Romance Writing: Halloween Frightfest Edition!

I drew this all by myself.

I drew this all by myself.

I love horror movies, but I love them only during a particular time of year and only in a particular way.

The first rule of horror movies is that I cannot watch them in the theatre unless I am surrounded by at least five or six very good friends. Said friends usually bring me to a horror movie as a way of diffusing the tension of the movie, using me as a form of additional entertainment adjacent to the movie itself–a carnival sideshow, if you will. They do this because I am a relatively anxious person to begin with, and I have what my therapist husband calls an “exaggerated startle response.” Basically, this means I jump or screech or otherwise make a total fool of myself during the big scare moments in a horror movie, which makes my friends feel relief, because then they can laugh at me instead of feeling afraid.

The second rule of horror movies is that I prefer not to watch them in the theatre at all, but in the comfort of someone’s home, in a pile of blankets and people and pets. I’m okay with turning the lights off for added creep-factor, but I never ever watch them alone.

The third rule of horror movies is that I really only want to watch them around Halloween, which is the socially acceptable and culturally sanctioned time of year for All Things Scary.  We’re taught from childhood that it’s safe to feel afraid at Halloween, because it’s all pretend, and life will go back to normal on November 1st.

Basically, then, it’s delicious to feel a little bit scared when you also feel safe. It’s not so delicious to feel scared when you feel genuinely terrified. My tendency to easily feel terrified is why I have so many rules about when and where and how I can watch a horror movie; otherwise, the experience is too overwhelming, and that’s even knowing that it’s only onscreen, knowing that it can’t actually hurt me.

In my day job as a librarian, I work in a neighborhood that is known for its crime levels. When I first began working in this neighborhood, I tried hard to make no assumptions about the area, the residents, or my library patrons, but there was a constant background buzz in my ears: “Be careful, don’t get shot, don’t get mugged.” In order to do my job and do my job well, I cannot allow myself to feel afraid, so I just don’t. I don’t have the luxury of fear. Instead, I go about my days in a sort of willfully stubborn cloud of ignorance about my surroundings, and I get angry whenever that haze is pierced. When my patrons tell me to be careful or warn me that it’s unsafe to walk to the El stop after dark, I know they’re just looking out for me, but they’re forcing me to feel that fear that I can’t let inside if I’m going to function. I am not safe enough to let myself be afraid.

This October, about two weeks ago, a group of us who contribute to this blog went to Door County, Wisconsin for a few days to write. Writing was the excuse, but the real reason, maybe, had to do with spending time with some like-minded women– fellow writers, yes, but writers who write about love and sex, who share an ethos, to a degree, or a vision of sorts; writers who have held our hands both literally and metaphorically; writers who have read our work and said, “Oh! I love this, and here’s how you can do it even better. . .”

I am a new writer. Maybe not a new writer, since I’ve been writing since I had the fine muscle dexterity to hold a pencil, and I have enough academic credentials to say that somewhere along the way, someone either thought I had learned enough to pass a writing class or thought I was too big a pain in the ass to keep around for another semester. But I am new to the notion of being a published writer, certainly, and I’ve only taken the smallest of steps forward toward that goal. So far, I’ve been happy, excited, proud, of those steps.

Until, during this wonderful retreat, I found myself sitting on the couch between two good friends, staring out the window at the lake, crying, and I couldn’t figure out why.

One of my friends once told me that publishing is like riding in a hot air balloon while people shoot at you, which sounds about right. Utter, pants-pissing terror combined with really beautiful views.

But I hadn’t been letting myself feel the fear, because it wasn’t safe to feel the fear. The scary monster felt way too real, until that moment, surrounded by a whole bunch of love and support, and even though it was pretty humiliating at the time to be completely unable to answer anyone’s questions about why I was crying (“I don’t know! And I can’t stop!”), suddenly I was safe enough to feel it. The hot air balloon wasn’t going to crash.

And in the two weeks since then, I’ve realized that I’m going to have to deal with a lot of uncertainty if I’m going to do this. Hell, even if I never publish anything else, ever again, life is all uncertainty, all the time, and I’m going to have to learn how to live with it. It’s already easier.

Though I still won’t be watching any horror movies by myself.

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4 Responses to Romance Writing: Halloween Frightfest Edition!

  1. I feel like I need to be about three times my actual size to give you the proper Temple-Grandin-hugging-machine-sized hugs this post deserves.

    The crying room had magical feels properties. I don’t like feels, but I want to go back to there, because of exactly stuff like that moment. It was where the feels were somehow okay to have.

    I feel so privileged to have been a participant/contributor in your safe space.

    But I am so sorry I infected you with my viral hives :-(

    • Shelley Ann Clark says:

      Ha! Don’t worry about the hives. They came with my cold and are clearing up as the cold goes away.

      There’s a level of balance we all have to find, between letting feelings take us over– where I’ve been before– and not letting ourselves feel them at all– which also doesn’t work. So finding safe spaces and safe ways to have those feelings, like my solution of horror movies, but only in October surrounded by friends, for example, is how we get by. But now I have this new kind of terror to manage, and I just have to learn how to do it. Snot-crying into Shari Slade’s cleavage apparently works.

  2. Ruthie Knox says:

    Meant to say yesterday, I loved this post. I find that Feelings Management is one of the things adults talk about in complete disproportion to the amount of time and energy that it actually requires. We’re obsessed with sex, but feelings? Crickets, most of the time. There’s this cultural narrative that insists feelings are clear — we know how we feel — and manageable. My experience has been that they are often neither, and it takes energy and perspective to get a handle on that.

    Which is all to say, *hugs*. You’re normal. Thanks for writing this. The bad news is that you’re right — you’re going to have to deal with a lot of uncertainty. The good news is that so are all the rest of us, even if we don’t look like we are.