The Horror Pictures

I think in pictures. That means, as I write these words here I see and hear them but I relate to them, or make sense of them, first through somewhat amorphous shapes that are specific to the words and at the same time unintelligible outside the confines of my head. For example, the word “word” often appears in me as a long white bubble made of chewing gum. When I read a sentence it appears as a growing structure, each word both an instance on the structure and part of its essence.  This is actually pretty common. There are a few terms for it, “visual thinking” being among the more popular. However, I do it for everything. Images in front of me automatically and subconsciously become mental images as well. For another example, Darth Vader appears as a black hole vortex, spinning inward, sometimes strobing light. I can watch a still image and see a laser light show, for better or worse.

Emotions also render themselves this way, so while the bodily sensations accompanying fear and the word fear are entirely different they have a mutual language of hermetically sealed hieroglyphs that grow and swirl. I had no idea if this had any value or significance until I realized, like most things, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.

Because sometimes if I’m in a just-bad-enough mood that mental landscape is stormy. It’s hard to get out of my own head because I’m always picturing those pronounced abstract images (a room with white walls spilling out fungal fingers that make me feel sick and claustrophobic) and thinking about them only makes them more pronounced. But in calmer tides it’s a way for supposedly divided realms of sensation to find a solid middle ground.[i]

When I’m depressed I might have a whole greenhouse of wild flora growing and twisting in me, but it always seems dark. I can never pay attention to it. I need atavistic emotions to distract me from my deadness. It’s why I like watching horror movies.

I do not watch Saw, Hostel, or any torture porn. While I can understand the sick thrill one gets from it, it’s just a wolf I don’t want to feed. The less gore, the more it relies on sustained tension, the better.  Unlike thrillers or dramas, horror requires a specific mood to be created and slowly notched up. Silence of the Lamb in all its brilliance and splatter, is not a full on horror movie. Lambs still relies mostly on its plot point to bring the audience through (what will Hannibal Lector do next? Will they find the killer?). The tension and fear of the movie are byproducts of a tightly knit plot. Good horror, on the other hand, uses plot points to intensify an atmosphere of dread. This is one of the reasons a well laid out setting is so key to horror. We have to be familiar enough with the mansion in The Shining or the Nostromo in Alien (remember that both films very quickly give us a tour of the setting through characters placed in various important locales that the film then cuts to) so that the setting itself can turn on us. Like the castle in A Turn of the Screw, it must invite us only to devolve into something Other. A place we are introduced to and familiar with must reveal its hidden deviance.

It’s this emphasis on setting as emotional place that I find so appealing about good horror. It gives me a mental image that is also an emotional blueprint that the movie will be walking around, pinging specific areas with specific emotions. It’s easy to imagine The Shining’s Danny big wheeling down the long corridors of The Stanley Hotel as a dotted line extending on the 2-dimensional floor plans of the building itself, each hallway he turns down building tension and anxiety, the map warping a bit before he witnesses something truly frightful.

Horror movies in general often look the way depression looks: a black hole with the unknowable at the center. And in a weird way this mirroring of images often helps me cope with my depression. One of my favorite horror movies plays with setting in a really interesting way. In The Blair Witch Project we’re given multiple shots of the map which doesn’t matter because the victims don’t really know where they’re headed, and when they do circle around onto familiar terror it yields to fear rather than relief. They know they’re trapped and have to live another dark night of the soul. The only way they can make progress is by encountering areas that are terrifying in context of where they’re been. A bunch of stick men hanging in trees is not in itself creepy and, with a different emotional context, be sort of magical. But when they find the hanging stick figures its throat chokingly creepy. They’ve been here before only now some other intelligence has left behind some unknowable ritual. The three documenters circle the dark noumenon that seems to be at the center of the forest. The whole movie hangs in me like an old, yellowing projector screen. A dark nothing at the very center surrounded by footsteps that weave in and out of the blanks arms reaching out of that center. Depression often looks the same way. For a brief while I’m able to watch, from a safe distance, that haunts me. And for a brief while I feel like can understand something that can’t really be understood. For a brief while I feel like I have knowledge over depression; I can learn its shape and texture without having to delve into it again. Sometimes this is true and sometimes it’s not.

But the further point is this: finding patterns in myself that are out of the way and difficult to get to can help me. Even if it’s just a bit. I have a feeling that if I only thought in sounds there would be some way that could help my depression. My point is one has to be resourceful when looking for ways to cope. I’m mostly sure that no doctor would have recommended a dash of self-obsession with a whole bunch of horror movies as a way to deal with depression. But it is something that works, if only for an image or two.

[i] Thinking in moving objects is one thing that’s always made it hard for me to buy into the Kantian Post-Romantic divide of emotions and reason. For myself they’re always overlapping, interwoven, sown up into one and the same. The urge for anger is accompanied by a maroon slush that bursts forth, just as the internal self-talk “Hey buddy, calm yourself” is a crack of bluish light that wraps itself around said slush and sooths it.” And that’s the most pronounced and stereotypical reason-as-master-of-passion that I could think of. Moreover, thinking compassionately requires us to use emotional reasoning. A step by step assessment that engages our feelings of empathy, care, understanding. Notice that understanding is both emotional and not. The point being there is a place beyond the dualistic thinking of the self as divided.

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One thought on “The Horror Pictures

  1. My art therapy self starts to think about how art (whether painting or drawing or moving images) can both offer distance while at the same time draw us closer and offer a little flicker of empathy for that which pains/hurts/aggravates/alienates us (internal and external). Art can let us start to love some of the parts that feel hard and impossible to love.

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