Horror and my anxious heart
I am trapped inside this house and most days I feel fine
A mouse goes walking in the woods one day and gets swallowed up by a wolf.
Inside the wolf, he meets a duck who has already been there for a while and has made himself at home. After the mouse asks a few practical questions (How did you get a tablecloth? Where did you find jam for your bread?), he asks the duck if he misses the outside world.
“I do not!” the duck replies. “When I was outside, I was afraid every day wolves would swallow me up. In here, that’s no worry.”
That’s my favorite line from Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s The Wolf, The Duck & The Mouse, a children’s book we borrowed from the library just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit our area. I can’t speak for everyone living with anxiety during an anxious time, but I feel like the duck living inside the wolf some days.
The schools have been closed for a week-and-a-half now, and I have been working from home while running a sort of feral homeschool for our three children on the porch. My wife, a nurse, has been on the front lines saving lives as usual. We have reasons to be nervous like anyone else.
But after years spent thinking about death and disaster during normal weeks, these abnormal weeks don’t feel all that different. Sometimes, in the pre-virus world, I felt dread for no reason at all. Here in isolation, confronted with a world of bad news, I feel oddly calm. It’s like I feel at home in the belly of the beast.
Like I said, not everyone with anxiety feels this way. A lot of my friends are white-knuckling it as their health insurance companies arbitrarily cut off access to remote mental health services. As I wrote in last week’s newsletter, this crisis is revealing the caprices of our private healthcare system, and it’s as important as ever to fight back. I was able to get my telehealth cognitive behavioral therapy covered after two days of arguing with my health insurance company, and I would encourage you to do the same — en masse with your coworkers if possible — until we can force a broader change.
There are a thousand more pressing issues in the world right now, but since a lot of us are craving distraction, I thought I would share some thoughts on one of my favorite diversions: horror movies.
In another counterintuitive feature of my experience with anxiety, I find comfort in watching scary movies at home. When I’m watching a truly engrossing horror film, it’s like I can feel the dread leave my body and transpose itself onto the situation on the screen. I sleep soundly afterward.
Assuming you are stuck at home with internet access, here are a few films currently available on streaming services that I’d recommend checking out:
Luz (2018, dir. Tilman Singer)
This was the first movie I watched after signing up for a free 30-day trial of the horror-only streaming service Shudder (promotion code: SHUTIN). I can’t speak to the quality of the rest of the library yet, but it seems like a hodgepodge of early classics and 21st-century indie stuff.
I can’t stop thinking about this one. Like a lot of great horror, it is built on the mystery genre. A German psychoanalyst uses hypnosis to pull a confession out of a taxi driver named Luz, who may or may not have summoned a demon as a Catholic school student and who may or may not have killed someone as an adult. The interrogation scenes are filmed in a thick haze and washed-out color with a warbly synth soundtrack, and the storytelling depends largely on some grotesque physical performances by the actors. In her role as Luz, Luana Velis does some masterful pantomime work with only a handful of props and a conference room chair.
Like a lot of the horror I enjoy, this film does not rely on jump-scares or gore to frighten. It produces a slow-building dread based on gradual revelation. It plays with the thin membrane between psychology and religion. It’s unsettling, that’s all.
The Wicker Man (1973, dir. Robin Hardy)
Like Luz, this classic British horror film is essentially a police procedural that goes straight to hell. A prudish police sergeant is sent to a remote island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, but when he gets there, the locals claim they’ve never seen the girl; meanwhile they lure him into a series of increasingly menacing pagan-inspired rituals.
I am guessing that much has already been written about The Wicker Man’s portrayal of the imperial gaze, so I’ll leave that to the experts. I’ll just say that this film is a foundational influence for a lot of directors involved in the recent folk-horror revival. If you enjoyed Midsommar, The VVitch, Apostle, or The Ritual, elements of those films will feel eerily familiar as you watch this one.
The Invitation (2015, dir. Karyn Kusama)
I’ve noticed a common thread in a lot of modern indie-horror films is that they mash together seemingly disparate forms and themes. In this case, the form is a classic one: sinister initiation into a California New Age cult. The themes are more prosaic: the pain of divorce, the awkwardness of socialization in your 30s, and the constrictive hold of bourgeois conventions.
This one boils down to a survival-thriller in the end, and if I were going to be pedantic, I might not consider it a true horror film. I am in no mood to be pedantic right now.
Tusk (2014, dir. Kevin Smith)
This is my favorite of Kevin Smith’s horror-comedies. It’s genuinely funny but also genuinely disturbing, which seems like a hard balance to pull off.
The premise is that an irony-poisoned podcaster (played by Justin Long, goaded by a puckish co-host played by Haley Joel Osment) travels to visit a Canadian recluse who has developed an obsession with walruses. The plot twist involves what critics would probably call “body horror,” although comparisons to the Saw franchise really don’t do it justice.
Wounds (2019, dir. Babak Anvari)
The first thing I will say about Wounds is that it does a good job capturing the sheer sweatiness of the weather in the American South. It’s set in New Orleans, and every character looks coated in a layer of ambient grease. This is roughly how I have felt during the months of May through September every year of my life.
The plot follows a bartender (played by Armie Hammer) who picks up a cell phone left behind by some miscreants who filmed a bloody fight that took place at his bar. As he tries to return the phone, he begins developing unexplained wounds on his body. Meanwhile his estranged girlfriend starts fixating on tunnel-like portals that she discovers while conducting late-night research online.
Like a lot of folk and occult horror, this movie features some vaguely described rituals and incantations. It also features an ungodly swarm of cockroaches. It’s a mystery that never fully resolves. It’s based in some form of spirituality that never gets explained. It bothered me. I loved it.
The image at the top is “Victime” by the painter Stanley William Hayter, who traveled to Spain in 1937 and witnessed the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. It is held in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David K. Anderson, Martha Jackson Memorial Collection.