Horror, OCD, and Me

Last year, I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD as many of us know it. While the label was slapped on me at 25, I think I’ve been dealing with it in at least some form for most of my life. Simply put, it is a disorder where people have obsessions and compulsions. It can be quite nebulous in its manifestations, but when it comes to onscreen depictions, OCD is seen as a fear of contamination and a need for cleanliness. Characters such as Tony Sheloub’s Monk from Monk or Jack Nicholson’s Melvin from As Good As It Gets are prime examples of stereotypical representations of OCD; they must wash their hands constantly, they obsessively count, they can’t step on cracks in the sidewalk, they are afraid of everything. These rituals and fears then make them weird and their OCD makes them unrelatable. But that’s not how OCD manifests for everyone; for some people, contamination fears are a large part of their compulsion. That’s not the case for me. If I never have to hear someone say to me, “but you’re messy, you can’t be OCD,” I’d be so elated. My OCD is much more internal, meaning I don’t have many visual compulsions. My mind is constantly flooded with obsessive thoughts about harm coming to myself and others, which means I’m always trying to find ways to avoid that harm. This can manifest through planned walking routes, constantly checking the oven, counting my steps, biting my nails, the list goes on and often changes depending on my stress levels.

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A phenomenal and hilarious wikiHow image of what OCD looks like to this artist.

A large part of figuring out how to cope with my OCD has involved recognizing the deeper meaning of my personal relationship to the horror genre. Horror has always been a part of my life. I have devoured horror films and books since an inappropriate age, finding a strange solace in the violence. Slumber parties always involved horror movies. I owned almost all of R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike’s books. I watched horror trailers obsessively. I dove into the world of pirated movies so I could watch the latest horror indies. It’s always just been part of who I am, so when I was diagnosed with OCD, I didn’t think at all about how this could link to my love of horror.

But, over time and through therapy, I’ve realized that horror is a comfort for me as I paddle through a sea of intrusive thoughts that bring me massive anxiety. Intrusive thoughts involve violence against myself or others that play on a constant loop and often lead to mild to massive panic attacks. They are exhausting and difficult to cope with, especially when you’re too scared to share them with anyone around you. So, for me, I subconsciously turned to horror movies, particularly more violent ones like those found in the New French Extremity, as a way of processing and drowning out the scenarios that my brain often constructs.

I’ve written extensively about the New French Extremity and its films such as High Tension, Inside, and Martyrs, diving into their use of violence, their gender dynamics, and their relationship to queerness. But I’ve never really addressed the odd comfort they bring me. These films are always brutally violent and nihilistic, which sounds horrible to most people. But, to me, they are shining beacons. They are places of repulsion where I can experience a catharsis, places where my own thoughts are drowned out or at least mirrored back to me. In seeing fountains of blood and viscera, I can comprehend the outlandish nature of my own thoughts and somehow process them through a sea of red. 

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Is that an intrusive thought or a killer in a gas station bathroom?

High Tension, a movie I have a strange obsession with, was my first film of the New French Extremity, screened as part of an undergraduate horror film class. Previously, I had hated films such as Saw and Hostel, with their masculine torture porn narratives that were pointlessly violent and full of spectacle. Yes, I understand how strange that sounds for a person talking about processing intrusive thoughts through violence, but I will explain. Gore had never really appealed to me because it seemed utterly pointless. That is, until I saw High Tension. It is a film that opened up new avenues of disgust for me, helping me realize the art of gore and how it can be used it creative ways to tell a story full of nihilism and hopelessness. With each brutal kill, from knocking off a man’s head with a dresser to another man getting attacked with a barbed-wire-covered baseball bat, I shivered in fear but watched with wide, excited eyes. It wasn’t because the violence excited me, but because it was a place where my anxieties were being recognized and acknowledged. Plus, High Tension was centered on women, which was new to me, even though its depictions of queerness are questionable at best. 

In fact, many films of the New French Extremity focus on violence against women, which to some can be seen as exploitative. For me, these films were an outlet for my fears as a woman, a place where I could see versions of my worst fears played out so I wouldn’t have to think about them on repeat. They were capturing my intrusive thoughts and exorcising them from me. 

For some with OCD, horror is probably the opposite of helpful, only giving them more scenarios to obsess about or inform their intrusive thoughts. But for me, it is a way to process and express the buzzing inside the wasp’s nest that is my brain. I go to therapy, take my medication, utilize my personal support system, practice my cognitive behavioral therapy skills, and use horror as an extra security blanket. It is a place where I can process my intrusive thoughts, a place where I don’t feel so alone. My OCD does not mean I am violent or wish to ever act out my thoughts. But seeing these scenarios on screen makes me feel a little less scared of my own brain. Horror films are a cathartic release for me, a place where I can try to make sense of my thoughts, and a place where I can recognize their ridiculousness. Horror is comfort. So, for the foreseeable future, it’ll be horror, OCD, and me, a strange, slightly perverse iteration of the three musketeers. 

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