How Horror Films Helped My Health Anxiety

Trigger Warning: The following blog discusses graphic content shown in various horror films which some readers may find distressing.

— — —


I had always, at first jokingly and later, in the vein of exasperation, with an eye roll attached, been referred to as a hypochondriac.


The definition of a hypochondriac, a person often worried about their health”, always felt like a great misunderstanding of the illness. I wasn’t abnormally anxious, at least not to me. To me, it felt like I was the only sane one around.


The term was first used to denote a form of melancholy; this made sense to me. The anxiety seemed to stem from a sadness above all, a depressive feeling that I didn’t really deserve to exist, that other people were the lucky ones, and I was not.


My first breakdown had occurred during the night of a school play that I was starring in, at age 15. My throat started to close up; I thought I was having an allergic reaction. After multiple hospital visits, the GP told my mother that “panic attacks often plague high achievers”.


Honoré Daumier The Hypochondriac (Le Malade imaginaire) 1860–1863.

The label of “hypochondriac” was often muttered in the same breath as “neurotic”, and “overly-sensitive”, and how I was “too smart for my own good”. My family often touted me as their golden prize, because I was the one who had surpassed the others in our family with my grades, voted most likely to be a famous author three times in the yearbook, my mother telling me that a psychic told her that I would be on TV in a few years promoting a novel. But I was a broken prize; an anxious over worrier that would have panic attacks if I couldn’t sleep without a night light, for instance.


In the archives of my iPhone, buried within neon yellow notes, lives a collection of banal and serious sounding symptoms and the diagnoses I’d assigned to them: bloating stomach is ovarian cancer, a rash is Lyme disease, numb tingling skin is multiple sclerosis or maybe a stroke. A lump on the temples is surely going to burst and cause an aneurysm. My face is looking rounder, so I must have Cushing’s disease. I wonder if I should look into genetic testing to find out the chances of cardiac arrest occurring. Or perhaps Alzheimer’s disease.


All of it reads like manic pleading with — who?


Myself?


Image source: IMDB

One of my earliest memories is watching John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween with my dad. I was young, definitely far too young to be watching. Within the fear that I felt, lay a tranquil veneer of calm, that my dad was revealing to me a truth of life, allowing me see the other side. What I, even then, as my needy and anxious child-self knew was that these horrors seemed to always be an invasion from the inside: inside a suburb, inside the house or, more relatable, from inside your own body or mind. Horror films became the catharsis for me, and death became the world I couldn’t face unless it was on a TV screen.


My love of horror, the macabre, and the morbid, was as integral to my identity as my health neuroses. They seemed to validate the flighty and irrational worries I had.


I was a child who loved Stephen King novels, Giallo horror films, slasher movies, and art house films like Hellraiser, Haus, Hour of the Wolf, Alice, Sweet Alice, Suspiria and Brian De Palma’s 1976 Carrie, which I later ‘remade’ on a shitty camcorder with friends, at the age of 12. I loved horror because it felt real, and it seemed to take the world and the body as seriously as I took it. Bad things happened, and horror wouldn’t sugarcoat that fact. For the first time in my life, I felt validated.


These fantastical stories allowed me to stare death in the face, like exposure therapy.


It was the summer, three years to the date of my dad’s stage four cancer diagnosis. A strange tight tugging on the right side of my abdomen and bloating became sinister seeming when it wouldn’t go away. The thing that had been living inside of me, this preoccupation with my body and my demise, reared its tantalisingly gruesome head. Like all good breakdowns, I lived in fear of what had already happened. I was unaware that I seemed, for lack of a better word, ‘crazy’.


I stopped eating. I cried hysterically in 6 separate emergency doctors’ meetings, with permanent marker etched all over my body, circles ingraining themselves into my flesh. I told them with a giggle that this was “just to show them where the pain was”. Of course, they would all wonder how there could possibly be this much pain.



“How could there not?”, I wanted to scream.


Deep down, I knew that it wasn’t just the physical kind of pain I was talking about. I trawled cancer forums for hours every single night, staying up to read about brain cancer, colon cancer, erratic heartbeats in the stomach, corneal ulcers. Slowly, I pushed my boyfriend away. The imagined tumour became more important than him. It was summer, and I was in love, but I was afraid to speak of any goodness out loud in case I was punished for it by having it taken away.


At night I closed my eyes and wouldn’t sleep, instead forcing myself to imagine what nothingness felt like, how it would feel for my friends and boyfriend going on with their lives when I was dead; an exercise in masochism. I wouldn’t be able to sit still for too long and would cry out like a wounded animal in pain. One night, I woke my father up calling 999 and begging for an ambulance to check my heart, certain that I was having a heart attack.


Test after test showed that the only thing inside of me that was scary and wrong was in my head.

I wanted rules to follow that would promise me results. I knew smoking and not wearing sunscreen and red meat could cause cancer. But what about my father, a health advocate, cycling nut, with no family history of cancer, contracting stage 4 prostate cancer? I didn’t like that you could follow the rules and still be punished. It felt biblical.


What it did was feed into my OCD, governed by a system of irrational rules and consequences. My OCD told me that if I didn’t Google things, I didn’t care about my health, and cancer would be the outcome. It told me that if I didn’t seek reassurance 10 times a day from friends and family, I would suffer. If I didn’t force myself to think the same thoughts in the exact same way, I would lose my life.


The only thing that soothed me that summer was watching 1970s slasher films, far removed from reality and life — or so I thought. Gritty and imbued with over stimulus, slasher films sing the body electric with red blood that is beating, ice shattering screams, flesh raw and visceral, soft and easily bitten into, broken into.


Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was my favourite to rewatch. From my childhood and my love affair with exploitation films that began in earnest at university, I knew the beats of every line of dialogue, every scorching yellow scratch on celluloid. Heat, revenge, the Final Girl.


In the film, carcasses are interchangeable with live bodies, and flesh is hot and rotting in the Texan August sun. Seeing bodies in the state of distress and decay had an oddly calmative effect. I was taken out of my body but also mindful of how I, sat there, a spectator, was safe. My body was not in shreds: there was no live threat. It brought my fears out of the shadow and into broad daylight, validating them for all to witness.


Just like my intruding thoughts about illness and death, the horror of the film doesn’t wait for the disguise or safety of darkness to make us scared. It leers at you while you squint in the bright fireball orange sun, making itself known, no discrimination for time of day or where you are in your life. This is what my illness felt like, a dread that didn’t go away with sunrise, but billowed like waves, ready to cause a panic attack or demand an emergency doctor appointment. It steamrolled my entire life in the process, at a time when I was meant to be young, free and in love.


For me, these films were both extreme methods of exposure therapy, and although the situations were unlikely to happen to me, they validated the core truth behind the axe-wielding killers: that death is inevitable, and the one reality we all can’t avoid. Horror films helped me accept that simple truth, allowing me to feel a semblance of control, not over the outcome, but what I choose to spend my time doing.


Now, I know I can maintain control over my mental health: I can choose to put a film on instead of reaching for Doctor Google.