I had already written a list about my favorite horror movies from the past ten years. However, once I began editing, I saw just how sterile that list was. Not necessarily something I wanted to do, or worse, be known for. So, I deleted the list and started over. I had a new problem now–what could I do to make this list more interesting? The issue with the original was, it felt detached. Like a machine had written it. Which is when I realized I had to do something I normally would not do in my writing–I had to get personal.
I can’t help but notice the movement towards personal statements in the horror community. I’ve tried my hand at doing this even if it feels uncomfortable. As sentimental as I am towards the genre, I equally find it difficult to articulate why I love horror.
I had to think long and hard about why these specific films resonate so much with me. When it comes right down to it, it’s because they matched up with my life in some way at the right time. They were one of many coping devices for what I consider the worst period of my life.
2010: Burning Bright
Back when I was living in Austin, I had convinced a friend to see Paranormal Activity 2 with me. I was the only horror fan in our group so this was no easy task. Days before our showing, my father called. He said my mother had been taken to a hospital in Houston because she had a stroke.
My mother recovered in the hospital for two months until she could come home. The family business, a small restaurant, had to be run by someone in the meantime. That someone being me.
As I waited for my mother to return home and take back her business, I watched movies. Lots of them. I had already seen Burning Bright – a woman staves off a ferocious tiger during a hurricane – shortly before I had left Austin, but I felt the urge to give it another watch. Under the guise of a natural disaster thriller, this drama typifies hardships. Whether it be forces of nature banging at your door, or you having to put a loved one’s needs before your own, Burning Bright neatly captures undue strain in under ninety minutes.
With my mother now home, I had to accept the fact that she could never work again. And, she would need someone to take care of her.
2011: The Innkeepers
The hospitality industry can often feel like hell on earth. The jobs are soul-crushing, the clients are ungrateful, and you’re likely underpaid. What others have told me sounds like a “great way to meet all different kinds of people” ended up being traumatizing. Bigotry, uncalled-for rudeness, and sheer humiliation are among the things I dealt with while managing my mother’s restaurant.
Ti West drew attention with his breakthrough film The House of the Devil. Some say he hasn’t lived up to that movie since then, but that’s an overstatement of the highest order. In 2011, his ‘mumblegore’ flick The Innkeepers proved he was no one-hit wonder.
A common complaint about The Innkeepers is its pacing. Yes, it meanders for a good part of the story. At the same time, there’s thoughtful attention to what it’s actually like working in this kind of job–listless and wholly unpleasant. You manage others’ lives while ignoring your own. The necessary buildup to the distressing ending also gives new meaning to the phrase, “My job is killing me.”
I confess that sex sometimes makes me uncomfortable. And, by extension, I am not comfortable with my body. I am the type of person who will let himself be consumed by a bodily flaw–superficial or functional.
Richard Bates, Jr. visualizes carnal anxiety in his psycho-sexual coming-of-ager Excision. What begins as a film about surviving adolescence and repressing sexual desires ends up being an unhinged body horror. AnnaLynne McCord wows as the disturbed protagonist, and Traci Lords stuns as her overbearing mother.
Lurid and visceral, Excision wonderfully translates adolescent pangs into something beautifully horrifying.
2013: Jug Face
I would be lying if I said if I grew up in a podunk. My Texas hometown is far from that, but it’s not a progressive or enlightening place to live either. If you don’t fit in, others will let you know at every chance they can get. Their desire to make you feel ‘included’ only ends up doing the exact opposite.
Chad Crawford Kinkle tackles fatalism in Jug Face, a disquieting tale set in a backwoods community. He paints a bleak picture of someone wanting to escape ignorance and familial abuse. It dances with cynical ideas and ignores any chance of happy endings. Jug Face is the harshest kind of Southern Gothic horror.
The movie’s outcome is cruel, but it relates to how I felt for so many years. Still feel. Trying to leave behind what all ails you is never easy. Yet, the hope that you can some day is a cold comfort.
2014: Late Phases
Family is – and always will be – a sensitive issue for me. I I love my parents, but, for them, returning that love has never been easy. There are so many factors as to why my parents are so hardened–fleeing a war-torn country and cultural differences being the most obvious. So, I have to keep that in mind when expecting them to act like everyone else’s parents.
In Late Phases, an austere veteran and father has to ultimately reconcile with his son before saving his retirement community from werewolves. What easily could have been a generic creature features turns out to be an affecting thriller with a grand redemption arc.
The fine character study at the core of Late Phases speaks to anyone with a tenuous relationship with their parents. As for me, it’s a reminder of how I’ll always try with my mother and father even if they don’t do the same with me.
2015: The Final Girls
I love horror for its ability to make the impossible possible. And, although the genre has always made me emotional, Todd Strauss-Schulson‘s The Final Girls lifted me up in a way like never before.
All my life, I have been accused of being cold and boring. Depression can do that to you. It got to the point where I frequently phoned in my emotions because it was easier to do that than just admit there was a problem.
A few years into my role as both caregiver and breadwinner, I was edging towards utter numbness. What woke me up was The Final Girls. Its perfect balance of comedy and heart-rending drama did the trick. A film I expected to be a throwaway horror-comedy made me cry. And, wow, what a good cry that was.
2016: The Neon Demon
My unbearable shyness has curtailed my doing of many things. From making new friends, to applying for a job I want, I just cannot fathom the courage that comes so easily to others.
So, the thought of leaving everything I know and starting over somewhere entirely new is daunting. Seeing it unfold so insidiously in The Neon Demon is also terrifying. Nicolas Winding Refn‘s film paints a menacing picture about seeking out fame. The literal blurring and merging of women in the movie is rattling.
The Neon Demon is an alluring psycho-horror, but it definitely does not ease my anxiety about trying new things and getting out of my bubble.
2017: Happy Death Day
2017 was a lonely year. The weight of my depression was unquestionable, and I really had no one to talk to about it. Since moving home, people had taken advantage of me – emotionally or physically – and I was all but a shell of myself.
Some might dread going to the movies alone, but, at this point, I was the only company I trusted. I saw Happy Death Day by myself on opening night, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Heartfelt, humorous, and thoughtful–Christopher Landon‘s horror-comedy was singularly the most fun I had had in what felt like ages.
If there is one constant in my lifelong depression, it would be my relationship with my mother. It wasn’t until I moved away did I see her for who she really was. And, the way I am now is a reaction to years of endless abuse and ridicule.
2018 was the beginning of new things for me. I had decided to make horror the impetus for changing my life. The way I felt when watching these movies was how I wanted to feel all the time. I started to have my writing published, and I was getting my life in order. On top of that, I had finally found someone who understood me.
Hereditary was lost on many viewers. They wanted something traditional and digestible, but, like life, Ari Aster‘s debut is complicated. It’s a hard-hitting look at grief and the lengths we go to to overcome it. Couple that with Toni Collette‘s adept and untamed performance as the mourning matriarch, and Hereditary is a horror knockout.
As beguiling as Hereditary is, it’s hard to rewatch, too. When I see Toni‘s character respond the way she does, I commiserate. I feel the weight of my own losses – temporal and otherwise – and I remember I still have a lot of healing to do.
2019: Daniel Isn’t Real
Stress about killed me in 2019. I was anxious about my writing, the restaurant, money, and my health. Things hadn’t gotten any better with my mother either; our fights were neverending. I finally had a breakdown.
Adam Egypt Mortimer‘s Daniel Isn’t Real could not have come at a better time. This cathartic horror about overcoming personal demons spoke to me. Watching the protagonist be released from his torment was inspiring.
My own relief came shortly before winter. Our restaurant was so damaged by a storm that it made more sense to sell it and move on. The business I had kept going to pay off my mother’s debt and make ends meet was gone. The restaurant and I are the same age so it was a strange feeling to let it go. Long last, something that had eaten away at me was out of my life. I was free.
My mother approached me, second-guessing the restaurant situation. She tried to convince me to reconsider and keep the business open. I revealed how I really felt, and how that place was a reminder of the time I had lost. I didn’t think my mother – a woman who has never quite understood me or respected all I had done for her – would get it, but she surprised me. She told me it was okay, and that selling was the right choice.
Today, I feel lighter. Even though it will take time before I’m at peace with the last ten years, I know it’s behind me. I spent so much time cleaning up other people’s messes and being selfless. But, with the new year within view, I’ve made a conscious choice to be a little more selfish all the while remembering how horror kept me alive this past decade.