Twitch cry.
March 14, 2009 12:43 PM   Subscribe

How can I minimize the effects horror stories have on me?

I'm a total scaredy cat. I cannot watch horror movies, or read horror stories, because I don't stop thinking about it for hours and days and weeks and it makes me entirely too jittery to function. I also abhor suspense. Even a cliffhanger ending of a detective show, or something, will freak me out to the point where any small noise or surprise will trigger defensive reactions. I considered The Others scary, for heaven's sake.

I've dealt with this problem so far by mostly avoiding anything in the horror/thriller genre, at all.

Once in a while, though, either through carelessness or curiosity, I come across horror stories, or find myself in a position of watching a horror movie, and I'm a complete neurotic mess unable to do anything else for the entire day, if not more.

Example: I clicked on a somewhat enigmatic topic link on a forum I occasionally visit, because the seemed kind of intriguing. It ended up being a horror stories thread. By the time I realized what it was, 3-4 stories in, momentum had gathered and I was reading all the stories that people were sharing. Twenty minutes later, I click out of the page again, thoroughly freaked out, and can't for the life of me bring myself to stand up and walk over to my closet to find what I need to get ready for an event I had later that night, because there is a mirror in front of my closet.

The problem of horror stories, for me, is the fact that there's really no way to disprove them. I mean, they're entirely unlikely and probably won't happen, but what if! Especially all the ones that involve people being horrific to other people.

So how do I talk myself down from these situations?
posted by Phire to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
If this is as traumatic as it sounds, I would suggest a therapist who could walk you through some desensitisation around these things.. You're going to want some advice on the speed and intensity of the exposure, rather than just guessing and sending yourself into a bad situation.
posted by HuronBob at 12:48 PM on March 14, 2009

Do not watch horror movies. That's the best way to minimize their effect.
posted by watercarrier at 1:01 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I normally don't. I've seen two horror movies in my life - one because it was shown during school during one of those silly activity days, and the other one because my dad bought it on a whim and wanted company. But the same applies to horror stories, which are easier to hide inside regular conversation threads, and have just as much (if not more) psychological effect.

Once the damage has been done, what can I do?
posted by Phire at 1:04 PM on March 14, 2009

You should be grateful that you can still be spooked by horror movies. If you watch enough of them, you will be so attuned to the formulas and the special effects tricks that none of it will seem real anymore, but just a bunch of actors and ketchup.
posted by Kirklander at 1:13 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Are you in general a scared person? When on the street do scary looking people freak you out? Would you ever do something like bungee jump?
posted by DieHipsterDie at 1:14 PM on March 14, 2009

posted by small_ruminant at 1:20 PM on March 14, 2009

Desensitize yourself to it. Start out with something small and suspenseful with a (sometimes funny) twist rather than something crazy like a slasher flick. I suggest some Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Or maybe some Twilight Zone. The more you watch, the more (like Kirklander said) you'll figure out the formulas, and you'll begin to expect the story to take some wild turn and won't be so freaked when it actually happens.

Maybe invite people over for a watch-tv party or something so you won't be alone. After you watch a few, if you decide you still can't handle it, you should probably consider talking to someone (professional, who can dispense drugs) to work out these issues so they don't cripple your life.
posted by phunniemee at 1:28 PM on March 14, 2009

I'm not sure about a long term solution--HuronBob's suggestion is probably a good idea--but for the immediate term, I recommend finding some sort of media that triggers a different sort of emotion. Comedy would probably be best; find some funny videos or stories online and watch or read until the scary stuff has faded, and after that do other things that take a lot of attention so that your mind can't drift back to the horror stories. You might have good luck if you found something that made you angry, as well.

I'm afraid I don't have any suggestions for how to convince yourself they're not real, because I'm personally very resistant to horror, even though I enjoy the genre; I always fully cognizant that it's imaginary, so I'm seldom as scared as I'd like to get.

If you need any suggestions for distractions, I have a lot of links that might help. Send me a memail if you're still having problems.
posted by Caduceus at 1:34 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

You need to focus your mind away from the pictures in your head. Think of kittens/puppies/people kissing their loved ones before leaving for work - whatever invokes feelings of warmth and order. Seriously. I have an intense imagination and I can't help but dwell on subjects that invoke strong emotion - I've learnt to divert that attention across to something else until the emotion is diffused and I can process the info *for what it actually is*.

Try to work out exactly what it is you're reacting to - and then examine where those feelings stem from. I'm fine with ghost stories or zombie flicks but deeply affected by anything that depicts people being treated as objects by other people: torture, suppression, violence whatever.

An ex-boyfriend was a big fan of that brand of horror (House of a 1000 corpses, Saw etc) - he found it funny and squeamish but didn't get why I wouldn't watch (this is partly why he is firmly ex!). It's too easy for me to recognise any manifestation of cruelty as an innate quality that can erupt in any individual/society at any time given the wrong mix of circumstances. I find this completely intolerable - especially for the purpose of entertainment! But I've learnt to deal with it by:

A) Avoiding exploititive fiction
B) Contextualising and understanding manifestations of real-world cruelty - i.e. not disengaging with the actual reality
C) Focussing on examples of kindness, gentleness and compassion I've heard about or personally witnessed, if I'm ever caught off-guard and subsequently overwhelmed

Be gentle with yourself.
posted by freya_lamb at 1:36 PM on March 14, 2009 [8 favorites]

When the senses are overwhelmed with some sort of shock - the best remedy is to start acting by going in the opposite direction of the energy of this with a regimen that will pull your sub consciousness away from the memory into a new state of calm assertiveness and empowerment - and regain your footing. You can start with doing some self-talk that will help you with re-setting your nervous system a bit, and do some grounding that will pull you back into the here and now by soaking up some of that negativity and replacing it with all the good things that nature has to offer us in healing.

Ground yourself
Feel Good (!) Movies (to watch on a rainy day or any day)

Be well and feel better!
posted by watercarrier at 1:38 PM on March 14, 2009

It usually works for me to think how ridiculous it is to imagine something supernatural happening to you, since your whole life up until now has been quite ordinary and natural, with a complete absence of werewolves, zombies, ghosts, etc. Why on earth would they appear just now, when I've heard a story about them? How absurd!
posted by Salvor Hardin at 1:50 PM on March 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

I don't think this is at all problematic or irrational; I see it like freya_lamb sees it. Depictions of horror are hard for me because I'm very much aware of the real horrors people endure every day in the world, and I can't give something similar a pass as entertainment. The list freya_lamb gave is fantastic - look at reality, stand up for the opposite set of values, avoid depictions you dislike.

By the time I realized what it was, 3-4 stories in,

Too late. Don't even start looking at the stuff. I won't even let people describe plots or effects of horror movies to me, not for any reason ("no really there's this amazing plot twist!"). People know it's just not okay with me. Whatever pyschological bugbears people are working out when they watch these things, I don't have, and I get my adrenaline rushes elsewhere. There's no reason you have to densistize to horror content - it's kind of a weird and fairly recent sort of entertainment, at least as practiced today, and there's nothing wrong with you because you don't like it.
posted by Miko at 1:58 PM on March 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

I can't watch the X-files alone, have been known to sleep with the lights on after reading detective novels and Scream terrorized me for months. In real life I'm not afraid of much but things that go bump in the night scare the crap out of me. I don't even believe in that stuff!

My suggestion is to get a dog. A dog will never laugh at you when you ask them to investigate weird noises in the middle of the night and they will happily snooze on your lap while you watch TV alone. A dog and a nightlight and I'm all set to watch Saw
posted by fshgrl at 2:00 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

What works for me in the (rare, really!) instances when I've been scared watching a horror movie alone in a big empty house in the woods is to remember that the images on-screen were created by a team of non-scary people, and really picture the camera crew, the grips and gaffers, and the director all just off-screen, and the film and sound editors and foley artists putting together the scene that's scaring me in a nice well-lit room on shiny new Macintoshes.

Or, picture the writer of the scary story, meeting with his agent and editor and publisher in a nice well-lit office where underpaid interns bring coffee, and working out the plotting and pace and language that has your heart pounding. In your mind, join in that meeting and laugh at how effectively the story you're working on will scare the reader.
posted by nicwolff at 2:12 PM on March 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

Instead of desensitizing yourself, why not be glad you're a sensitive, empathetic person who doesn't get off on senseless gore and watching people suffer? People who seek out brutality for entertainment are what really makes my skin crawl.

Life's too full of real horrors to numb yourself to disturbing images. All you have to do is make the choice not to put that kind of shit into your subconscious when you can help it.
posted by aquafortis at 2:30 PM on March 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

I am in the same boat and while I cannot directly answer your question, I do have a suggestion and that is always go to the bathroom when you need to.
posted by spec80 at 2:53 PM on March 14, 2009

I wonder if watching some "behind the scenes" and "making of" DVDs would help you. I mean, the monsters are a lot less scary when you watch someone build their faces out of what is basically silly putty.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:09 PM on March 14, 2009

A lot of really good answers so far, thanks everyone! I've marked a couple of the ones that have (and are) working for me, but keep them coming.

To clarify, it's more the movies and stories that mess with your mind that freak me out (in the "this could happen to you" sort of way) and less the actual monsters. Gore and blood doesn't bother me as much as wondering if every time I turn around to my mirror, my soul will be sucked in just a bit more.

DieHipsterDie: "Are you in general a scared person? When on the street do scary looking people freak you out? Would you ever do something like bungee jump?"

I don't generally consider myself a scared person, just risk-averse. I prefer knowing, and controlling. With issues like bungee jumping and skydiving, I don't really see the appeal of it, so I don't feel the need to risk it. I do also hate rollercoasters, but that's more because I get insanely motion-sick.
posted by Phire at 3:21 PM on March 14, 2009

I love horror movies, but when the movie is over, and it's late at night and I'm hearing odd noises in the house, I sometimes replay a particularly horrifying scene from the movie in my head, but this time I make it a musical, and at the climactic moment, someone breaks into song and the would-be victim and psycho killer/monster/giant rat drop all pretenses and start doing a Bob Fosse number, jazz hands and all.

I do it when I'm remembering uncomfortable real-life moments as well. Takes the edge off.
posted by Evangeline at 3:27 PM on March 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

I wish I had this problem, because I enjoy horror movies but am very rarely actually scared by them.

I tend to view all films through a critical lens, meaning I think a lot about the lighting, pacing, writing, styling, etc. that goes into each scene. Maybe you can try this for horror films, because it tends to break down the suspension of disbelief that these kinds of movies need to be successfully scary. I have friends who are filmmakers and have been on their sets - let me tell you, basically nothing in a film happens by accident. It is all carefully planned and orchestrated. Every light, every article of clothing, every sound effect, everything is a known value. The dust on the furniture, the slightly foggy air, the music that slowly builds, the actor who practiced their looks of terror for hours in front of a mirror, etc. Think of the production assistants making minimum wage covering a set in dust to make it look old and scary, or the director sitting in a recording studio comparing different scary thuds and thumps with a team of sound people. It is their job to get this piece of film to evoke a reaction in you, and they are trying their hardest to make it not suck.

Think of horror movies as an elaborate prank the filmmaker is trying to pull on you. They are like a friend who goes to great lengths to set up an epic practical joke - it's all in good fun. Their relationship to you, the viewer, is to try to scare you and they have gone to extreme lengths and pulled out every trick they know to get past your defenses. If they scare you, they were successful and their hard work paid off! If I get caught by a jump scene in a horror movie I tend to laugh - despite my familiarity with all their tricks they totally got me!

In the same way some films try to inspire a sense of beauty, laughter, or heroism horror films are trying to evoke a reaction, just one you may not be as comfortable with. If you feel scared just enjoy the fact that somewhere that director and team of people are smiling - their work of art was successful.
posted by bradbane at 3:55 PM on March 14, 2009

It sounds like you're talking about two vastly different kinds of fears: you say you're especially affected by the stories "that involve people being horrific to other people," but the short-term problems seem to be rooted in much more fantastical fears, like being sucked into a mirror.

So, to deal with the easier one first:

... I click out of the page again, thoroughly freaked out, and can't for the life of me bring myself to stand up and walk over to my closet to find what I need to get ready for an event I had later that night, because there is a mirror in front of my closet.

Gore and blood doesn't bother me as much as wondering if every time I turn around to my mirror, my soul will be sucked in just a bit more.

Ha! As an avid fan of thriller and chillers of all media, I know exactly the phenomenon to which you are referring, the one where you can't bring yourself to [look in the mirror/ go near the drain/ walk into the dark room] because someone in the story performed a similar mundane act to disastrous effect. Some of us are just more susceptible than others to that feeling of vulnerability. (The biggest difference between you and me is that I like it enough to come back for more.)

So, when it's late and dark, and I've been reading a spooky story and I realize that it's really gotten under my skin, I force myself to behave normally: I don't avoid the [mirror/ drain/ dark room] no matter how jumpy it makes me. The more weight you give these little fears, the larger they will loom in your mind as the evening wears on.

So I force myself to go about my business. If something startles me, I might let out an "eeep!," but then I roll my eyes and laugh at myself. I acknowledge that my fears are irrational.

Really roll around in that idea: these fears are irrational. They have no basis in reason or fact. There is absolutely no empirical evidence that these things have ever happened to anyone outside of fiction, so it's absurd to think they will happen to you today.

Evangeline's idea is pretty great, too: recast the scary thing as something hilarious. Laughter is the best way to deflate fear.

The other category of fear that you mention --- that people do horrid things to each other --- is harder to grapple with, but not insurmountable. True, people do sometimes do terrible things to each other, but the truly horrific acts are far more rare than media coverage suggests. Remember, if a real but dreadful event (I hesitate to give examples, lest I trigger your anxiety) is on the news or described by a friend or written up in Wikipedia... well, it's there because it is notable for being outside the normal human experience. It's not a typical or usual event, and that's specifically why you're hearing about it. Its very rarity is the force that makes it notable.
posted by Elsa at 3:56 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can read horror stories with no problem whatsoever, but I can't watch horror films, read horror comics, or look at the front covers of some horror novels. If I see anything illustrated or on the screen, I'll be thinking about it when I try to go to sleep! However, I've found that if I watch/read something Really Scary (e.g., like the time in high school when I made the mistake of looking at Creepshow...), I can neutralize my reaction through a visualization exercise: every time the picture comes into my head, I "rip it up." After a few repetitions, the image loses all power to shock, because I've exerted my control over it.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:42 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Re-reading your question and responses, it sounds like perhaps you have a small internal conflict, insofar as you might have an appetite for scary stories, but not the mechanism for coping with the images or fears they conjure up, as evidenced by your example, where you become engrossed in a discussion or forum thread only to realize later that you're scared silly. Is that the problem you're trying to solve? If so, you're getting some great fear-deflection tactics here.

If I'm wrong about that, and you just want to be able to exorcise the images when you encounter them unexpectedly, the advice you're getting here is still useful, and should be supplemented with an over-all avoidance tactic. There's nothing wrong with shunning stories that are likely to trigger this reaction. (If your friends know you have this trigger and they go out of their way to trigger it, they're being jerks.)

You really can train yourself to avoid the things that trigger your irrational fears, once you acknowledge what those things are.

A completely reality-based, non-fantastical example, seemingly unlikely to trigger your fear impulse: I am phobically afraid of cockroaches. There's no real reason, and I know it's irrational, but there it is: if I even see a picture of a roach or hear a story about roaches, I get the shivers and nausea, and I itch all over. The queasiness and itching can linger for minutes or hours. (Jeez, just the mention of Creepshow has me scratching, and I never did watch... that... specific... segment.)

I have trained myself to avoid seeing images of roaches: if I see one --- a rubber roach in a toy store bin, or if that ghastly Orkin ad comes on TV --- I blink hard and immediately redirect my gaze. If someone tells a story about roaches, I excuse myself quickly and politely, shrugging and saying, "It's a phobia!" before walking away. Sometimes people chuckle, but that's okay. My partner does the same thing with discussions about dental problems; he simply excuses himself from them.

Are you thinking that you should overcome your particular fear trigger? You needn't do it unless you want to. Everyone's a scaredy-cat about something!
posted by Elsa at 5:40 PM on March 14, 2009

My mother, who writes gut clenchingly frightening fiction, told me, her easily terrified daughter, when I was worried about of monsters or other unrealistic things, to take the internal narrative (there's a werewolf in the bushes!) and turn it into an explaination of how you'll make it better. It doesn't have to be a rational answer, especially if the fear involves magic, but I find the act of a plan puts me in control again.

So if I thought that the mirror contained demons who wanted to drink my soul a sip at a time, I'd tell myself the other half of the story, about how I got my windex and sprayed, and not even a demon likes cleaning products to the face, so problem solved.
posted by Phalene at 8:16 PM on March 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure if this is feasible for you or helpful, but once I became an atheist horror stories have had no effect on me whatsoever. I actually miss being scared by them. Now that I feel all those sorts of supernatural, superstitious things have no basis in reality, it's hard to get scared. I completely remember feeling like I shouldn't go look in a mirror after reading one about mirrors, in the past. Now I would just think it was literally impossible for a mirror to hurt me.

This is probably possible without becoming an atheist, but that wasn't how it happened for me so I have no particular advice outside that. For me, believing in the possibility of anything supernatural meant that anything was possible, and the process that lead me to become atheist was a gradual realization that's not so. Perhaps that isn't or won't be the case for you; maybe a psychological reliance on airtight evidence might be enough? For example, all reliable evidence tells me that looking in a mirror isn't going to cause anything to jump out and kill me. Just that someone made up a story about it doesn't change reality. For all the scary stories about mirrors in the world, looking in a mirror has never harmed me and it never will. It will probably take a bit to internalize.
posted by Nattie at 8:13 AM on March 15, 2009

I notice that when I watch shows like Ghost Hunters or Ghost Adventures I automatically start hearing ghosts and seeing things. But then I tell myself that ghosts don't just appear when you watch reality TV shows. Still, I avoid watching making shows like those the last thing I view before going to bed. I also don't watch scary movies alone.
posted by Piscean at 5:41 PM on March 15, 2009

Thanks for asking that question! I'm also in the same boat, I even get scared of some trailers they show on telly.
The trick for me that (almost) always works is watching tv ads after a scary scene in a book or in a movie. The ads are so down to earth (and brightly coloured, and sometimes so stupid) that it brings back real life.
Also, if I need to leave the room (or go to my wardrobe), I light every single light on my way, and only switch them off when I'm back or have another light lit. "If I can't see it, it is not there." I make myself believe that.
posted by tweemy at 5:06 AM on March 17, 2009

« Older Is there an alternative to harmful herbicides that...   |   Why do my protein shake containers smell like... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.