“Oh God, I can’t watch!”

My boyfriend is used to hearing this protest, during Psycho, Halloween, and countless other horror movies we’ve seen together. Today, as always, I bury my face in his shoulder, averting my gaze to guard against the screen’s shocking, traumatizing images. But as usual, even as I am terrified, a conflicting desire to keep track of the plot nags at me. I repeatedly, urgently ask my boyfriend, “What’s happening?”, insisting he narrate what I’m missing. “Okay, you can look now,” he tells me when the on-screen attack is over, and I settle back into my seat to watch the rest of the story unfold. As it always is with horror movies, though, my relief is short-lived: another act of violence is only moments away. This second time around, something is different: I find myself somehow brave enough to peek at the screen through a protective web of fingers. My newfound courage to look, I think, is a result of the realization that I have survived the first assault. I am reminded of the lesson I need to be re-taught every time I watch a scary movie: on-screen horror is not fatal to the viewer. The story may end abruptly for the fictional victim, but it continues for me.

What I notice now (what I always notice during horror movies) is that the second attack is almost identical to the first: it is perpetrated by the same monster, using the same weapon, against a perfectly interchangeable victim. This repetition, rather than wearing me down, gives me a kind of confidence. From experience, I know that I am being conditioned to withstand the inevitable echoes of an original assault that is so essential to the horror genre. And so it goes today, the action continuing for over an hour in an extremely predictable pattern. And, as my boyfriend has witnessed so many times before, I become more and more able to watch the scene as the initial horror is replayed over and over again with only minor variations. I shrink less, I put my hands down from my face, and I feel less implicated in the terror. It is a viewing practice I have perfected after years of slasher flicks, monster movies and splatterfests. I am fully initiated into the process of separating myself out of the story, disavowing the reality of it. Each time terror is replayed and I escape unharmed, I am reminded that I am only a spectator and not an intended target, not one of the story’s victims. By the time we are finished watching today, I am able to stare as intently at the screen as my boyfriend was from the very beginning. I can look at the terror without feeling it.

While absolutely typical in every aspect of its execution, there is something stunningly atypical about the ends to which my viewing practice is employed today. It is September 11 2001, and my boyfriend and I are not watching a horror film, but rather live news coverage of the World Trade Center tragedy. The scenes I must learn to look at are of a plane’s attack, the first and then second tower collapsing, the bodies falling out of windows. The on-screen spectacle is not a cinematic fiction of terror; it is terrorism, real and immediate. So why am I watching as if it were just another Hitchcock or John Carpenter production?

I’m too immersed in the tragedy, of course, to notice the parallel immediately. It is weeks later in my film theory seminar, during a discussion of audience reactions to Psycho that I am struck by the connection. Infrared photographs taken in 1960 movie houses show women just like me: at first heads are buried in male shoulders, hands over faces; later they exhibit increasing engagement with the screen, marked by peeking and finally full-out looking. I recognize myself in these pictures. It is how I watch horror movies, and it is how I watched the September 11 terrorist acts. It is astonishing to me.

The popular September 11 discourse has been full of references to action blockbusters, but the omnipresent comment, “It didn’t seem real; it was just like the movies,” never resonated with me. I always wanted to scream back, “No, it’s not like the movies!” I never thought of September 11 in terms of cinema; I was always fully aware of its all-too-real nature. Suddenly I found myself shaken aware of how deeply my personal film history had influenced my experience of September 11.

But perhaps it should not be so surprising that in a moment of true horror, I performed the role of horror-subject I have rehearsed so many times at the movies. It is a viewing practice that fits naturally with the media’s presentation of terrorism, eerily similar to the horror system of visual shocks and narrative repetition. Performing the horror-subject is how I have been trained to endure and then to embrace what instinctively repels and wounds me.

I vividly recall the first time I employed this technique. It was the summer I was twelve years old, and for months each time I went to the movies, I was tortured by coming attractions for a horror film called Warlock. My first traumatizing brush with the frightening trailer left me with nightmares for weeks. On subsequent visits to the cinema that summer, I left the theater and cowered in the lobby whenever the trailer was played. When the movie was finally released later that year, however, I was determined to face my fears. I screwed up all my courage and went to a matinee of Warlock. As might be expected, given that I was unable to watch the coming attraction, let alone the full-length picture, I failed in my mission. I missed at least a third of the movie because I was too scared to look at the screen. Instead of retreating, however, I marched back to the box office and bought a ticket to the very next showing. I took the same seat and this time, I forced myself to watch a little more. After surviving this second viewing, I was emboldened and certain that one more go at it would provide the victory I sought. So I bought a third ticket to Warlock and by the time I returned home that night, I knew how to watch a horror movie.

On September 11, just as in a movie theater, I was free to walk away from the terrifying images on my television screen, but how could I? What purpose would disengaging from the terror serve? It would be a temporary relief, like burying my head in my boyfriend’s shoulder, but I knew that the images would be replayed endlessly by the media. I knew that only once I was able to look could I turn away from the screen that compelled me to keep watching. Psycho, Warlock and dozens of other horror movies had taught me not to shrink from visuals that frighten me, and so I stayed with the September 11 coverage until my gaze was fixed on the terror.

Acknowledging my unconscious performance of the female horror-subject on September 11 has raised for me many questions with no clear answers. Was it a blessing that I had a way to cope with the horror of what I was seeing on my television screen? Would I have been psychologically crippled by the pain of witnessing these atrocities if I’d had no viewing practice to employ? And what about the terrorists’ plan to inflict that very terror I managed to ease by re-enacting my experience of horror movies? If my viewing practice thwarted those efforts, does that not qualify as a success for me and every other American? President George W. Bush repeatedly tells us that to be scared is to let the terrorists win; the truly patriotic thing is to be brave, to live with our fear until it no longer affects us. Perhaps the Hollywood movie industry – and what represents America to the world more than our cinema? – has instructed me in an unexpected kind of patriotism. To be a good American subject, I must learn to look.

On the other hand, by watching terrorism the way I watch horror movies, was I allowing myself to enter into denial? Was my viewing practice actually a refusal to acknowledge the full reality of what happened? On the evening of September 11, when I tried to put thoughts to paper about the enormity of the tragic events, I felt strangely distanced from what had occurred only hours earlier. How was it that, in such a short span of time, my horror became less visceral, the strength of my initial reaction diluted? I felt robbed of an emotional intensity, of my ability to be fully cognizant of the magnitude and pure cruelty of the violence committed that day. The artificial numbness to a once-debilitating terror, identical to the numbness induced through horror movies, was profoundly troubling to me. I desperately tried to regain those earlier feelings of horror; giving them up felt somehow inhuman, as if I had no feelings at all.

And what of the gender-cliché in my actions that morning? It is one thing to play-act the gender role of frightened female in a movie theater where the horror is only simulated, but do I want to perform that same gender construction in real life? Why was it so comforting to escape into that constructed position, rather than to summon an a priori inner-strength liked the kind demonstrated by my boyfriend? Or perhaps he was playing out a familiar role, too. Did he want to break down with me? Did he want to avert his gaze? It is possible our history of watching horror movies together prevented him from acting in any other way. What part of ourselves was lost when we assumed our respective roles? What would our untrained, untaught reactions to terror have been like?

I have always intuitively felt that, as it is for so many cinephiles, my relationship to film has deeply affected the way I see and know the world. I never surmised, however, how strange and disconcerting the articulations of that connection might be.

About The Author

Jane McGonigal is a Ph.D. student at the University of California at Berkeley studying film and performance theory.

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