A Really Good Pretend: How Horror Movies Soothe My Fears About My Children
When I was a student in the Kabbalah Centre, we had a strange practice called a “dream cancellation.” Steeped in its own ineffable blend of Chassidic Jewish mysticism and New Age woo, the Centre taught that dreams could be foreshadowings of things to come. This was true of happy dreams, but especially true of nightmares. If you dreamt that something terrible happened to you, or to a loved one, you were advised to seek immediate assistance the next morning.
Following a prescription in the Talmud, the unnerved dreamer was to present himself or herself during morning prayers, and recite an intercession in Hebrew that concludes, “As you have changed the curse of the wicked Balaam into a blessing, so too, change all my dreams into something good for me.” Three adult men would hear your prayer, and speak blessings of comfort back to you. A little donation to lubricate the channel to the ruler of the universe, and one could head out into the day, confident that the horrific visions of the night before would never manifest.
I only sought a dream cancellation once. It was in the summer of 2009, and Heloise was about seven months old. One night, I dreamt that I waded into the ocean with my daughter in my arms -- and a rogue wave snatched her away. In the nightmare, she waved her tiny hand to me once, and then slipped beneath the water. I remember screaming for her, frantically searching the foam and spray; in the dream, I counted the seconds she was under water, trying to calculate her rapidly decreasing odds of survival. I woke up seconds after I found her lifeless little body.
My relief when I woke was an exaltation. I was even more relieved when I recited the formula to the lads at the Kabbalah Centre the next morning – and wrote a check for $250 to ensure that the dream was cancelled for good.
I don’t do dream cancellations any more, though the nightmares about terrible things happening to the children still happen more often than I’d like. Even awake, I sometimes have vivid, desperately awful, violently intrusive thoughts of cars jumping curbs -- or of serial killers lurking outside the school gates. My parent friends tell me that these never quite leave.
(As an aside, not long after Heloise was born, I called up my mother and said, “I am so, so, sorry. I am just now starting to understand what I’ve put you through.” To her everlasting credit, mama gave a comforting laugh.)
In the 13 years since my daughter came into this world to move about with my heart in her hands, I have discovered a more efficient (and cheaper) palliation for nightmares than Chassidic dream cancellations: horror movies.
Stephen King’s influence on our culture is nothing short of colossal. His books, short stories, and screenplays have become a central part of our shared American heritage. I discovered him when I was 12, and first read Carrie – and like tens of millions, I’ve been a fan since. (I have no desire to write horror.) It wasn’t until I became a father, though, that I realized what smarter critics have observed for 40 years: one of King’s favorite tropes is to put a child in terrible danger. Sometimes – many times – King’s books and movies do the unthinkable, and center on the awful death of a child.
The opening scene of the film version of King’s It is itself a much-parodied – and much-honored – cultural touchstone. It’s an agonizing four minutes, because everyone in the theater knows exactly what’s going to happen to eight-year-old Georgie, chasing his paper boat towards a storm drain.
It is a brutal death for a little boy, cruel and unfair — and to the credit of King and the filmmakers who adapted the story — it is a death that continues to haunt and devastate everyone who knew and loved Georgie. In Stephen King’s stories, heartbreak drives some to madness, some to murder, and some to acts of breathtaking heroism — but the thread of grief over a lost child is almost always woven through the entire narrative.
I don’t know if King started writing stories about bad things happening to innocent children in order to manage his own paternal anxieties. I assume he did, though — because dad to dad, few things help me cope with my own omnipresent terrors quite like seeing them brought to vivid life. Every parent lives with some version of this behind the eyelids, I thought when I watched the murderous Pennywise the clown bite off little Georgie’s arm; seeing this is a psychological purgation. What is enacted in fantasy makes the real far more manageable.
In 2019’s Doctor Sleep, the filmed adaptation of Stephen King’s follow-up to the Shining, a 12-year-old boy is tortured to death by a band of vampires, lost souls who are sustained not just by blood, but by pain itself. It’s a wrenching scene to watch, and was apparently very difficult for the actors playing the vampires to film (though a hoot for the actor who played the doomed boy.) There were audible gasps in the theater during the scene. A man in his 30s walked out of the auditorium and did not return.
Here’s the theatrical cut of the scene, with all the warnings.
I cried as I watched that boy’s horrible death. The images were sufficiently upsetting that even before Victoria and I got home, I needed to read an interview with the young actor who played the murdered kid, reassuring myself that it was, as my daughter would say, “just a really good pretend.”
Several critics complained the torture scene in Doctor Sleep was gratuitous and distracting. I was grateful for it. When the movie came up on the streaming services, I watched it again. And then, again.
I am not afraid of sharks, or zombies, though I enjoy most of the standard fare made about those evergreen terrors. I am afraid down to my marrow that something awful will happen to David or Heloise. While I don’t worry about murderous clowns lurking in sewers — and I’m fairly confident there aren’t bands of ageless, torture-loving vampires trawling the interstates and back roads — I have nightmares and daydreams that exhaust and torment me nonetheless. To see my greatest fears brought to vivid, stomach-churning, life (or death) on the screen or the page soothes those frights rather than exacerbating them. I am not the only parent who lives in close proximity to the unspeakable; when someone speaks those darkest thoughts into technicolor brilliance, it is a wondrous catharsis.
I first read Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time in 1999, a decade before I became a dad. It’s the story of a father whose three-year-old daughter is snatched from a supermarket — and is never found. It is a cliche to say one could never fully recover from this, but in case one wasn’t sure, McEwan makes damn sure you live through each dreadful moment of the disappearance, and the colossal devastation of the fruitless years of searching that followed. It was a disturbing read for a childless man; it was a comfort to reread after my own bunnies were born. Here is the thing you fear most, here in all its slow-motion, interminable, all-encompassing tragedy. It’s right here, and you read it, and you make it through. The fictional nightmare has a beginning, a middle, and an end; and when that last page is read and the book done, you can breathe again.
To love a child is to throw open the door to terror. There is nothing, nothing, nothing we can do to keep our little ones perfectly safe. We can remove the choking hazards, buckle the seatbelts, track the phones, interrogate new beaux — but in the end, we know we’re just improving the odds as best we can. The worst can happen, and to live with that possibility is as inescapable as it is exhausting. For me, as a papa who worries about many things, horror movies offer me not just a distraction, but a deep psychic comfort. I have seen a small representation of what I fear most, and I have made it to the other side — shaken, relieved, and more fully alive for having come a little closer to confronting the most terrible darkness my imagination can summon.
Of all the things to listen to while I wrote this post, I had this wonderful old Chris LeDoux track on autorepeat. Someone needs to make a movie about this singing cowboy, who left us much too soon.