A scene from John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978): Laurie Holden sits in the back of a classroom. Given her prudish, overachieving personality, her placement within this educational environment seems unlike her. The camera slowly zooms up the rows of desks populated by her high school classmates, all defocused in the peripheral, and we understand her placement in the frame: she is a target. Apart from and a part of her environment.
Laurie looks out the window and sees a brown station wagon parked across the street. Behind it stands the ghostly figure of Michael Myers. She doesn’t know it’s Michael Myers—it’s just a shape. In fact, that’s how the character is credited—not Michael Myers but “The Shape,” an unstoppable, amorphous force of evil.
The teacher calls on Laurie to answer a question. Laurie answers. When she looks back out the window, both the car and The Shape are gone.
In October 2013, my heart starts to race. I place a hand against my chest and feel the heavy thumping of that knotty muscle. An ample pressure has been rising in my chest for the past couple months and I’m scared that it’s going to blow. I look around at my co-workers working quietly and try to decide on whom I want to aim my chest toward when the sucker erupts. Who do I spray with viscera?
My boss talks to me. He looms over my desk like he’s 20 feet tall. I don’t know what he’s saying, but I grit my teeth and nod. How can he not hear my heart? I like him, but right now he’s a threat. My place of employment has become a terrifying environment, just like Laurie’s classroom.
In 2013, my surroundings become terrifying. I feel like a target in everyday life. It’s a feeling that’s always been with me, but now it hits a fever pitch. The Shape has come for me, but a mask-wielding character does not personify it—just illogical, amorphous forces that cause fight-or-flight physical reactions.
I sit at my desk and quietly wait for the panic attack to go away.
A scene from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981): Evil has possessed Shelly. She lumbers toward her former friends, Ash and Scott, white-eyed and reaching to claw the life out of them. Ash holds an axe, but he cannot bring himself to strike Shelly. Scott screams out “Hit her! HIT HER!...HIT IT!” Scott grabs the axe out of Ash’s hands and savagely dismembers Shelly until blood pours down the screen.
Afterwards, Ash and Scott step back and watch Shelly’s body parts shiver in puddles of blood. They can’t even look in each other’s eyes. Ash asks, “What are we gonna do?”
Scott says, “We’re going to bury her.”
“We can’t bury Shelly,” Ash says. “She—she’s a friend of ours.”
Ash wants to maintain normalcy. To him, Shelly is still their friend, not the monster laying in pieces at their feet. He doesn’t yet know that things will never be normal again.
I become despondent. The stress of work, health, family, life—everything a healthy person should be able to balance—becomes too much. One night, my wife tells me she misses “the old Ryan.” I do, too.
I agree to see a psychologist. It feels like admitting defeat after a seemingly healthy upbringing, after following the right steps to—if not succeed—at least tread water in normal society. This is the bitch of mental illness: doing everything right and still feeling wrong. Feeling like you’ll never be normal again.
I see the psychologist three times. He asks what my interests are and I say horror and “dark stuff.” He lifts an eyebrow and writes something on his notepad. I stop going after the third visit.
A scene from David Cronenburg’s The Fly (1986): Scientist Seth Brundle has fused himself with a fly, a slow and monstrous physical transformation, but doesn’t understand his love interest’s disgust. “The disease has just revealed its purpose,” he says. “It wants to turn me into something else. That’s not too terrible is it? Most people would give anything to be something else.”
I tell my doctor my symptoms, and she prescribes 300 mg of bupropion. During that first week, I feel alert, happy, carefree. I lose a little weight. This is amazing.
After some time, however, I notice my jaw clenching. I sweat like a goddamn madman. A twitch appears in my right eyelid. Certain songs and commercials begin to make me cry. I don’t feel in control of my feelings anymore. These are the transformations that are turning me into something else.
A scene from John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982): MacCready sits alone in an office, drinking J&B scotch. An alien with the ability to take on human and animal form has infiltrated his Antarctic research station and a raging blizzard has isolated them from the rest of the world. The scene is lit blue, accentuating the bleakness. He speaks into a tape recorder: “Nobody... nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired.” He stops the recording, rewinds and plays it again.
I watch horror movies in October 2013, the year I’m diagnosed with anxiety. I’ve watched them every year leading up, and will do every year following. It’s one of the few occasions where my anxiety feels natural. Horror has been a method by which I can understand my own illness, and what incubates me from the awkward glares, the societal stigmas and the frightening unknown. It’s lonely, sometimes, sitting in the darkened theater by myself, but it’s the type of fear that I can handle.