Personal Essay: Secondhand Horror

Clare Suffern, BFR Editorial Staff

I have never read The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D. Since I spotted it for the first time in my parents’ bookshelf sometime in grade school, I have regarded it more like a piece of furniture than a book – a staple of the house, too heavy for me to lift let alone read. I still glance at it suspiciously and wonder, “Is this directed at me?” Whomever it was intended for (let’s be honest, it was my middle sister), I’ve certainly lived up to the title.

For the most part, I’ve embraced my sensitivity. Many would balk at my sentimentality and nostalgia, but I relish the feeling of being moved by the slightest thing. Still, there is one aspect of being highly sensitive that has become rather embarrassing: my irrepressible fear of horror films.

This week, I watched The Silence of the Lambs through the slit of my joined palms and still had a panic attack. And I am twenty. TWENTY. I hyperventilated at the slightest swell in the soundtrack, and screamed bloody murder when others only winced. Despite my numerous attempts, I cannot suppress my imagination like everyone around me and make it through horror films. But this doesn’t mean that I want to miss out on an entire genre.

I negotiate this dilemma by engaging in a practice common amongst children: telling ghost stories. I solicit oral accounts of movies I am too scared to see.

From the first time my best friend gave me a shot-by-shot account of a horror movie, I was hooked. The summer after fifth grade, Helen watched The Grudge. Sitting on top of the monkey bars at the pool, she confided that she was too scared to shower alone. (Her mom stood in the bathroom during her speedy rinses for a week.) Then, out of some strange necessity to rehash her fear, she launched into the plot of the film. I hung on every detail in silent fascination.

My love of listening – to music, books on tape, horror by word of mouth – began when I was four, and coincided with my fascination with scary stories. My parents bought a copy of Classical Kids: Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery, which I listened to everyday on the couch in the attic. The bursts of the frantic violin during an eerie night scene on the waters of Venice terrified me so much that I refused to leave my spot on the cushion. I was petrified that someone might be lurking beneath me.

As I got older, I would sit with my mom in our minivan listening to Radio Mystery Theater while we waited for my older sisters to finish soccer practice. I remember crawling over the console and onto my mother’s lap, imagining the world that the story constructed while staring out of the open window onto scrimmages and the evening sky. As much as the broadcast scared me, I garnered some perverse enjoyment from the fear, the kind of enjoyment I imagine horror movies give many viewers.

Like Radio Mystery Theater and Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery, Helen’s retelling of The Grudge satisfied my desire for a good thrill without propelling me into a panic. And recounting The Grudge helped her overcome her paranoia. It was a mutualistic relationship, where both listener and storyteller thrived.

When I ask someone about a comedy or drama they have just seen, they tend to give a generic reaction. “Oh, it was alright” or “It was so sad!” or some comment of a similarly vague nature. But when I inquire about a thriller, it is not unusual for someone to recount the movie in such vivid detail that I can imagine each scene as if I were there.

I believe that the desire to give such a comprehensive account of horror movies is telling of why scary stories are so compelling: Unlike even the saddest tragedies, where the catharsis occurs during book or play or movie itself, the emotional relief from horror does not come until well after it is over. It is as if in order to fully process the terror of what has befallen them, watchers of scary movies need to retell the disturbing events. The therapeutic narration serves as the denouement to the traumatic experience.

Perhaps it reveals my naivety, but the experience of listening to a scary story delights and terrifies my imagination in the way that watching horror does for many. And I love my role as the recipient of others’ eerie retellings. A highly sensitive child turned highly sensitive adult, I have the pleasure of engaging in the sort of raw storytelling usually reserved for adolescents around a campfire.

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