In my home, horror was a rite of passage. The matriarch of my crazy Southern family is my grandmother, Ann, a child of the Great Depression who survived being orphaned by her mother, abandoned by her father, a teen marriage, and violent miscarriage through her vicious wit and an abiding love of the horrific. She was around for the dawn of the Universal monsters, sat front row for the slashers of the early seventies and eighties, and spent the nineties and early 2000’s marathoning every sleazy, sadistic, and salacious film Syfy and Lifetime could muster. My mother and aunt both had weak stomachs and were prone to nightmares, but from as early as I can remember, my grandmother and I would spend entire weekends transfixed by an uninterrupted parade of murder and mayhem.
She was and is a great audience member, something she passed on to me. She groans, curses, and cheers as each dark tale unwinds, especially as the climax approaches, as the final showdown closes in. An ardent fan of the Final Girl, my grandmother never tires of seeing the thrill of reversal, the bloody transformation from victim to victor. After each movie, my grandmother would give a satisfied smile and say something like, “That was a good one. She was a real fighter.”
These movies, too intense for my friends, maligned by my church and the other members of my family, became a secret language between my grandmother and me. She never talked about her past, she never indulged in simple, easily cross-stitched wisdom. Instead, we had horror movies and the endless lessons they had to teach a young woman getting ready to head out into a world scarier than the ones ruled by Freddy or Jason.
To the naive viewer, horror films are exercises in the nihilistic, orgies of death, carnivals of soullessness, but to my grandmother, a lifelong student of its stories, they were better than Aesop. The morals of these verboten films were simple but ones every child should hear: Don’t follow the crowd. Trust your instincts. Never let people treat you like you’re weak. And most important of all–keep fighting, keep fighting, keep fighting.
Maybe that’s why I’ve always turned to horror films for comfort. In fact, every tragedy or time of distress in my life has been marked by a retreat into the dark arms of horror. After my father’s death, after my young cousin lost her battle with cancer, through four years of high school where I faced an undiagnosed mental disorder every exhausting day, college which gave me the diagnosis but made me feel like a freak, post-college financial struggles, my first overwhelming year as a teacher at an inner-city school– every trauma, pain, and injustice was bandaged, patched over, and consoled by a little celluloid bloodshed.
Horror is a part of my life, my language, and thanks to my gore-hound grandmother, my DNA. It’s how I cope and how I celebrate. Some girls get quilts and recipes from their grandmas, I got a guided spirit walk through a phantasmagoric world. That’s why, when I started my second year teaching, I themed my English class around the one thing I knew my students and I had in common: horror stories. It got them to read and argue and think about the less subtle terrors of the world around them, and best of all, it gave me the words to tell them lessons every child should hear: Don’t follow the crowd. Trust your instincts. Never let people treat you like you’re weak. Keep fighting, keep fighting, keep fighting.
This article is part of our special October series, #horrorandme