It's often a surprise to a lot of people that I came to horror very recently. Both my general goth aesthetic and my full-throated love of horror seem to speak to years of experience, not a newbie dipping her toes into shark-infested waters. But there's a simple answer to this dissonance.
I, Clare McBride, am a weenie.
It's true. Beneath this sour-eyed exterior lies an entire Weenie Hut Jr. Growing up, I avoided horror as a genre entirely. At the time, I had a very poor grasp on what would or wouldn't send my anxiety in hyperdrive, so I just avoided anything that could give me Fear Cooties. Offenders included the opening of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, my bedroom closet, my bedroom window, the Wikipedia pages for the entirety of the Friday the 13th franchise, and, of course, any and all horror movies. Unless they were in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, where Fear Cooties could be successfully neutralized by riffing.
But something shifted for me when Get Out was released. I didn't see it at the time, but the promotional campaign was impossible to ignore. Jordan Peele's transition from comedy to horror was treated as a left turn by many, but Peele pointed out that comedy and horror follow the same structure: a build-up of tension and then a release of that tension.
In hindsight, this is obvious, but things like this are never actually apparent until they occur to you. Having skittered away like a cockroach all my life, I'd never stopped and considered that horror films could be just as cathartic as a truly transcendent piece of comedy. At that time in my life, I desperately needed some catharsis, so I began, under the supervision of friends, to explore the genre.
As I developed my taste for (cinematic) blood, I discovered something surprising: My anxiety liked horror. My relationship with my anxiety vastly improved when I began exploring and interrogating my fears, both rational and irrational, rather than running away from them and pretending they didn't exist. Horror is a cinematic genre devoted to doing exactly that, even if it's as simple as capitalizing on a contemporary fear for a schlocky gorefest. I'm not going to pretend that this will work for everyone, but for a weenie drawn to horror, it changed everything. Here's a space where I can do the work I'm already doing, but now with ghouls, supernatural nasties, and special effects. I left Midsommar feeling more exhilarated and alive than I'd felt all summer. If you'd told 11-year-old me that, she would have locked all of the windows in the house against whatever vampire she'd age into.
Now, I'm still a weenie; my newfound love of horror hasn't changed that. I still spend some evenings shrieking periodically just to let the ghosts know that I am ONTO THEM. But I've learned to make peace between these two sides of myself and enjoy the ride.
And so can you! Horror is not for everyone, and that's perfectly all right. But if you, like me, feel called to horror but are afflicted with weenieness, here are some things that helped me along the way that might help you.
One of my major turning points with horror was Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves, an adaptation of Angela Carter's werewolf stories from her collection The Bloody Chamber. I'd acquired the DVD (this was long before I could find it streaming anywhere) for an abandoned project on fairy tale retellings.
The Company of Wolves is beautiful, fantastical, and features both a wolf bursting through a man's face snout-first and a man ripping off his own skin down to the sinew in order to gruesomely transform into a wolf. Labyrinth approaches a fairy-tale-esque story of a young woman coming of age by filtering it through a fantasy lens; The Company of Wolves approaches the same topic covered in blood and repudiating the ruling class. For me, it was a perfect stepping stone into horror proper. I love adaptations and I love Neil Jordan's work. It worked like a charm.
The aspiring horror-loving weenie would do well to start small like this, finding connections to things you already enjoy. It'll both build up your tolerance and give you a sense of direction for your exploration.
Hone your technique.
Starting small and familiar will also help you hone your horror watching technique without running the risk of seriously freaking yourself out. There are ways to ameliorate the impact of horror without defanging it. Maybe watching something alone late at night is a bad idea, so you might want to watch with friends. Maybe having the captions on is a necessity, not a bonus. (To be honest, it's always a necessity in my house because I'm old and easily distracted.)
The two things that are particularly helpful for me are watching horror communally and extravagantly exercising my right to flinch. It's easier to get into the cathartic headspace with an audience, friends, or even just yelling on Twitter. And I have become a virtuoso of flinching. No longer do I terrify the filmgoing public by shrieking in non-scary movies (I'm sorry about Crimson Peak, y'all, it took me by surprise!); I've learned to avoid particularly gory shots by milliseconds. I flinch like an editor.
Your technique will look different than mine, but give it some thought as you move forward.
Know your limits.
Part of exploring fear through horror is knowing what fears you don't want to explore.
Look, some things are just not for me, and that's why DoestheDogDie.com was created. If all the queer characters end up dead or a dog is harmed (physically or emotionally), then I just don't even need to go there in the first place.
It might be a specific trope; it might be a subgenre. Personally, I'm never going to enjoy the gore extravaganzas, and you know what? That's okay. They're for the people who do, and I can just take all the Saw memes I like and be on my merry way. There's no shame in looking at something (of any genre, to be honest) and saying, "You know what, this isn't my bag and I'd rather spend my time elsewhere."
Follow your (bloody, bloody) heart.
We may be weenies, you and I, but something draws us to the genre. I'm discovering a deep love for supernatural-tinged horror that externalizes inner conflicts and lets those emotions be as raw and big and grotesque as they actually feel. (Yes, I do enjoy the films of Ari Aster, insofar as Hereditary can be an "enjoyable" experience, why do you ask?) So I've been seeking those out whenever I hear the wolf cry.
If you, like me, are coming to this late-ish in life, I'd caution you away from making a homework list (unless, of course, that's what you're into!). Rather, I'd encourage you to go by genre, actor, director, or even trope; I've been watching a lot of mummy movies lately simply because mummies are cool. I've always conceptualized consuming media as literal consumption, so let's stretch that metaphor to its breaking point and frame this as intuitive eating. Listen to the dictates of the little gremlin inside of you heeding the call of horror. She won't steer you wrong.
Are psychological thrillers more your jam? Great! Do you just want to watch slashers from the '80s in the crunchiest quality possible for maximum authenticity? Gore be with you, bud. Follow your bloody little heart, and you'll soon be ripping up horror movies with the best of them, even if you still have to check the closet before bed so those ghosts know you mean business.