Growing up, I was not a crier.
One of those anecdotes my family loves to repeat: When I was first learning to walk, I wouldn’t make a sound if I fell down and hurt myself. Instead, I’d sit there on my diapered rear, looking solemn. So, one day, my grandma came up to me and said, “Honey, it’s okay to cry.”
I punched her in the face.
Later on in life I ran across a few situations that probably merited tears, but I never could figure out how to cry. (And, as I learned firsthand, there comes an age when it isn’t cute to express your emotions through whacking people anymore.) I cried over high school crushes, but for the most part, anything more intense would make me clam up.
I remember sitting through tearjerkers like Up and Big Fish while my friends or family wept around me. There were plenty of jokes about how I was heartless, or they were too emotional. I wasn’t an easy scare either, when it came to horror movies. If you’re the kind of person who believes in gender stereotypes, you’d call me the man in every relationship I’ve had: I kill the bugs, I let my lover hold my hand in scary movies (and when they have nightmares after), and I don’t show my feelings.
The thing is, I wasn’t feeling my feelings either, and I wanted to. Crying, or at least sitting with your sadness for a while, is cathartic. You do it, and you move on. There was plenty I wanted to move on from. For a while, I sought out the saddest movies and songs I could. I’d sit in front of Youtube and watch these recordings of sobbing people having their pets euthanized. Nothing.
Then I saw a horror movie alone, and I caught myself off guard by bursting into helpless, noisy tears.
I think it was The Last Exorcism. Later on, when I went to see sequel in theaters, I cried too. (No, not because of how awful it was.) For a few years, I went by myself to see every horror movie the week it released: Chernobyl Diaries, Paranormal Activity 4, Sinister, The Possession, The Woman in Black. Some were good, or at least fun to watch. Others were terrible, but inevitably, I left the theater sniffling and all wrung out.
And it felt great. It felt like I was finally getting somewhere in life. I just couldn’t help wondering what the hell it was all supposed to mean. The movies that hit hardest tended to feature young girls as the subject of a ritual or a possession, which didn’t frighten me and certainly hadn’t happened to me.
…Unless, in a way, I actually had been through something similar.
I remembered how my ex, the one who hit me, used to be terrified of the woman from The Grudge. He said that for a long time after he first saw the movie, he’d sit awake at night, staring at the corners and waiting for a wispy dark cloud of her hair to appear. Which he thought was strange, because usually, he was most attracted to girls who looked like her — and like me — with long dark hair and pale skin. He was so terrified that if my hair fell over my face or I got too quiet, he’d yell at me.
I told him, “Maybe it’s because you’re afraid of what you love most turning on you.”
From where I am today, this sounds silly, but his fear gave me power. He could hurt me, he could manipulate me, he could shout at me, but he was also afraid of me. Afraid that the weak, intimidated person he knew might be taken over by something stronger. I don’t think he feared the supernatural so much as he feared me snapping out of it and finding a way to get back at him.
Movies that center on exorcism still scare us today, although the historical events that inspire them are often a case of misinterpreting disability. Some even take comfort in reclaiming exorcism as a way to handle their illnesses.
I can relate. The girls who star in these movies are innocent in a way I never got to be. The ghosts or demons that haunt them also give them the ability to hurt and terrorize — without being fully themselves, without marring their innocence.
I spent my childhood at the mercy of illness, feared for what it might do to me. I spent my early adulthood at the mercy of a man, feared for what I might do to him. I had power over others that came at a great expense to me. I was scared to show my feelings to anyone who asked, because I knew that an honest answer would make them scared, too. Or angry, or sad. Sometimes this felt good; it gave me a secret advantage. Usually, though, it just made me feel beyond helping.
These movies reflected my experience in a way real life never could. The protagonists don’t mean to cause any trouble. Some of them fight against the entity that seeks to take them. Some of them embrace it. Either way, they don’t come out the other side unscathed, and no one will ever look at them in quite the same way.
I cried because a handful of scriptwriters out there accidentally managed to understand me. They stuck up for me. They made me sympathetic.
These days, there’s less of a disconnect between me and my feelings. I still love horror, and I’m still not a big crier, but I no longer need to see pretty little girls in white dresses be tortured and turned into monsters before I’m able to feel something for myself. I’ve gotten better at processing my experiences, and I think I’ve finally cried myself out.
And I still don’t like it when people fawn over me and ask me if I’m feeling okay, but I can usually brush them off or tell them the truth, which is a big step up from smashing them right in the nose.