Home » Scaring the Hell into Me: My History With Anxiety and Horror Films

Scaring the Hell into Me: My History With Anxiety and Horror Films

Pinhead in Hellraiser III - anxiety and horror movies

“The box. You opened it. We came.”

-Pinhead, Hellraiser

Lemarchand's box

I watched my first horror movie scene, a snippet of Hellraiser III, when I was five. I was watching TV with Dylan Casey in his basement. Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have strayed from Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon, but it was Dylan’s house and he had the remote.

He flipped to the SciFi channel, hoping for Dune and instead it was the man with pins in his face in a dark room. The walls looked as though they were made of sandstone. Candles surrounded him and a blonde woman. The pins in his face intersected in a grid pattern, leaving holes for his eyes and nose. He was coming toward her, with a box in his hand. She turned to run. I shook Dylan. He changed the channel.

For the next several months, maybe even years, I was terrified to go to the bathroom by myself. I’d imagine Pinhead hiding behind the yellow-flower-print shower curtain my mother kept closed so it wouldn’t get moldy. I needed to be tucked in at night again, but I still imagined him hiding behind my closet doors, waiting for my parents to leave the room. I dreamed of him, coming from the other side of the bushes at the street corner where I waited for the bus.

I hoarded the secret, or at least I tried to, believing that if I’d told someone else that they’d be infected with the same dread that stalked me across the schoolyard. The man with pins in his face occupied the back of my every thought, informing everything I did. Most of all though, I was scared of what my parents would take away if they’d found out I watched part of an R-rated movie.

Looking back, my parent’s punishment would have been mild. There were time outs and my brother and sister occasionally got grounded, though I can’t recall ever being grounded myself. From my adult vantage, I remember how afraid I was of what my parents would do, and I wonder if I was dealing with generalized anxiety then.

PinheadI was diagnosed with generalized anxiety last October. May is mental health awareness month, and with that right around the corner, I wanted to take this opportunity to shed some light on a mental health issued that many people suffer from. Generalized anxiety effect 6.8 million adults in the U.S., or about 3% of the national population. A simplified version of the American Psychological Association’s cardinal resource, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5, says that a person suffers from generalized anxiety disorder if they deal with worry that interferes with the sufferer’s daily functioning for more days than not in the last six months. The worries manifest in one of six ways: restlessness, easy or constant fatigue, irritability, trouble focusing, tense muscles, and trouble sleeping.

Personally, I worry that my sofa cover will touch the radiator, catch fire, and burn my apartment down. I check it every time I get home, and every time I leave. When I cut through the living room to get a midnight snack, I check. I show up everywhere a half hour early, partially because Boston’s public transit is mediocre at best and driving scares the hell out of me, but mostly it’s because being late scares me to the point of not being able to function. And everyday weirdness fills me with anxious daydreams. I flushed some excess paper that was in the stall when I used a public bathroom today and my brain hit me with this scenario: A drug drop had been made in this toilet and I’d flushed it and the gang responsible was going to kill me to get even. I didn’t necessarily believe it, but I was checking the bathroom behind me in the mirror as I washed my hands, making sure no one was eying me or creeping up, just in case. I function despite these worries and with the help of cognitive behavioral therapy, and horror movies.

Watching a horror movie can be a catharsis in a day filled with irrational worry. Nothing on the screen can hurt me, and for once I’m feeling the way that I’m supposed to feel. When watching a good horror movie, I have no choice but to stop being afraid of the everyday and mundane, and instead focus on the supernatural and impossible. Horror movies give the part of my brain responsible for coming up with new fears the chance to put its feet up a while and let the professional do the work. And frankly, with the way I worry sometimes, the world of horror filled with masked men, mass killings, and things crossing over from the other side feels more realistic to me. It’s a world where my anxiety makes sense, because it’s a world where my anxiety is right.

There could be a more insidious relationship between my love of horror and my generalized anxiety disorder. While I believe that the roots of it are genetic (which I won’t elaborate on out of respect for my family’s privacy), watching scary movies could make it worse. I prefer to think of it like spicy food though.

A friend of mine couldn’t stand spicy foods until he ate the tiniest of bites of a chili pepper.  After days of pain, he realized that he had to go back and try it again.  Shortly thereafter, he gained not only a taste and tolerance for spicy food, but he actually craved it. Soon after that, he started carrying his own hot sauce. He can’t eat food without those spices any longer. Pinhead in Hellraiser III was that first bite of spice for me. Since I watched that bit of Hellraiser III, I have watched somewhere between 300 and 400 horror movies.

Some of them have been good. I frequently think about how amazingly Audition’s opening hour subverted viewer expectations—it starts as a love story and boy does it ever jump cut away from that. Other times, I find myself reminiscing about the killer’s story in The Vanishing, about jumping off the balcony, or wondering whether or not Donald Sutherland’s character ever had a chance to survive in Don’t Look Now, or was his fate fixed? But those movies didn’t scare me.

I’m embarrassed to admit that the ones that did were the bad ones. I couldn’t sleep for weeks after watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose when I was in ninth grade. I couldn’t expunge the idea that a demon was trying to trick its way into my room, into my life. Insidious Chapter 3, which was a clunker of a movie, spooked me the same way. But those are the ones that get me. No matter how many times I see the same behind-the-mirror jumping-out-from-behind-the-corner jump scares, they still get me, as do demons in general.

The fear of demons comes down to being Catholic. Although my beliefs have loosened considerably, I was raised to believe that while goblins, ghosts, and most paranormal phenomena weren’t real, demons were. They’re all over the Bible, and some part of that has stuck with me.

And maybe that Catholicism is part of my generalized anxiety disorder too. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more afraid of anything than I was the Hell described in weekly sermons. The Bible has some grisly passages, describing what happens to sinners when they die. And while watching PG-13 movies before I was 13 was out of the question, I could listen to these readings about Jesus separating the good from the bad with the gnashing of teeth and eternities of darkness and isolation. There is no fear to match that of a nine-year-old boy obsessing over whether or not he’d been good enough to avoid the punishments of Hell. It seems to me that could be as good a starting place for generalized anxiety disorder as any.

But like I said, I’ve gotten and or am getting the help I need. Mental illnesses aren’t something to be ashamed of or cured, but rather to be accepted and treated. Toward that end, I rewatched Hellraiser III last year.

hellraiser-3-vhsIt was a Friday night. I was four beers deep, and my girlfriend was nursing her first drink. We’d set up her iPad on a white plastic tray table and turned off the lights. The music started as my then girlfriend, now fiancée, messaged a friend to keep herself awake in the dark. I watched the first two Hellraiser movies, the year leading up to the rewatch. The words came across the screen in a garish font: Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth. They had dumped the original writer and sometimes director, Clive Barker, along with his female lead Kirsty Cotton. Most of the movie was repeated devices from the first two movies, not quite old enough to be tropes, but well on their way. Chains coming out of thin air and tearing character’s flesh from their bodies and similar imagery abounded. The man with pins in his face (called Pinhead for the first time in this installment) transformed from a statue into himself by tricking unsuspecting teens into sacrificing themselves to him. There was lots of blood, and some unsettling moments. And then an hour and six minutes into the movie, the scene came on.

It was not quite as I’d remembered it. The candles were there, though the walls were brick and not sandstone. I had completely forgotten the corpses behind them, and the body of the man with razor wire over his face. The female lead, reporter Joey Summerskill, was the one actually holding the box. Her hair was blonde, but darker than I remember. My reaction was visceral. Watching horror movies makes heart rates spike, palms sweat, and blood pressure jump. All of it happened to me at once. My eyes watered. I had been half worrying that I had misremembered the whole thing, but it was there and it transported me back to Dylan Casey’s basement, shaking him to change the channel.

Joey turned and saw her cameraman, decapitated head in his hands. Pinhead proceeded toward her, unseen behind the candles, and the lines sounded familiar. “Oh it’s unbearable, isn’t it?” he said. Joey was as frightened as I was. She was managing to tremble. I didn’t know if my fiancee realized how afraid I was, but I told her this was it. This was the scene.

“The suffering of strangers, the agony of friends,” he said. The candles were waving in and out with the force of him, his menace. I could see most of him now. His leather suit. The nails in his face, his paleness. “There is a secret song at the center of the world, Joey, and it sounds like razors through flesh.”

Joey was standing there, holding the box that he needed to destroy so he won’t be sent back to hell. She clenched her jaw as much as she could while speaking and said, “I don’t believe you.”

As a rational adult, I understood this was the movie that jumped the shark for the Hellraiser series. But it’s gripped me. This was where Dylan and I turned it off. Where I made us stop watching. It shouldn’t have scared me, as an adult, but it did.

He walked, bodies behind him and wrapped his arm around a support beam, imitating the iconic swinging from Singing in the Rain. He said, “Oh come, oh, you can hear its faint echo right now. I’m here to turn up the volume.” He walked toward her. He was almost there. They were six feet apart, if Joey was lucky. “To press the stinking face of humanity into the dark blood of its own stinking heart.”

“And I’m here to stop you and send you back to hell,” Joey said. He was still walking toward her. I was less afraid then. This was past where we had watched when I was young. I was still more afraid than I should be. More than 300 horror movies should have prepared me for this moment.

The movie kept going, but I moved on. I watched the rest, as Joey defeats Pinheads and his new Cenobites, but I wasn’t afraid anymore. The next day, it didn’t stick with me like it had when I was a lad. The film ends with a shot of an office building shaped like the box that summons the Cenobites. It was obviously there to set up the sequel, but I’m not so sure what the next step will be for me.

At first I worried that since I’d confronted my fear that horror movies might lose their appeal. That the next year at Halloween, I might spend my time making some kind of intricate costume instead of catching as many 80s slashers as I could on AMC. That when my brother texted me and asked if I wanted to watch the latest indie horror hit, I’d say no. That maybe, horror movies wouldn’t be my thing anymore. Nothing could be scarier than that. And a year later, I can tell you none of that happened. I’ve still got a healthy appetite for that which scares me.

As for the anxiety, I’m doing much better with that. I’m working on strategies to control the worries when they come up. In some ways, I adapt my life around them. I still budget an extra half hour to hour whenever I’m going anywhere outside of walking distance, and that keeps me from freaking out on the train or in the car. It also gives me plenty of time to stay caught up on my reading and writing work as I wait. In other ways, I’m adapting my thoughts to be more in line with the world around them. I’m confronting my fears, the same way I confronted Hellraiser III. Whether it be striking up conversations or applying for dream jobs, I’m doing it and finding out that an awkward conversation or a form rejection letter isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Like my love of horror movies, my anxiety is a part of who I am, but not the whole picture. It’s not something that will go away or be cured, but I’m learning to live with and accept it.

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Written by Ryan C. Bradley
Ryan C. Bradley (he/him) has published work in The Missouri Review, The Rumpus, Dark Moon Digest, Daikaijuzine, and other venues. His first book, Saint's Blood, is available from St. Rooster Books now! You can learn more about him at: ryancbradleyblog.wordpress.com.
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