyond the beyond. That asks: what else is there to be afraid of? That answers: not men, but the fantastic.
Sonya Vatomsky is a Moscow-born, Seattle-raised poet and essayist. An introvert, she balances her time between being active in several (online and local) feminist communities and cooking elaborate five-course dinners for herself, alone, in the dark. Her work has appeared in Delirious Hem, Empath Lit, Potluck Magazine & Electric Cereal; follow her at @coolniceghost.