by Laura Beerman
Screaming is my lullaby. It’s been part of my life’s soundtrack for as long as I can remember. Sometimes the screams are my own but today, they’re mostly on screen, projected from the horror films I watch. Like a junkie, I’m just not happy unless there’s a base level of horror in my bloodstream, some psychic grit under my fingernails. Even when I go days or weeks without watching, its trace memories are there. Horror helps me put things in perspective, to remember and to forget what real fear is like.
When I’m not actively watching horror, I often listen to it—my dark white noise as I pay bills, clean, goof off on the internet, work. Every day? No. When I’m really working stuff out? Yes. I have listened to some films through my earbuds or from the TV in the next room more times than I’ve actually seen them. My playlist varies but I usually get stuck on one and run it repeatedly until I’m ready to move to something else. Many a Saturday has my husband come home to the sounds of screaming from our Toshiba 50″ flat screen.
This is my normal and I like it.
I don’t just accept this. When screaming relaxes you, it’s worth exploring why if you want to:
- a) Function in society
- b) Have a relatively stable, successful anything and
- c) Maintain your relationships
In fact, it might help if others know this about you too.
At any given time, on some level, I feel like I could scream. Care to join me?
If you’re a horror fan and spend a fair amount of time listening to screaming, you might also need to do it.
It’s probably a good idea to describe what I’m talking about and what I’m not. Screaming is release. A response to intense pain, fear, pleasure. A way to express our drive to continue to BE in the best and worst of circumstances. The triggers can be physical or psychological, actual or imminent. There’s screaming that helps and screaming that hurts —whether it’s the guttural kind that roughs up your throat as it leaves (your guy just sacked the quarterback); a clean, high-pitched WOOOOOOO! that engages your gut on its way from your mouth to your favorite band onstage; and others: Aaaahhhh! Danger Will Robinson. And lover, yes.
Try em out. No one’s listening.
* * *
There have been times that the only way I felt like I could get through, to myself or someone else, was to scream. Enter Primal Scream Therapy. I learned about it naturally, at the age of 13 from Casey Kasem on American Top 40. Since July 4, 1970, AT40 has been Suburban America’s syndicated jam. Kasem retired from the series in 2004 and died in 2014 from complications from Parkinson’s disease but in 1985, he was THE voice of the week’s top pop, rock and rap hits, reading listener letters and delivering random facts about the songs, the bands and their influences in dulcet tones that make it hard to believe—like, Zoinks man!—that he was also the voice of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. On one episode of AT40 Casey taught me that my then-favorite band, Tears for Fears, got their name and the inspiration for their single “Shout” from Primal Scream Therapy.
The primal scream has been around since the first vocal creatures crawled, walked or slithered their way out of the sea and onto the earth. But in the late 70s, psychologist Arthur Janov lightening-in-a-bottled it into a therapeutic technique. Got more going on than you can stand? Scream your fucking guts out. It’s as simple as that, but not without controversy. Today many experts believe primal scream does more harm than good, but at 13 I didn’t know any of that. I just knew I probably needed to do it.
What Ha’ Happened Was
A funny thing happened on the way to me growing up: I didn’t. There are lots of reasons for that. Since we’re talking horror movies, let’s just say that some childhood monsters are real. Some of them made me a horror fan, built for me my own private cinema. But not the megaplex kind. The seedy neighborhood joint with sticky floors, a bathroom with one functioning toilet and a likely history of homicide, and four screens running films of fear, shame, insecurity and sadness but also surrealism, magic, and pure imagination—the kind that makes you feel alive. Suspiria and Tenebrae. Torso and Black Sunday. The Haunting and Carnival of Souls. The gialli of Argento, Bava and de Palma. Home invasion. Spooky kids, clowns, monsters and killer dolls. The Hammer Films and Video Nasties. And the seminal American slashers: Psycho, Black Christmas, Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
So hand me your ticket. Walk down the long hall with the stained carpet and the red velvet rope. See any movie you want, as many times as you want. And let the manager know what you like. This cinema plays your films too.
When I was five and after enough of the monsters, my grandparents told the teenagers who were trying to raise me that enough was enough. They adopted me and became my loving mother and The Nightmare, the man who casts one of my longest shadows. In my late teens, they both died. So much for stability.
In his late 90s breakout comedy special, Chris Rock says: “If a kid calls his grandma ‘Mommy’ and his mama ‘Pam,’ he’s goin to jail.” I went to college. I had no home and no money, my entire childhood packed into storage. Between semesters, I moved into a series of temporary dorms and was often the only person my age on campus until summer school started. One time, I accidentally locked myself in the bathroom—an interior room between my suite and the empty one next door. I was alone with no administrative buildings close by. Spring semester had just ended and there would be no one within screaming distance for weeks. If it weren’t for a loose towel rack and a forgiving doorknob, you might not be reading this. After dorm-hopping for two years, I eventually moved into my own place. There have been several of those; there could very well be more.
For a long time, I wasn’t right but I was smart, intuitive with an inclination toward the intellectually and spiritually abstract that’s pretty much how I roll today. College and some career success taught me that I would often be one of the smartest and dumbest humans in any room. Today, I’ve learned you can’t arrive any earlier than you’re able and that arriving in fact, doesn’t exist. I also know—and you should too—that we can make it. We have enough, no matter how little that might be. Horror movies and the sounds of screaming help.
You Ain’t Alone on This Ride
I never had to line Janov’s pockets to understand the value of a full-throated primal scream. Screaming is an outpour, a welling, and sometimes, the product of having held it all in just a little too long. After a particularly bad stretch at work about seven years ago, I destroyed a plastic baseball bat while screaming and crying in my backyard. I wailed with Mr. Whiffle until I lay in an exhausted heap, the neighbor’s dogs standing traumatized nearby. After that, they probably needed scream therapy too. Or maybe just bark therapy.
I try to prevent that but when things build up—when it all gets too much—I seek out what I need: the terrors of Michael, Jason, Freddy and their Final Girl antidotes: Laurie, Alice, Ginny, Nancy. I need what Poe called the grotesque and the arabesque – to see terrible things happen to beautiful people against architectural backdrops that remind me I need art in my life as much as horror. I need cinematography that makes no sense and cameras that shove me from behind in directions only my subconscious can truly follow.
In physics, ground is the lowest energy state from which anything operates. I used to think depression was my ground but now I know better. I idle high. As strong as my fear is my lust for life, an awareness of my own energetic being that I remember feeling when I was just six years old. I’m alive, I’d think, filled with epiphany and wonder, not understanding what it all meant. I’m always trying to get back to that feeling. Maybe that’s why I watch horror movies so damn much.
Sometimes our childhood radios get turned to static. Sometimes we do it ourselves. If we can’t change it, we decide to like it. Horror provides calming stimulation, energetic diffusion—a buzzing outside ourselves that makes our insides feel calm by comparison. Fans understand this paradox, and love it. Maybe that’s what screaming’s about. Maybe that’s what life’s about: moving and responding to the energy of things as they present themselves. The rest is just noise, repeating cycles of steel and vapor we use to tell ourselves if we’re happy or not.
Sometimes I still wonder: Does all this horror help or actually hurt? If you feed yourself the same thing every day, you start believing that’s all you want. Watching tons of horror movies—listening to the sounds of screaming, watching and hearing people in a state of panic, fear and distress on an almost daily basis—can’t be all good right? Maybe that’s why my favorite movie isn’t horror at all but Howard’s End, an English period drama based on E.M. Forster’s novel about two sisters and how their diverging views on human connection and responsibility lead to happiness, tragedy and every bit of life in between. Only connect, sister Margaret Schlegel says. That’s what I’m trying to do.
Watching. Writing. Connecting.
A year ago I knew it wasn’t enough to just watch horror movies. I needed to write about them, too. Morbid curiosity is common to every human. Sometimes, it’s fun to just like weird shit. But I also wanted to understand why I calibrate to the energy that screaming provides and why the dark vocabulary of horror films is something no one ever had to explain to me.
In writing about horror, I found much more. I found community. Every time I publish something and you read it, we connect. In addition to Margaret Schlegel, I’m reminded of a real-life literary heroine, the poet Emily Dickinson. For most of her life, she wrote in secret (many women of her time did) but for a while she ventured forth, submitting her work in 1862 to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a literary critic for The Atlantic Monthly, of whom she asked:
Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?
The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—and I have none to ask —
Should you think it breathed—and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude
Emily retreated as quickly as she advanced. She knew horrors, too: the deaths of multiple loved ones including childhood friends, a troubled faith at a time when stalwart Christian belief was an assumption. She wrestled with these pains actively and they made her a poet. You can’t get raw then compact what you’ve learned into as few words as possible without courting a little divine madness.
Like writing, horror indulges isolation and community. Each has its own urgency. I want that urgency to stay with me for the rest of my life. Kind of like screaming. So thank you abandonment. Thank you rejection. Thank you shame. Thank you poverty, of wallet and of spirit. Thank you death, for coming and for leaving. Thank you childhood monsters and the love of horror you inspired. You really made a mess of the place but I know how to clean up. We all do.
Most of all, thank you horror family. I’m so proud of us.
Now, how about a good old-fashioned scream—the kind Marilyn Burns, god rest her soul, would be proud of?
Laura Beerman is a writer and movie-lover, because you can’t have one without the other. Time stopped when she discovered Dario Argento at Blockbuster Video in 2000, and she still misses MediaPlay. She earned a graduate degree in Early American Literature and is a devotee of both Roland Barthes and Joe Bob Briggs. She lives in Nashville, TN, and through bylines at Joe Bob’s website, Diabolique Magazine, 25YL, Soledad (forthcoming), and right here at CreepyLovely.