Monday, June 5, 2017

PERSONAL: I am a macabre little shit.

Every once in a while, I'll see a listicle or listicle-style video that actually piques my interest -- generally to do with entertainment and not containing the phrase "facts you didn't know" anywhere. One that constantly catches my eye is the promise of a list of children's shows or movies that I didn't know at the time were dark or grim or scary.

The problem is, every time I see one of these, I'm let down... because not only did I know back then, I actively sought out the show for that element.

I've run this mindset by a few people with mixed results. A few (my therapist included) look a bit bemused, but others jump on eagerly and agree. Which is bad if you're trying to write a thinkpiece on how special you are, but great in my case because it makes me that much less worried about how my brain functions.

I didn't seek out only grimdark weirdness by any stretch of the imagination. But somehow I found myself gravitating toward releases like The Care Bears in the Land Without Feelings, The Adventures of Mark Twain, or that weirdo Raggedy Ann movie that scarred an entire generation. I'm not entirely sure why. I was aware they scared and disturbed me, but somehow that's exactly what drew me back: that weird feeling in the pit of my stomach that wasn't exactly fear, but was still somehow uncomfortable.

I imagine that can't be rare, not in the history of the world. If you read children's books and fairy tales going back centuries, there's some pretty dark stuff to be had. I was read the unabridged Grimms' Fairy Tales growing up, which had a variety of stories involving people's eyes getting pecked out or having to bury the entrails of some magical beast or another. And Ogden Nash's poem "Don't Cry, Darling, It's Blood All Right" lends at least, er, some validity to that.

Here's the weird thing, though. All growing up and well into adulthood, I'd have terrible nightmares. Terrible, graphic, grim nightmares that I could probably transcribe and get circulated as creepypasta nowadays. My brain turned out stories of masked men chasing me around the preschool music room, chalk figures coming to life and demanding I dance with them or die, the vaguely face-shaped pattern on the back of a chair in the living room informing me of its evil plans. And that didn't calm down as I got older. It just got more graphic, because I'd read more and had more friends I cared about.

At some point, I discovered BEN Drowned and the world of Internet creepypasta. Epilepsy meant I still had to tread carefully, as jumpscares were becoming popular and could potentially set off a seizure. But there was something oddly cathartic about what I was watching. It reminded me of my old childhood nightmare fuel. Except now there was a logic to it, a story I could unravel.

Junji Ito was the next to join the list. I read The Enigma of Amigara Fault late one night when I couldn't sleep, was utterly horrified, and proceeded to look up everything else he'd ever done. I was not disappointed.

I was even less disappointed when I discovered that Ito -- like Takashi Miike, like my friend Rob Shearman, and like many others -- turned out grim, nightmarish content, but lived a day-to-day life that was actually overall cheerier than that of many people I knew. Have a look at Junji Ito's Cat Diary, for example, where he parodies his own style in a series about why the family's cats don't like him as much as they like his wife. He interjects stories of being his local Homeowners' Association's treasurer and being, honestly, a very low-key and happy person.

With my anxiety under control, I found that one of the positive changes was my ability to engage in horror in a controlled space without fear of a bad reaction. That is, I could walk into a haunted house, or watch a scary Let's Play, prepared for visceral reactions and have them safely. (Having someone leap out at me on my afternoon walk would not go as well, but I also don't think it's supposed to.) I could finally go and tear through entire YouTube backlogs, go through haunted mazes and enjoy myself, and overall engage with what I'd found so fascinating all my life.

Secondary result? My nightmares are gone.

I mean, okay, I still have the old "naked at school on exam day" or con stress dreams. But the graphically grim, absolutely terrifying ones? Gone. It's almost as though my brain craved that sort of darkness and terror, and if I wouldn't supply it, it would make up its own. But now, watching three different YouTubers play Bendy and the Ink Machine and throwing money at Night Mind's Patreon so I can see deep analytics of online nightmare fuel early? I'm happier.

I've run this by the people who had the same childhood viewing habits I did, and I hear similar.

I definitely don't believe this is true for everyone, in the same way that not everyone will like the same TV shows. But I do see definite similarities in the personalities of people who read, view, or write nightmare fuel on the regular. It's almost freeing to discuss it, and there's a sort of wide-eyed excitement that comes with it (that probably shouldn't come with discussions of hauntings or dead characters or what have you).

Note that this is not me saying that watching terrifying shit will cure nightmares. Like, I'm pretty sure that's not true across the board. But if you're the type who finds yourself drawn to it, indulge it. Be happy about it. Find other people who will happily have hour-long conversations with you about haunted video games or Max Fleischer's apparent obsession with cults. Macabre is fun. Grim is fun.

And if people look at you funny, that's okay. They probably have a coping method that'd seem equally weird to you.