I’ve never been a fan of horror movies. Most of the time it’s the genre I most ardently avoid. I can probably name almost all of the horror movies I have ever seen, and this was while growing up with a best friend who was absolutely obsessed with horror movies. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy being scared — quite the opposite, really — but I didn’t enjoy what oftentimes was supposed to create that fear: blood, gore, murderers, and ghouls. The latter, really, was the only one I cared about.
Horror movies frightened me something awful as a child, but I still had a vested interest in their subjects. In the way they presented their stories, in the fear of their characters and the creatures and situations that brought their souls to bear.
I first encountered that thrill when I picked up Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark in my elementary school library. It was a form of strange yet cathartic emotional masochism, one I practiced each evening to the detriment of my sleep. It got to the point that my mother, observant of these habits and disproving of them, requested strongly that I stop taking these books out. Ever the acquiescent child, I obliged. But I still found myself drawn to those corners of the library, hand hovering over the thin spines of the books, thinking of what specters lurked there.
I had no interest in the Goosebumps books, which had a monopoly on my friends’ attentions, because I began to think horror was something which I was to always fear. I didn’t watch Are You Afraid of The Dark? either and when my friends began to sneak in viewings of Friday the 13th or Halloween to sleepovers, I was the first to decline and request something a little bit lighter. And yet, I also found myself the first to ask on such nights, after the lights had been turned off and we were nestled soundly in our sleeping bags, if anyone had any scary stories to share. This was the part of fright I loved the most — just us and our voices in the dark, huddled tight and eyes wide, recalling any ounce of supernatural we may have encountered. I asked for stories at campfires and bonfires, when were sitting under patched quilts with the forest at our backs. I wanted to feel the soft creep of a that familiar chill like fingers pinching gently at my shoulder one at a time.
The night had always called to me, even though I knew it was full of things I’d rather not meet. Even if I would spend time staring up at the darkness from my bed, imagining things not there. And it wasn’t until watching Mike Flanagan’s horror anthologies that I realized, truly, what ghost stories had always been to me.
The first real horror movie I sat down to watch in full — with my mother, mind you — was The Grudge. The American version.
To this very day, nearly 15 years later, I am still cordially afraid of crawlspaces in closets. I can still hear that groaning sound the woman makes, her halting, backwards walk down the stairs, the boy with the cat eyes gripping at the railing. It kept me up for days after I watched it, much to my mother’s chagrin, and I realized that it wasn’t the ghost story I had wanted to see. It was an okay film (although not as good as, I imagine, the original) in its own right, but much like my draw to any specific kind of story this one was scary in its visuals more than its contents. Images, like the scrawled drawings in Scary Stories, hung in my mind long after I had thought I’d let them depart. It’s why I began to turn from the more visually frightening horrors as a way to protect a fragile night countenance, even if I wanted desperately to understand my fascination with them.
Horror, to me, had always been a diaspora of ghost stories. But I realized quite quickly that gore and violence were predilections of the genre too, that the same space that houses Frankenstein also has The Hills Have Eyes. I loved the former and could not stomach the latter, so initially I feared that I would simply never love horror as defined by modern leanings. Gothic fiction, in all its various capacities, has always been my greatest horror love. The dilapidated houses, the unkempt gardens, the empty hallways, the ghostly apparitions we neither can confirm nor absolutely deny the existence of — they played into a particular obsession of mine with things unseen. Some of my favor horror films grapple with the idea of an unknown element at play that allows the characters we follow to reflect on their own desires or fears. The Witch is one, The Conjuring is another (mostly because it is frankly just a great ghost story), and the ones that features at the top are Mike Flanagan’s anthology Haunting of masterpieces.
Horror is not a monolith of stories, but it was a rarity to encounter one in which I could glimpse pieces of my own life. True crime being, perhaps, the most logical evolution of that interest. One I developed after watching Unsolved Mysteries and C.S.I. at a young age. Neither of those quite constitute horror, really, but there is a haunting in death and stories about death. Not in the action of it, as I have never enjoyed overt or exploitative violence in any medium, but in the depth of its reality. As a child when my notions of death and life were born from more biblical understandings, of the reassurances of heaven and innocence that only specific moments of childhood really bear the weight of, death was a fascinating next step. But as I grew up and away from the church I began to foster a darker vision of such fairy tales. I began to recall the ghosts that had haunted me as a child and saw them as more than stories to frighten my surface sensibilities. They were to dig at the roots of being human, of facing the reality of trauma and grief and folly, of love and loss and impermanence.
And that, too, keeps me up at night. Wondering not on what monsters — human or otherwise — might lurk outside my door or be curled under my bed but what my life might look like empty of those I love most. Which parts of my mind time might tear, what life might look like on the other side of tragedy, what it might feel like to never truly know, which parts of me were capable of great darkness — these were the quiet hauntings that made me. And these are the things that compose the narrative essence of Haunting of Hill House and Haunting of Bly Manor.
Love is at the center of these stories. Familial, romantic, tragic. And it’s through that lens we glimpse something that, while seeming far less threatening than the immediacy of some other horror stories, grapples with those very consequences of trauma.
Axe wielding murderers, mutant families with depraved drives, devilish spirits, dark entities bent on revenge, demons, ghouls, zombies — all of these monsters create very real fear within their respective stories. I’m not one to claim that being killed in a gruesome way or being otherwise under constant threat by said pursuers is any less frightening than contemplative stories on human ephemerality — but there is a difference in what these stories do when they keep me up at night.
And watching the finale of Bly Manor kept me up at night. It was not that I feared the lurking of monsters, or the twist of my doorknob beckoning in an unknown stranger, it was in the grief. It was seeing the love that was fostered between Jamie and Dani end in the same place it began — the Manor itself. It was understanding that the unfurling tragedies of the past had brought this one to bear, it was that it was unstoppable. That no matter how hard Jamie tried to pull Dani back from her darkness, she was unsuccessful. This could be read metaphorically, of course it can, and the tragedy of that was gutting.
I remember staring at my ceiling the night I finished it and seeing when Jamie waded into the lake to find Dani’s body at the bottom, the gentlest of ghosts now haunting the Manor, and I could not drag myself from that place. I felt like Viola pulling apart my room, trying to remind myself of who I was in the tumult of these other people’s feelings. That I was here, myself, safe in my own bed. That the city outside was where I lived, nowhere else. But I felt the tears on my cheeks and tried to understand why I couldn’t pull myself from ghosts there weren’t mine.
I have felt fear from horror stories before and I know I will again. My love of Gothic literature means I will always go down those dark halls and fallen houses, those crumbling gardens and fading statuaries. I will find in them ghosts both familiar and unknown. And on the darker nights, when a part of me seeks that familiar creep up my spine, that reassurance of not being so alone with it all— I will walk those empty halls and know those ghosts once more.
As they say on Bly Manor, in a repetition with consequences both stark and beautiful, “it’s you, it’s me, it’s us.”