Blogmaster’s note: this post was written in December of 2014, at the end of the 2014 Horror class. I kept it safely tucked away for the 2015 Horror class.
By: Karen McConnell (friend of The Course of Horror)
I recently became a mother for the first time. The love I immediately felt was overpowering.
So was the fear.
As my spouse snored in the roll-away bed in the hospital room, I sat a vigil of the damned, night after night, as terrible images, scenarios, and narratives (torture porn’s greatest hits!) played and replayed in my mind’s eye over and over and over again. I was consumed—almost paralyzed—by the possibility that something terrible was going to happen to my daughter, and a memory bank of horror novels and films was all too happy to provide the endless ways in which that something terrible could occur. I was also reluctant to tell people about this because they might think I was going full-blown yellow wallpaper even to have such thoughts. Concerns about post-partum depression and its rarer but more serious cousin, post-partum psychosis, are valid and should be openly discussed, but most of the time I was overcome by happiness, so these diagnoses didn’t seem like an entirely accurate way to describe what was happening. I wondered if my always over-active imagination had turned against me. It wasn’t the first time, but this was different than the occasional, almost-pleasurable fear of the dark, the self-indulgent frisson that comes from playing the “what if?” game from the safety of a warm bed in a locked house in a safe neighborhood mostly inoculated against the real-life terrors experienced by so many. Now, I could see—actually see!—these graphic scenes played out in front of me, with the six-pound little girl I loved with every fiber of my being starring the central role. These images generally hibernated during daylight hours, but the exhaustion of caring for an infant on two or three hours of fragmented sleep took an accumulative toll, and as night crept in so did the fear, worming its way into my psyche and polluting what was otherwise a magical time.
If I were a more committed writer, I might be able to describe the gruesome stories on feedback loop in my brain. It would be a mash-up of hills having eyes, of letting the right one in, of the True Knot’s need for steam. I would make you see the things that you can’t un-see…the things that go bump in the night but don’t stop there, prying your eyelids back to examine every last speck of blood, viscera, and gore. I can’t do that, though, because magical thinking appears to be a close companion of these waking terrors, and I’ve discovered a streak of superstition I didn’t know I had: to describe these thoughts might invite their realization—to turn them from hauntings to reality. Fantastical nonsense, of course, but powerful fantastical nonsense all the same.
In recent weeks, as my daughter’s sleep has begun to regulate, mine has also improved, and these disturbances have retreated to the now thankfully rare sleepless night. You might chalk it all up to the heady combination of severe sleep deprivation and the neuroses of a seriously anxious first-time mom. After all, it’s not unique for new parents to worry excessively about their children, even when that worry is patently irrational. But I have to wonder: to what degree has a lifetime of reading and viewing these texts played a role in my reaction to the stresses of motherhood? In other words, a version of the old, simplistic “bad art leads to bad thoughts/acts” position that I’ve always been quick to dismiss? Or has it just given me a broader range of images and fears to draw on in order to feed a pathological tendency toward anxiety that would exist independent of my aesthetic choices? I simply don’t know…over the years, I’ve frequently made the argument that the genre gives us a healthy way to work through the fears attendant to everyday life, but this experience has challenged that position. Not necessarily in a way that discounts the underlying premise, but it’s much less neat a process than I had previously believed. I once could engage these works with a degree of detachment that I now no longer enjoy. Becoming a parent has made me vulnerable as never before, and it’s made me rethink just how much I took for granted prior to this life change. How much of my taste for horror was made possible by my privileged, relatively trauma-less past? How much was it due to my unconscious expectation of a trauma-less future? What a luxury to be so insulated from direct experience of the horrors of the everyday, to be able to set aside the fear this genre explores at the last page or closing credits and return to “normal” life. Post child, though, has been a different story, and now every act of violence I read or hear about packs a raw, emotional punch. A jolting, wrenching twist deep between my stomach and spine as I compulsively wonder, “what if that had been my child?” I’m not convinced that my new perspective is any more admirable than my previous one, though. Like many writing and literature teachers, I’ve often bemoaned the scourge of “relatability”—students’ lack of interest in characters or themes that are not “relatable” to their own lives—but what happens when an almost narcissistic empathy takes hold and suddenly everything becomes relatable? How might this lead to a solipsism that is just as problematic as detachment? Because even though I might feel as though I am more vulnerable now, I am—objectively—just as insulated from direct experience of most of life’s terror as I was before.
My down-to-earth, optimistic mother has never been able to understand my preference for those types of novels (you can hear the disapproving italics in her voice), and has grilled me a number of times about what it is that I see in them. If she had her way, she’d likely slap a Tipper Gore-approved warning label on each and every one of them, broadcasting their danger to unsuspecting readers. I don’t think she’s wrong to worry about their capacity to harm, but maybe harm is what they need to do. Maybe others’ terrors are too easily ignored when I don’t get a dose often enough myself. Though imperfect, maybe narcissistic empathy is preferable to intellectual detachment. Outside these brutal fantasies, my daily life is strikingly vanilla. I can walk down the middle of a street and expect not to be shot. I can break minor laws and expect a slap on the wrist, not a summary execution. I’ve grown inadvertently complacent about my own position in this world. But my daughter’s position? That I’m less sure of, and less able to take for granted. That’s my vulnerability now, and horror pounced.