My father liked to scare. It was fun for him to hide behind doors, waiting patiently for the right moment to jump out and scare me or my little brother. He loved to scare other people, too, but he didn’t appreciate it when they returned the favor. And for much of my childhood, I understood his penchant for scaring us as a mutual game that we were all playing together. He frightened us, and we ran away in mostly mock terror with grins plastered over our faces.
It’s fun to be scared. It’s fun to count the swift beats of your heart while wondering what lurks around the next corner. It’s fun to feel the skin of your palms go clammy as you wait patiently in anticipation of the scare. It’s fun to be scared when you when you know, you just know, that the monster isn’t real. It’s fun to be scared when you think the whole set-up is a sham and the stakes are low.
But, a good scare wasn’t always a fun game with my father. Maybe it never was. I learned early that his intentions were telegraphed into his actions, even as he tried to hide them. There was a hardening of his gaze and a sneer at the edges of his smile. It wasn’t really about fun, but power and control. What he really wanted was for us to be afraid and completely at his mercy. He wanted us scared because he wanted to show us who was in charge. He needed to assert that he controlled not only his life, but the lives of all of us connected to him.
He was the monster in my story. It only took me thirty-seven years to fully realize it.
I’ve loved horror since I first picked up worn-out books on ghost stories and tales about monsters from my elementary school’s library. The ghost stories gave me nightmares, but I keep reading them anyway. Before I could read ghost stories, I had already watched Gremlins, most likely with my father when I was in kindergarten. Later, I had a book about the adorable Gizmo and the fiendish gremlins with their sharp claws and even sharper teeth. I read the book so much that the cover and pages start to bend and tear. I had a stuffed Gizmo toy, which I refused to get wet or feed after midnight, because only suckers take those kinds of chances.
For years after watching Gremlins and then its sequel, I glimpsed their claws poking out from under the closed bathroom door in the hall of my mother’s double-wide trailer. Only the bright hall light kept the gremlin at bay, or so I told myself in urgent whispers and desperate prayers. I already knew one rule of horror as a genre: monsters were supposed to dwell in shadows, so light would keep me safe. Monsters had to play by the rules, or so, I hoped.
I moved from ghost stories to R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike to Dean Koontz and Stephen King. My father let me read his Koontz and King novels in middle school. Aliens, haunted places, serial killers, a plague and mass death, vampires, and, of course, a murderous clown. While staying at my father’s home one weekend, I read It.
The divorce settlement required I spend every other weekend with him. I would read horror novels, any novel, to pass the time. But It wasn’t just a regular horror novel because I couldn’t put It down. I had to know what happened to children in Derry, Maine. I had to finish it to see who survived. And yet, despite my best efforts at ignoring my brother, father, and stepmother, I couldn’t manage to read It in one day. I ended up sleeping on a foldout couch in the living room with my brother, too worried about an evil clown to stay in my own bed alone. It scared me, but I needed the scare. I wanted to be scared because being terrified taught me how to survive.
Throughout high school, I also watched horror movies. I couldn’t quite get enough of Freddie. I cared less about Jason. I screamed at the small screen: “Don’t open that door.” I watched the movies with my hands overs my eyes, peeking through the gaps between my fingers. I came to know the shape of a horror film: the rhythms of the plot, the variety of stories, the precision and skill that it takes to make something scary, and most importantly, the morality of horror.
Horror is a genre of stark morals and cosmic justice, or perhaps vengeance is the more accurate term. Once you were familiar with horror’s ethics, it was so easy to follow along and wait for blood and gore. Gruesome punishment awaited all of the hapless, questionable, or evil people who didn’t follow the rules. Following the rules was the only way to survive. In horror, actions had clear and direct consequences. Terrible people met their expected and equally terrible fates, unlike in everyday life. There was a small comfort in knowing that, at least in horror, rules were always enforced. The rules mattered. Those that hurt you got what they deserved.
And more importantly, in horror movies, there was almost always a girl left standing at the end. Granted, her clothes were covered in blood, and her body was beaten, bruised, and scarred. She had been run through the wringer, but, somehow, she made it. Her friends were dead. She was the one who lived, the only one able to survive the monsters. She’d seen shit that would give her nightmares for the rest of her life, if she ever managed to sleep again.
She’s the final girl, the one left to tell the tale. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She knew how to survive. I needed to know that I could, too.
One night, my father picked up a knife.
My memory of what happened is hazy. I’ve spent years trying to forget that night ever occurred. But banishing it to the recesses of my memory didn’t make it go away. I can still feel it. The fear, the terror, still swallows me whole, even now, as I try to remember. My hands start to quake—this what it feels like for your blood to run cold.
I was twelve, and this was the year that reality of my parents’ divorce and the aftermath made it hard to breathe, to think, to feel. Living separate lives at separate houses was overwhelming. It was a Tuesday or a Thursday, a week night, not a weekend. At this point, I was used to my father’s attempts to scare my brother and me. He routinely tried to scare us, and it was easier to scare my brother, six years younger and born of a different marriage. I was trying to no longer be scared. Being scared was for smaller kids. Being scared was for the weak. I was too old for kid stuff, I wasn’t weak, and I already knew that monsters weren’t real.
This night, however, wasn’t routine. Maybe he already attempted to scare us. Maybe we didn’t seem scared enough. Maybe we didn’t cower. Maybe we didn’t react in terror. Maybe we just didn’t care. Maybe he thought we needed to be taught a lesson. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
I do know that he called me a succubus, and I didn’t know what a succubus was. And then, he told me that a succubus has to die. I don’t know when he picked up the knife. I just know that when I turned to look at him that he was standing in the kitchen, illuminated by the light. As I tried to figure out what the hell was going on, there was a knife in his hand. A large knife. The biggest knife I’ve ever seen.
“It’s not funny,” I told him, “This is not funny at all.”
He didn’t respond.
“Daddy,” I pleaded.
When I looked at him, I didn’t see my father. I saw someone else, something else, looking out my father’s eyes. He was a monster, and I needed to run. We needed to run. If you had asked me, before that night, if I had trusted my father to keep me safe from harm, I would’ve bet my life on it. Looking at the knife in his hand, however, forever changed who I understood him to be. The game was never a game. My childhood was over as soon as my life was at stake. I learned that I never should have trusted him—with him, I was never safe.
So, we ran. We ran through the living room, through the master bedroom, and into the bathroom at the end of the single-wide trailer. I slammed the door, locked it, and huddled with my brother on the bathroom floor trying to stay as far away from the door as possible. I considered bracing the door, but feared he would stab through the flimsy door. My brother was crying. I was crying, big hiccuping sobs that I couldn’t stifle by pressing my hands to my mouth. If the monster couldn’t hear us, maybe he would forget we were near.
But the monster could hear us, and he knew we could hear him. He walked slowly. His thudding steps drew him closer and closer. He called, “Succubus, succubus, I coming to get you!” I knew he was going to kill me. I knew he was going to kill us. I knew we were both going to die.
I don’t know how long we stayed locked in that bathroom sitting next to each other on the floor. It felt like hours that stretched into eternity. Tears stained my face and clothes. My head throbbed. The monster still lurked outside. I could hear him breathing long after he quit taunting us.
Eventually, the monster tired of his game.
At the bathroom door, my father explained that what had just happened was a joke. That we couldn’t take a joke. That we couldn’t tell when something was funny. That we were being dramatic. That he just wanted to scare us. That he wouldn’t hurt us.
We didn’t open the door.
He got angry with our tears and terror. He stormed off, his footsteps vibrating the trailer floor.
I still didn’t open the door. We waited and waited and waited. The monster always comes back for one last pass. That’s a longstanding horror rule. It was safer to stay inside the bathroom on the cold, linoleum floor.
We didn’t open the door until it was quiet. I was mostly sure the monster wouldn’t return for one last scare. When we returned, I refused to look at our father as he stewed, silently angry with us. This was all of our fault. I could tell from his silence—I knew the knife would become my fault. I knew it, but his silent anger was a comfort. I knew how to maneuver around him to avoid his rage. I knew how to back down from the fight he wanted. I knew how to survive the taunts, insults, and the words he sharpened carefully to wound. I didn’t know how to manage a knife. I didn’t know what to do about a game that could easily become deadly. I knew I had survived. This time.
My mother picked me up promptly at 9 p.m.—never early or late, because my father would get angry and write poisonous letters to her. I never mentioned the knife or how I feared for my life to her. My father pretended that it had never happened. If I told my mother, I knew he would deny it, and there would be consequences for me, only me. I had to live with him; she didn’t. So, I pretended it never happened, but I knew it had because I could still see the monster lurking behind his eyes.
I learned to love horror because of my father, not my mother. My mother does not like scary movies. When she was in middle school, she watched Night of the Living Dead at the drive-in with her older sister. Night scared her so badly that she stopped watching horror movies altogether. Maybe she didn’t see the point in being scared. Maybe it wasn’t fun. To this day, she still refuses to watch horror films.
For a while, I stopped watching horror movies altogether. I told myself I lost interest. The truth was too uncomfortable to bear: monsters only follow the rules in movies.
Lately, I can’t seem to stop myself. I only want to watch horror. I binge-watched all the seasons of Scream Queens and the newer Scream television show. I rewatched Scream, Scream 2, The Craft, and The Lost Boys. I have watched the Winchester brothers of Supernatural slay monsters for thirteen seasons. I’m writing a book about zombie apocalypses, so I watch The Walking Dead, Romero films, and a whole host of other zombie movies and TV shows. I read fiction about zombies. I read any horror novel that Mira Grant publishes. Horror brings me comfort, even though I refuse to think about why.
My father loved horror movies and novels. His love of horror passed down to me, whether I wanted it or not. He’s the reason I first read Stephen King. He’s the reason I came to crave scary movies. He’s the reason I learned to love horror. And hell, he’s probably the reason I now analyze horror as a way to write and think about American culture. He’s responsible for my attachment to horror, even as I hate that he is.
I haven’t spoken to my father in nine years. I stayed around him longer than I should have, hoping that he would transform into a different father. He didn’t. And now, I doubt I’ll ever speak to him again. Sometimes, in real life, there are consequences for your actions.
And yet, I can’t quite get rid of my father’s presence. He still lurks in my dreams. Every few months, I have a dream that I’m trapped in house with him and can’t find a way out. It’s never the single-wide, though. It’s a 1970s ranch house with wood paneling that I claw at until my fingers bleed and my fingernails break. It’s a suburban tract house with nice furnishings, royal blue carpet, and no doors. It’s a house that has never ever been my home. Occasionally, other people are trapped with me. Once Lin-Manuel Miranda was confined in a house with me; I apologized profusely for getting him into such a dire situation. He watched me with his kind eyes, while I flung myself at walls, trying to make an exit where none existed.
A few nights ago, I had the dream again, but this time I was trapped in a nondescript house surrounded by spider webs. After I managed to escape the house, I tried to rip the webs apart, but they stuck to my hands and clung to my clothes. I tried to force my way through them and got caught. I screamed and screamed because I was trapped. Again.
When I woke up, I swore I could feel webs on my face. In my dreams, I was never able to escape my father. I’m stuck in house again and again, but I’m never locked in the bathroom with my back against the wall, praying that he doesn’t use the knife. Even my dreams seem to realize that living through that once was terrifying enough. I know I’m safe, but I don’t feel like it. He can’t hurt me anymore, I tell myself over and over. I’m still trying to convince myself to believe it.
I happened to read a review of the remake of It. I want to watch It, but I also don’t. The reviewer mentioned that the film did an excellent job of portraying childhood trauma and what it is like to survive trauma. I read the review and read it again because it never occurred to me that It was about survival and survivors. As a kid I rooted for the Loser’s Club because I needed good to triumph over evil. I needed those kids to make it because I needed to know kids made it through terrible shit. I needed them to survive. I needed them to show me how.
More than that, I needed to believe I could be a survivor. I needed to know that I could be a final girl, too. I could be the one who got away. I could be the one who was scarred, fragile, and broken, but made it to the end of the story. I could be the one that looks directly at all the carnage surrounding her and is still able to walk away, mostly in one piece. The final girl survived. I could, too, even if I was left with nightmares that will never go away.
As an adult, I know now why It spoke to me, even as it terrified me. The kids got away, but the monster came back. I got away, too. But I find myself waiting for the monster to return. He always gets another chance.