Monstrous Femme

Mental Health and the Changing Face of Horror

Mental Health and the Changing Face of Horror

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Chewed-up nails, dizzy spells, why-haven’t-I-thrown-up-yet musings, bullets of sweat, racing hearts and aching heads—anxiety can be arduous to experience. The last thing you’d expect to help is to experience it . . . recreationally?

Yet studies not only show that those with anxiety are more likely to seek out products in the horror genre, but that it helps them tremendously. As the face of horror changes, this is good news for minorities.

There’s a variety of ways in which it assists. In his article “Why We Like Scary Things: The Science of Recreational Fear,” Richard Sims explores the concept of learning about ourselves and the world around us through our imbibing of horror media.

An example of this would be my own love affair with psychological horror. My path into this started with a computer game—Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches. Certain events in my life forced me to become aware of the genetic possibility of schizophrenia that lurked in my blood earlier than what would be advisable. This resulted in fear as well as a dysregulated relationship with myself and a lack of faith in my ability to make sound decisions. But when I played Rhiannon, I was able to face my fear in a safe environment. The game itself didn’t completely heal me. However, it did show me a path, and it’s one that I subconsciously continued down as I sought out additional psychological horror games, leading me to eventually form coping strategies when faced with real-life situations that would have been adversely affected by my fear.

According to Kim Wong-Shing’s article “How Scary Movies Can Help You Destress,” there’s a trick to making consumption of your favorite thrillers work for you. The benefits of doing so can range from releasing anxious tension and stopping rumination to helping you face your fears and showing you that you can, in fact, survive them. You can even get a joyful comedown effect after the fact.

I had to sort through a lot of horror games, books, and movies to find my niche.  The media not only had to deal with my unique fear, but it also had to be scary enough to stimulate my malfunctioning fight-or-flight response without retraumatizing me. Once I found media that was just right, I’d often feel better—more relaxed and sometimes even euphoric.

These benefits, however, only work when the anxiety sufferer is not only represented in the media, but the anxiety sufferer’s fears, as well. This is why minority horror is important. No more is the minority the first one to die when the killer starts his slashing rampage. Across the board, the past five years has seen a slow burgeoning of minority voices telling stories—including their own—from Tigers Are Not Afraid to Get Out to Attachment.

Streaming services account for 87% of LGBTQ representation, according to a Nielsen report.  Digital Spy indicates that “Netflix Leads the Way” with 180 characters that span the spectrum of queer. Lobbying for greater representation in the industry has paid off: the people spoke and the movie industry, specifically streaming services, delivered. Even louder than the people, perhaps, was their money—Alpha Media Digital projected revenue for 2023 as nearly ninety-six billion dollars.  Experts predict that the future of entertainment is the individualization inherent in streaming.

While mainstream cable lags behind in last place, movie theaters have amped up their minority representation too. Features like Get Out, Tigers Are Not Afraid, Thelma, and La Llorona brought a new demographic of moviegoers in the past couple of years. The theater-frequenter demographic has changed to reflect that greater representation: 35% of moviegoers are Millennials and a whopping 43% are Gen Z, as opposed to Baby Boomers at 29%.

For the transgender community, body horror appears to be a major—and significant—trend, especially for teens, as evidenced by the chilling book Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, The Magnus Archives’ podcast entity The Flesh, and various Reddit posts. Nadine Smith’s essay, “How Body Horror Helped Me Process My Gender Dysphoria,” cites movies like Old, Videodrome, Hellraiser, and Tetsuo: The Iron Man. “As a trans woman who has struggled with gender dysphoria my whole life, this may be the only genre of film as concerned with flesh as I am,” she states.

A consistently popular trend in minority horror seems to be variations of the “call coming from inside the house” trope, which reflects the societal struggle of marginalized people. In Get Out, the surprise villain was the girlfriend, someone the main character trusted. In Attachment, the threat is the mother of one of the lesbian main characters. In Medusa, a movie released to select theaters in America, purity culture meets The Purge when a group of vigilante women go around handing out judgment and “justice,” not unlike the Iranian morality police. The character development comes when these women realize that they don’t know the whole story. The call is coming from inside the house because the threat isn’t only men and a culture surrounding a woman’s ability to create, but other women who go to extreme lengths to enforce that culture.

In La Llorona, the dynamic of the call coming from inside the house is a bit more complex. It starts with the trial of a general being taken to task for his crimes against the indigenous Mayans. He, however, refuses to accept responsibility and goes home. The women he lives with also refuse to acknowledge his role, placing the blame on the victims themselves and looking down on them. However, the general is haunted by his guilt and acts out so terribly that the household staff quits. When a new girl is brought in to help with the work, supernatural events begin to haunt the family. What results is an indigenous Mayan woman seeking revenge for crimes committed against her race, producing a commentary that, at least in Guatemala, forced the audience to consider their own complicity. This effect gives La Llorona historical significance.

Queer literature reflects this trope as well. In White is for Witching, the house itself literally attacks the lesbian couple. Skinamarink, The Cabin at the End of the World, and even Things Have Gotten Worse are all limited to one house with a limited cast of characters and a terrifying interpretation of the trope. The Cabin at the End of the World grapples with the question of religion in a LGBTQ house. In Things Have Gotten Worse, there are just two characters and it’s those characters themselves—as well as the lengths to which an obsessed person will go for love—that provide the horror.

Skinamarink gives the “call coming from inside the house” trope another unique spin. There are three characters: two small children and the evil that seeks them. The evil remains unseeable and unnamable throughout the story, perceptible through a variety of supernatural events that are cinematically experimental with the boundaries of liminal horror. Skinamarink’s director, Kyle Ball, is a queer filmmaker who indicated that much of the film came from a genuine place for him—a fact that’s reflected in the film’s presentation. Much of the movie plays on the common childhood fear of the dark. While that phobia isn’t exclusive to the LGBTQ community, it is possible that the fear could be influenced or exacerbated by the anxiety and depression that members of the community often experience—even as small children who feel their “otherness.”

Director Sydney Freeman feels that current exploration of LGBTQ stories enriches our understanding of the human condition. Minority horror not only provides a safe space for marginalized people to explore their fears (and make some sort of peace with them), but also provides a meeting place of experience. Skinamarink is one such example: the nyctophobia inherent in the film provides a meeting place where minority meets majority and says, “Hey. Me too.”

And in that “me too,” there is companionship and understanding.