Michael Myers started haunting me when I was 6.
I’d gone with my brother and sister, five and eight years older than me, to a Halloween party at our neighbor’s house. Dressed in my plastic Yoda costume — the one my mom got me from the now defunct Bradlees — my siblings quickly ditched me at the door when the kids their own ages surrounded them. With no other kids my age to hang with, I wandered around the party like a ghost.
In the living room, I sat cross-legged in front of a television playing “Halloween” on a loop. When Jamie Lee Curtis’ character, Laurie Strode, walks home from school with her friends in the first installment, Michael Myers disappears behind a hedge, and I watched, breath caught in my chest, as Laurie’s friend strides ahead to see if he is there.
He isn’t, but he lodged in my brain, permanently linked to dark corners and tall bushes. I remember leaving the party feeling that life had shifted, that I now carried an imaginary character on my back.
My home was not a place we openly discussed fears. Our father was an active alcoholic and turned our home into a real-life horror show most days. I often cowered in my bedroom, listening for the voice of the unmasked villain in the other room, hoping he never turned the knob and came for me. I buried my fears of my father with those I had about Michael Myers, never letting on that I was always looking over my shoulder for a mad man.
I remember leaving the party feeling that life had shifted, that I now carried an imaginary character on my back.
For the next 20 years, I avoided horror movies, especially those from the ‘80s with serial killers hell-bent on wiping out the local youth populations. Creations like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger were the stuff of my nightmares. From that one exposure to “Halloween,” I created a world where these monsters were all focused on me — hiding under my bed or in my closet — and nightly safety checks became requisite, especially in October.
When I got my license and first car at 16, I’d arrive home after dark and dread the walk — or sprint — from the car to the front door. Outside, Michael Myers could be waiting for me, but inside, my father was definitely waiting. Neither side of the door felt totally safe.
I kept the irrational fears largely to myself because I’d been taught that that was what you did with fear. When I went to college and friends gathered to watch horror movies, I’d opt out. It became a joke among us, this paralyzing dread I had of the imaginary.
In the early aughts I was living alone in Virginia for graduate school, and although they terrified me, I was drawn to horror films again — this time with a friend who consumed them like candy, and who promised she’d hold my hand through the scary bits. We watched “The Grudge” and “Saw” together, and when she went home for the night, it was clear I’d made a mistake. I called her as I crawled on my stomach to check under the bed for Billy the Puppet.
Shortly after that night, still checking closets, I confessed to another friend over beers after class about my fears — slowly beginning, in my mid-20s, to express what scared me. I told her I felt drawn to the films but unable to handle what happened in my brain afterwards.
“I am the same,” she said. “What do you do?” I asked her. “I don’t watch them,” she said, and a bulb went on in my brain. The anxiety wasn’t worth it.
It was another 20 years of abstaining before I thought about my relationship to the genre again. I was 45, married, a lawyer — and I’d still avert my eyes when a commercial for the latest horror franchise installment flashed on a screen. To his credit, my husband respected my irrational fears, and when I’d occasionally find him watching a Michael Myers flick, he’d turn it off for my sake. I envied his ability to watch and leave the films behind afterwards. Wanting to be more like that, I asked him if he’d watch the original “Friday the 13th” with me in October, last year. We were on vacation abroad, and on a rainy Saturday night, I suggested we give the cult classic a try.
Ninety-five minutes later, having laughed at some of the horror tropes that help the genre walk the line between horror and camp humor (e.g., the group always splits apart at the first signs of danger), my husband asked how I was doing.
I’ve worked very hard and with great intention to create an adult home that is quite the opposite of my childhood one, a place where fears can be shared, unpacked and respected. My irrational fears are in many ways ridiculous, but having a partner who explores them with me makes a difference.
Once we got through the first Jason Voorhees flick, I was determined to keep going. In the past year we’ve watched the 34 films that star my three worst imagined foes: Freddy, Jason and Michael. The more I watched, the more I said out loud, “my guess is that none of these three imaginary characters is determined to kill me, of all people.” And the more I watched, the more I found the campiness of the genre far outweighed the horror.
Without this dedicated viewing, I’d never have known that one of Jason Voorhees’ favorite things to do is break a window. Sometimes he throws a body through one, or bursts through one himself, or grabs someone standing by a window and pulls them outside to their demise.
“WINDOW, WINDOW, WINDOW,” I shout now to the characters on screen as they carelessly meander past paned glass, just ripe for Jason’s antics.
I asked my therapist’s opinion recently about why I can watch horror now. He reminded me of the resources I’ve built up since the days I didn’t feel I could talk about my fears. How home is now a safe place, where even the irrational can be expressed, and how I’ve surrounded myself with support rather than dismissive voices around pain and fear.
Six-year-old me could never have imagined this being the case, could never imagine the safety of home being full enough that the possibility of comfort outweighs the horror. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be over here by this window.