What Horror Means


This past week Lisa and I had the honor of hosting a panel at StokerCon in Grand Rapids. We spoke about what horror means in today’s society and it got me thinking about what horror means to me on a personal level. So, here we go—

When I was nine months pregnant, I’d watched my son try to drop. 

I used to watch my belly alien move beneath my skin in the shower. Little feet and hands just beneath the surface, grasping and kicking. Then, I watched his head dive from just next to my ribs down to the middle of my belly, and then stop, and come back up like he’d bounced on the smallest trampoline ever. He went back to where he’d been by my ribs, and got settled. I knew then. Because moms always know, don’t we? I remember holding my belly, hot water running down the body that was not just ‘me’ but an ‘us’ and whispering, “Oh, shit.” 


Horror would have told me what that meant.

When Dell fries on the electric chair, we’re there with him. We’re there for the screams and the smells and the awful feeling in our stomachs when the Warden, Hal, goes down to where Paul, Percy, and Brutal have poor Dells’ fried body and screams out: “What in the blue fuck was that?” 

Thanks, Hal. Indeed. What in the blue fuck was that? 

These are the facts. No sticky emotions. 

I was told on a Friday I was going to be cut open, that a natural birth wasn’t possible. That I could have a planned C-Section, or an emergency one. We confirmed the baby’s location that next Monday, surgery was scheduled for the following day; a Tuesday morning.

Thank you, horror, for telling the truth about love. In Robert McCammon’s Eat Me, to feel love, the zombies have to consume each other bit by grisly bit before they become nothing and float away with the wind. We’re there for every chomp, every gnaw, every bloody swallow. Anyone who has ever been in love, real love, can get that. How it consumes you.

Tuesday morning, my husband drove us through pounding rain and flooded roads and dropping temperatures to the hospital. I kept my cool when the nurses asked me to change into a gown that made me feel more naked than if I’d just undressed completely. I was still taking deep breaths when they plugged the needle into my skin to keep a line open. The charge nurse walked me through the procedure and I listened like the good student I am. Then, she said: “the epidural will make you shaky, so your arms and legs will be strapped down.”

Horror told me all about Carol. How she was buried alive and had to wake herself up by staring at her unresponsive body. How she had to catch herself in the mirror and say wake up.

Strapped down? Like Frankenstein? Like some wild thing? Like someone who is about to be tortured? Panic. Pure, white, expanding, has its own pulse. Panic. 


 I wonder if Carol ever wanted to fall into her sleep and stay there. If she ever wanted to stay in Howl Town for a little while longer. 

 A nurse in light green scrubs helped me walk into the OR. She held the back of my gown closed and carried my saline drip up high above our heads. In the operating room men and women in white gowns, blue hair nets, and matching blue gloves waited for me. I was told to sit and arch my back like a cat and one of the nurses pressed his forehead against mine, telling me to hold his long fingers and clench tight while unseen hands worked on my spine. Long, tube-like needles went into my vertebra and I can’t even say for sure if I remember pain. Only a disjointedness. Like two hands were pushing my bones in opposite directions, separated mind from body. I watched as they prepped my naked body for surgery. They painted my belly with iodine that turned my skin a bright orange and then marked where they were going to cut with a fat blue marker. My son kicked a final time, and then I couldn’t feel anything.

My son. I couldn’t feel his kicks, his hiccups, his pressed movements. Gone. And even though I knew, logically, what was happening, that in fifteen minutes I’d see him, there was that other part of my brain that was screaming to curl or run because the creature I’d been feeling and growing had vanished. 

 Cut. Awake. Cut. Not feel. Nothing. You won’t feel. Cut. Nothing.

Before, I’d been the pregnant lady who walked around with her hands on her belly, long before there was even much of a bump there. I didn’t want to miss a thing. I wanted him to know right away how close we were. How I was just a thin bit of skin away. That I loved even the idea of him. 

The surgical team put the curtain up, one more divide between my mind and body. I was a head, two arms, and half of a chest. I’d begged my doctor not to strap my arms down; they flapped like bird wings from the epidural, thumping against the outstretched armrests that reminded me of a crucifix. 

 Cut. Awake. Cut. Not feel. Nothing. You won’t feel.

Thank you, horror, for giving me Elsie in The Silent Companions. Her baby was born dead and full of splinters. I could hold onto that because for all the things that could go wrong, at least that wasn’t one of them, right? Thank you, horror, for giving me My Best Friend’s Exorcism. Like Gretchen holding onto her body, I held onto sanity. 

Cut. Awake. Cut. Not feel. Nothing.

Somehow, I’d known. Somehow I’d always known. When I listened to women’s stories on childbirth and back labor, somehow, I’d known I’d never experience labor. I knew I would have children and never know the pain of childbirth. My trauma was to be the one thing I feared above pain, above loneliness and loss, above hearing unknown noises in the dark. I would endure a cage. Trapped. And I think the fact that I was contained inside my own body made it that much worse, because I love myselfthis body I’ve grown with. I love running, I love curling up on the couch, I love being able to scrunch up and fit into tight places or between bars or pull myself out of tiny bathroom windows. I love climbing over fences and that first dive into a cold pool. I love being in this house, this castle of flesh and bone that used to run relay in track, this body that conceived and grew my child. So, for it to turn into my prison? To no longer feel my son?

Cut. Awake. Feel. Nothing. 

And something, some piece of my brain snapped. I could almost hear the ting of what had once been tight and drawn get slashed and become loose and floppy. Like I’d been holding onto a life preserver, the rope connecting me to the boat had been there, was keeping me. Then someone, something severed it. 

Without it, I drifted off to sea.


Out there, alone, it was horror who reached a slimy, hot hand out of the freezing ocean water. It had to be horror because who else would be brave enough? Who else would have been that far in open ocean? Who else could survive? I reached back. Out there under dark skies and bucking waters, we held on tight. 


And then I heard my son cry.

I don’t know how to piece myself back together. I know that I’m shattered. Sewing the pieces of my mind back together is laborious and painful. Every time I get one fragment sort of back where it used to be, I find another piece, and another, and another. I never thought I could be so broken, so scattered. 

The horror of it? That this was a successful birth. That this was a good surgery. How could it have gone so thoroughly well and yet I still have nightmares about doctors dragging me into an operating room to cut pieces of me away while I’m awake and watching? After a night of those dreams, I wake up and spend the day pacing and clutching my son to my chest so I can feel his heartbeat, his little steady breaths. It feels like I’m protecting him. It feels as if the doctors had plunged their hands into the open cavity of my body to steal him rather than save him—save us. It feels like they could do it again, at any moment. 

But, horror is helping me. Horror demands my attention and allows my mind those necessary breaks from reality. I can watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre and heal. I can read The Girl Next Door and heal. Little by little. Horror allows me to funnel my adrenaline, my anxiety into something else. Like it’s holding those feelings for me. One deep breath at a time, horror is helping me kick my way out of open ocean. I can do it. I’ll get there.

What does horror mean to me? Company. A hand to hold. That mad, mad hatter who whispers: if you can’t look on the bright side, then I will sit with you in the dark.


Opening Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash