How the Horror Genre Helped Me Understand my Addiction
I created this newsletter because sometimes, scary stories can help put a new perspective on the pain and fear of alcohol use.
Back in 2012, when I first started going to AA meetings, there was a common expression I’d hear that went: “My disease is out there doing push-ups in the parking lot.” The idea was your disease (known as alcoholism in AA) was always one step ahead of you, and if you let your guard down at any moment it would pounce your weakness like a chupacabra, and before you knew it you’d be drunk. One particularly bad day I raised my hand and said, “My disease is banging down the door with an ax, and I am trapped in the bathroom like Shelly Duvall.” This joke didn’t really land.
Let me backup a little bit. From a young age, I was pretty obsessed with all things horror-related. Once I got my hands on Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark at our elementary school book fair, I was hooked. As a prepubescent tween I was reading Stephen King’s Carrie, (a novel I think should be required reading for teenage girls) and I turned into a bonafide Constant Reader and dutifully gobbled down all the scary stuff I could.
So why was I so obsessed with this dark stuff? Was I a goth kid? Nope. I was a little dork who listened to Peter Gabriel and wore a helmet when I biked to the library. The reason I read scary books and watched stuff like Are You Afraid of the Dark religiously was because I was fucking terrified. All of the time.
See, the great thing about scary stories and movies is that you are actually always in control. You can turn off the TV, shut the book, whatever. And for a kid who’s life was totally out of control, I found this incredibly comforting. I was scared of school, I was scared of other kids, I was scared of adults, but most of all I was scared of my family. Growing up in a household full of alcohol use and mental health issues, you just never knew where you stood. You might get a really aggressive response, or you might be ignored entirely. So reading about a clown demon that eats kids? Sure, I’ll take it. Compared to my stepdad, It was a walk in the park.
I used to joke that my life was like a horror movie when I was drinking. I casually compared myself to the dazed Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, or the manically laughing Ash in Evil Dead II, or the hysteric Isabell Adjani in Possession. These scary movies provided me with a strangely comforting sense of perspective, and helped externalize the awful things I was feeling. Ghosts and demons and skeletons are creepy, but the turmoil of isolation in active addiction is some real scary shit.
“Alone. Yes, that's the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn't hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym.”
― Stephen King, Salem’s Lot
You don’t have to look too hard to find recovery metaphors in the horror world. Vampires are a pretty thinly veiled allegory for addiction if you swap out blood for alcohol/drugs. And sleeping all day and avoiding the sun is standard hangover protocol. I always thought werewolves were great since they essentially captured the reckless behavior folks engage in during a blackout. I love how in werewolf movies people are always waking up the next day, naked, in a field with fuzzy memories of the night before and a bad taste in their mouth. Werewolf rampage, or just a really intense party? And, lest we forget, there’s Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, who is truly the OG of trying to unsuccessfully moderate the substances you ingest.
The eminently prolific Stephen King has written extensively about alcohol use and sobriety throughout his career. He’ll always have a special place in my heart because I read him steadily while I was drinking through getting sober. Once you get deep into King’s world, you’ll see that the monsters in many of his stories are actually symbols for addiction: the psychotic nurse in Misery, the aliens in Tommyknockers, and of course, Jack Torrance and The Overlook itself in The Shining. But just as often, you’ll find folks in recovery in his stories, too. And usually they’ll say something like, “I already did the hardest thing I’ve ever done, which was getting sober, so fighting this telepathic ghost is no biggie.” I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the idea.
In 2013, when I finally was able to quit drinking after multiple attempts, my brother gave me a copy of Dr. Sleep for my birthday. It’s a sequel to The Shining, and it follows Danny Torrance (the little boy who says “Redrum”) as an adult, and surprise—he has a drinking problem! The novel follows Danny as he faces his demons (in some cases, quite literally) in order to get sober and make peace with his past. It ended up being the perfect thing to read during that rocky time.
Through therapy and my own research, I learned how trauma, depression, and anxiety are closely tied to addiction, and I realized that I had been drinking to deal with all of these things. I don’t have psychic abilities like Danny, but I could relate to being a sensitive kid who used alcohol as a way to numb themselves against painful memories.
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Now that I’ve been sober for seven years, I still love scary stories, but my life itself is no longer a horror movie. Sure, maybe there were times—like after reading Last Days by Adam Neville—that I have been afraid to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night because of monsters, but on the whole things are pretty quiet.
I personally do not find it helpful to look at my experience with alcohol use disorder as some kind of devil that stalks me. And I don’t see recovery as having to be ever vigilant against the evil influence of booze, as if it’s always roaming around like a hoard of zombies outside a Pittsburgh mall. Alcohol is an inanimate object that no longer benefits me. It doesn’t have a mind of it’s own (if you’d like a story like that, I suggest watching Frank Hennelotter’s Brain Damage).
We talk about self-care a lot in recovery, and I’ve learned that my favorite way to unwind and decompress is to curl up with some Robert Aickman stories, or nest on the couch with a Karen Black movie. Maybe this form of relaxation isn't for everyone, but for me, it’s a much healthier way to let go of the day than drinking.
And yeah, I still flinch at jump scares, but I’m not afraid to live my life anymore.
A version of this essay originally appeared on The Temper.