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How Horror Movies Changed My Relationship With Grief

I’m at the grocery store when my dad calls. He asks me if I want to see. The answer seems like an easy no at first. My cart is full and my roommate is out of sight and I fear what would happen if I say yes in front of the dairy aisle. But then my roommate turns the corner and I now have an option: I can say no to my dad, or I can agree to see — through video call — my grandmother for one last time in her coffin.

About a week before my grandmother died, I started watching the Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, loosely based on the book by Shirley Jackson. I have always been a bit of a scaredy-cat and prone to anxiety, the least daring of my many cousins. But I had read the book, and I enjoyed Carla Gugino, so I figured I would try it out. The series follows the Crain family; their eldest daughter, Shirley (​​Elizabeth Reaser), grows up to be a mortician. The second episode starts with her talking to a family about the different options for funerary services for an older woman. The son and his wife want to have a wake, but the grandchild does not. He doesn’t want to see his grandmother as she looked when she died after a long illness, especially since the haunting image of her keeps appearing in his dreams. Shirley tries to convince the young boy that the wake is different: since there is a process of cleaning and grooming, the family will not see the harrowing image the boy is imagining. Later in the episode, Shirley is shown embalming her youngest sister, Nellie (Victoria Pedretti), at her own insistence that she be the one to do it. She thinks back to doing her makeup for her wedding.

Before watching this show, I would have never considered seeing a dead body. I had been lucky enough that any wake I attended was for a cremated body. Just the thought of seeing one sent shivers down my spine, and I would often fear waking up and finding out whoever I was sharing a room with at that time (sister, roommate, partner) would be dead. I have always been afraid of dead bodies. I think part of it is a fear of germs, but part is also a fear of what happens to you once you die. What if this is all there is?

When my grandmother died, it was still very much in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the US-Mexico border was closed. As such, it was not possible for us to attend the funerary events. A family member video-called my mom in Atlanta, GA, where my dad then video-called me in Baltimore, MD to show me her screen. This three-degrees-of-phone helped make the idea of seeing my grandmother’s dead body easier to digest. But had it not been for The Haunting of Hill House’s portrayal of the care for the bodies, as well as the fact that it reassured that yes, ghosts are real, I would not have accepted the call. I felt empowered by this knowledge. I had not realized it, but even before my grandmother’s death, I had already become more intrigued by horror.

Art by Lyvie Scott

Soon after, I was seeking horror everywhere I could. When I would call my mom and tell her about my weekend plans, they often included watching a horror movie. After Covid-19 started and I moved back to my parents’ house, I found myself doing crafts at midnight while listening to The Magnus Archives, a horror podcast, or watching horror movies with my friends through Zoom — an experience that made the movie Host (2020) especially terrifying. It felt like doing cocaine: the rush of adrenaline from the fear made my anxieties on the state of the world disappear.

But what’s more, this shift in me made me realize something: at its core, horror is about grief. Take for example The Conjuring (2013), a highly famous horror film that spawned many spin-offs. The Conjuring follows well-known horror conventions: a family moves into a new home and starts to experience weird stuff, prompting them to call Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a married couple of paranormal exterminators. At first glance, one might not think about grief in this movie. After all, no one that the family has known dies other than their dog — and he isn’t the one doing the haunting. But a closer inspection reveals that grief has conjured the ghosts. Only the mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and her children are being haunted, leaving the father alone. When Lorraine Warren and her daughter start to get haunted too it is clear: the ghosts are targeting mothers. These ghosts are women who have killed their children in years past. At a crucial moment of the movie, one of the ghosts turns to Lorraine and says, “she made me do it.” The “she” in question is another ghost who also killed her young child, a hundred years before this one. It was the first dead mother’s grief and guilt that drove her to haunt the place where she killed her son, as the second dead mother’s grief and guilt drove her. Had it not been for Ed and Lorraine Warren, Carolyn would have done the same to her youngest daughters, continuing the cycle.

But grief doesn’t always show up as the ghost. In El Orfanato (The Orphanage), a Spanish horror film from 2007, grief is central to the plot. The story follows Laura (Belén Rueda), who as an adult has bought and renovated her childhood home, an orphanage, to create a facility for disabled children where she will live with her family. Whilst preparing the home, she gets into a fight with her young son (Roger Príncep) about his imaginary friends and soon after he goes missing. As she and her husband (Fernando Cayo) start searching for him, they hear sounds of banging and groaning from within the house.

Art by Lyvie Scott

Laura is led to believe that her son was kidnapped by his imaginary friends, revealed to be the ghosts of children who died in the orphanage at the hands of Benigna (Montserrat Carulla), a former worker at the orphanage. No one believes Laura, even as the evidence keeps growing. She becomes desperate, to the point that she recreates exact scenes of the orphanage found in film and photographs, and even concedes to playing games with the young ghost children. In a terrible twist of events, Laura finds out that her son got stuck in the basement after she haphazardly put renovation materials in front of the door while frantically searching for him. The banging from within the house was her son. Laura kills herself — but rather than it being a sad ending, she is shown in the afterlife taking care of her child and the other orphanage children.

It is indisputable that grief is the driver of El Orfanato. Laura’s decisions are all driven by her desire to find her son. Similarly, Benigna is also driven by grief. After all, it is revealed that the reason she killed those children is because they accidentally killed her son whilst playing.

In a way, horror can allow you to obtain closure. Sure, you are being haunted by your dead relative, but at least you know your dead relative is okay. Just like how horror can be representative of broader societal fears, it can also be reflective on how culture interacts with death, and making sense of the idea of an afterlife, a modern day Danse Macabre. And while El Orfanato and The Conjuring are just two movies analyzed here, they are certainly not the only two. One famous example is Dani (Florence Pugh) from Midsommar, who is driven to join an evil cult after the death of her family. To get her to join, the cult supports Dani in her grief where her boyfriend fails to, manipulating her for their advantage. In a 2023 retelling of Frankenstein called The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster, Vicaria (Laya DeLeon Hayes) seeks to resurrect her brother after he is killed at the hands of police violence. Vicaria's love for her brother and anger towards her community's socioeconomic circumstances power her grief, making it a mighty scientific force to be reckoned with.

In the final episode of The Haunting of Hill House, the Crain siblings are back at Hill House, where Nellie’s ghost tells them, “I loved you completely, and you loved me the same. That's all. The rest is confetti." Maybe we will never know what happens after we die. Maybe I will never be satisfied by the answers. But maybe one day, as long as I remember I loved my grandmother and she loved me, I will no longer feel haunted by what could be.

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