Scary movies can stay with you. Screaming monsters, drippy gore, soundtracks that make your stomach clench. I used to love all that stuff. Then I had children. And for some reason, most scary movies lost their zing.
A good, old-fashioned ghost story still captures me, however. Way back in 2001, when the movie The Others came out, I was fascinated with its ominous psychological thrills and slowly creeping plot line. The movie tells the story of Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, and her claustrophobic journey through grey day after grey day, waiting for her missing husband to come home from the war. Her existence seemed to have very little light, or change. And someone, or something, is terrorizing her and her two children in their cavernous house. I have never forgotten Kidman’s portrayal of a terrified and trapped mother, trying to protect her children as the movie works slowly to its terrifying conclusion.
There are other things I have never forgotten.
In my 20s, I remember that I was fascinated with alcoholism. For example, one of my favorite books was Drinking, A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp. I found it on a shelf at the bookstore where I worked, and immediately picked it up. I loved the title. I loved drinking. I read her story and related to the entire book, every page. But not once did I ask the ominous question, “Wait. Do I have a problem?” About the same time, K’s Choice came out with a song, “I’m Not an Addict.” I bought the album and put the song on repeat. Its low, thrumming beat stays with me. I hummed listlessly as I go to work, the store, the liquor store, “I’m not an addict. Maybe that’s a lie.” It was my own slowly thudding soundtrack, and the plot thickens.
On my bookshelf in my bedroom, I slide Drinking a Love Story in next to Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, another favorite. Lamott’s writing is quirky and delicate, and I collect all of her books. Traveling Mercies is my favorite, of course. It details her alcoholism and recovery, and again, every page shouted at me, “Me too. Me TOO.” I would pull it out, reread, and then place it back on my bookshelf, regarding it as a great memoir. A great piece of literature. A great story. But not my story. Not at all.
At that time in my life, movies that I loved also seemed to slowly creep up on me with their stories of addiction. Less than Zero, which happens to have a killer soundtrack, and starred a certain actor who was en route to his own addicted implosion for the tabloids, was one of my favorites. I rented it from Blockbuster repeatedly. And if you asked me what was one of my favorite classic movies? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Of course. Because, who doesn’t like watching two couples careen towards a train wreck of an evening fueled by way too much whiskey and resentment? Later, I would watch When a Man Loves a Woman and wonder why anyone would not want Andy Garcia to try to take care of her. Meg Ryan was a hot mess in that movie, and she refused his help. She was obviously crazy.
And then there was the time my husband, some six years later, found me sitting on my couch with a large glass of red in my hand and nearly empty bottle at my feet, watching 28 Days, the rehab story starring Sandra Bullock. And I was sobbing. Silently. Fat, hot tears rolled down my nose and off onto my shirt as I stared at the screen. Frustrated, he gestured at the television. “Why do you watch this stuff if it makes you so damn sad?” He didn’t realize that he should have been gesturing at the wine. And I couldn’t answer, of course. I was too blitzed. But also, I didn’t really know why I wanted to watch 28 Days over and over. I didn’t know why I ended up buying the movie and watching it, repeatedly, for years. All I know is that when Sandra Bullock talked about her insides matching her outsides, something unlocked in me. It hurt, to watch that movie, but it helped me feel something. Because those days, I felt like a ghost. I was stuck in a house that no longer felt like home. Waiting for someone to save me. Living out my own horror movie.
Spoiler alert: the ghosts in The Others are already dwelling in the house. When Grace realizes her own truth, her horror is paired with despair. And then, acceptance. Sound familiar? I had ghosts too. They started to visit me when I was barely 20, with repeated messages and warnings: Pay attention to these clues. Pay attention to your dread. You are one of us.
I have moved three times since my 20s. I rarely keep books when I move—too heavy, too cumbersome to pack up. I have always felt it was my duty to pass them on to other readers, anyhow, so I usually give them away. Except for Lamott and Knapp. They have made every move with me, and still are on the top shelf of my bookshelf. They will be with me, always.