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How Horror Movies Helped Me Face My Anxiety

I’ve been haunted by a ghost for nearly 20 years.

In the early 2000s, I eagerly watched “The Ring” on HBO with my family … at night. Big mistake. I was so shaken by the now-iconic image of drowned ghost girl Samara with her sheet of dripping black hair and grey skin that I couldn’t sleep that night. I vowed to never watch it again and generally stayed away from horror movies.

Samara still found me.

She showed up in my dreams every so often over the years. On nights I felt particularly spooked, I avoided mirrors and dark corners, troubled by the thought of her dark head and pale limbs appearing. I knew my fear was irrational. I knew it was just a movie, and the image I saw was just a regular girl with makeup and digital enhancement. I knew she wasn’t real, but she continued to stay with me and remind me my fears traveled with me and lived inside me.

A few years ago, for a reason I can’t quite remember, my interest in horror movies outweighed by desire to avoid them. My partner and I instituted “Scary Movie Sunday,” where we’d watch a horror movie in the early afternoon and pause it often to analyze it, or just as often, make fun of it. It was some kind of exposure therapy that helped me appreciate the art form, the stories being told (at least the better ones that had decent plots) and experience the thrill of terror in the comfort of daylight.

One day, a realization hit me: My anxiety was the ultimate jump scare.

My condo has a privacy wall at the entrance, but I can still see part of the front door depending on where I’m sitting in my living room. I don’t know if this came from watching horror movies or just my neurotic tendencies: I developed a fear of looking at the door and being startled by loud banging on the other side. Who or what would be doing the banging never came to mind. Nonetheless, I feared that sudden interruption to my quiet, planned life and threat to my carefully guarded safety.

That’s what having anxiety is like: A constant, nagging fear something awful is going to happen. It’s hiding behind a door and waiting for that terrible moment to upend your life. When I watch a horror movie, I brace myself for the jump scare I know is usually coming. The anxiety of the wait is usually more uncomfortable to endure than the actual scare. The quieter moments that build impending dread feel like the waves of depression that can creep into my mind and stay a while.

When I was finally diagnosed with depression, an anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder in 2010, I felt a sense of relief my terror had a name. I could see my mental illness in the light and finally figure out a way to do battle with it. Over the next 10 years, I learned to live with and quiet the demons that haunted me.

As for horror as a genre, I grew a real appreciation for books and movies that forced me to experience feelings I’d rather avoid. I began to love it so much I’ve often thought about trying my hand at writing a horror novel. Perhaps that will be the ultimate exposure therapy.

At the end of 2020, which was a terrible year for humanity and for individuals, I told my partner I wanted to watch “The Ring.” He was surprised. He knew how badly it had frightened me and took care to skip over it and its sequels whenever we searched for movies. I told him that after the abysmal year we’d all had, why not end it by dealing with something that had tormented me since I was in my early 20s?

I loved it. Knowing what would already happen, I was able to appreciate the artistry and well-done moments of horror, as well as nitpick the parts I thought weren’t done as well (the wooden dialogue being one of them). We went on, at my insistence, to watch the 2005 sequel “Ring Two” (hated it) and the third movie made in 2017, “Rings” (loved it). The next step of my own epic “Ring Cycle” was to read the original Japanese novel that started the craze, “Ringu” by Koji Suzuki.

I still dream about Samara after watching the movies, and as usual, I don’t think her intentions toward me are friendly, but we now have an understanding. We aren’t best friends, but we are on equal ground with each other and allow the other one to exist in relative peace. Perhaps that’s how I can view the anxiety that, despite my sheer stubbornness to outlast it, still haunts me once in a while. I can face it, call it out for what it is and remind it (and myself) it’s not real. The things I worry about usually don’t happen the way I fear they will. I’m still standing, and I have the tools and the mindset to fight the ghosts when they do threaten to haunt me.

That knowledge makes things seem not so scary after all.

You can follow Melanie’s journey on Little Black Belt.

Getty image by Tero Vesalainen