Horror, in all its forms—books, movies, and other media—has captivated audiences for centuries. However, beyond the spine-chilling tales and fear-inducing narratives, lies a profound connection between horror and individuals who have experienced real-life trauma, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex-PTSD (C-PTSD). As a horror writer and former therapist, I have observed the intriguing relationship between trauma survivors and the horror genre, where the darkness of the movie theater or the solitude of a dark room at night acts as a womb-like atmosphere, offering a unique space for exploring their inner demons safely. Take my hand, dear reader, as we delve into the reasons why people with PTSD and C-PTSD are often drawn to horror.
The Womb-like Atmosphere of Horror
The allure of horror lies in its ability to create a womb-like atmosphere where individuals can immerse themselves in the darkness and escape from the overwhelming anxieties of real life. The movie theater, with its dark shroud, serves as a protective cocoon, enveloping viewers in an isolated space. Similarly, sitting alone in a dark room at night allows one to delve into the world of horror without external distractions, providing a sense of security and detachment from the outside world.
For those with PTSD or C-PTSD, this controlled environment offers an opportunity to confront their fears and traumas indirectly, akin to revisiting the womb, where safety and protection were paramount. Within the horror narrative, individuals may find a sense of comfort in knowing that they can escape at any moment by merely turning off the screen or closing the book.
The Attraction to Pretend Scare
People have an innate fascination with being scared, but only as long as it is within the realm of pretense. In horror, individuals can experience the thrill of fear and the adrenaline rush that accompanies it, all the while knowing that it is a fictional construct. This allows trauma survivors to engage with their emotions in a controlled manner. After all, during the traumatic event, the survivor had zero control. Regardless of their capabilities, their resourcefulness, and what they had to do to survive, they were robbed of their equilibrium. Horror can help restore that sense of balance.
For those with PTSD, emotions can be overwhelming and unpredictable, making it challenging to navigate everyday life. Engaging with horror can provide a regulated emotional experience where the fear is thrilling, but ultimately safe. This controlled stimulation can be a therapeutic way to explore emotions and fears in a manageable context, offering a respite from the unpredictability of trauma-related emotions.
Empowerment Through Control
Trauma often strips individuals of their sense of control over their lives (as I’ve mentioned previously). Horror, on the other hand, empowers the audience by allowing them to have control over their environment. The act of choosing to watch a horror movie or read a horror novel becomes a conscious decision, providing trauma survivors with agency over their experiences.
In the horror narrative, survivors are confronted with dangerous situations and terrifying foes, and yet they have the power to navigate these challenges alongside the characters. This sense of control allows trauma survivors to reclaim their sense of agency and find catharsis in the face of fictional horrors, even if they are unable to control their real-life traumas.
Shared Experience vs. Sharing Trauma
Horror offers a unique opportunity for individuals with trauma to share an experience with others without explicitly sharing their personal traumas. While it might be challenging to open up about one’s traumas, watching a horror movie with friends or participating in horror-themed events can foster a sense of shared experience and connection.
This shared experience allows trauma survivors to feel understood without having to divulge the details of their trauma. It creates a bond between individuals who may have undergone different traumas but can find common ground through the fear and exploration of horror narratives. Unlike sharing real-life traumas, which can be deeply distressing, engaging in horror as a shared experience offers a sense of solidarity and support.
The Liminal Space of Relative Safety
Real-life horrors are often too painful and distressing to confront directly. Trauma survivors may experience intense anxiety, dissociation, or retraumatization when attempting to explore their traumas consciously. Horror, on the other hand, provides a surrogate where individuals can navigate a liminal space—a state between the familiar and the unknown—of relative safety.
In this liminal space, trauma survivors can explore emotions and fears connected to their experiences while maintaining a level of detachment from their personal trauma. This emotional distance allows for a more controlled and regulated exploration of their traumas, offering the potential for healing and catharsis.
The Enduring Power of Horror
Horror serves as a unique and powerful vehicle for coping with real-life trauma, particularly for individuals with PTSD and C-PTSD. The dark shroud of the movie theater or the solitude of a dark room at night provides a safe space for exploring inner demons. People are drawn to the thrill of the imaginary scare, finding solace in the controlled environment where they can confront their fears without endangering themselves. Horror empowers trauma survivors, giving them a sense of control over their experiences and fostering connections through sharing fictional stories. Moreover, horror allows trauma survivors to exist in a liminal space of relative safety, enabling them to explore their emotions and traumas in a more regulated and therapeutic manner.
As a horror writer, I find it fascinating to witness how the genre I love deeply resonates with those seeking solace and healing. While horror may appear to be a mere source of entertainment for some, it possesses an underlying complexity that extends its impact to the realms of psychological healing and coping with trauma. For trauma survivors, horror is not just about fear—it’s about finding strength, resilience, and a sense of belonging in a world that often feels terrifyingly unfamiliar.
A final word…
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