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The Healing Power of Horror


MARTYRS by Pascal Laugier

In my recent review of the brilliant French film MARTYRS, I posed the question, “What happens when traumatised people do very bad things?” While having lunch with a fellow blogger, Sher, this week discussing my just-launched novel American Monsters, I realised that this question unwittingly sums up the motivations of most every character in my novel. Much like Lucie in MARTYRS, who hunts down the woman who tortured her and murders the torturess’s whole family, my American monsters all come from that same place of abject terror and end up doing equally bad things to avenge the past’s horrors.

A few weeks ago another blogger friend, Anastasia, forwarded me an article that begged the question: Are You Afraid to Befriend Your Shadow? The article explores creative methods in which to deal with feelings of rage and anger as a result of trauma, for example imagining a day without consequences and using this to unleash aspects of our dark side. My response was:

Dear Susan,

I had to smile as I read this because I inadvertently followed all of Dr. O’Doherty’s advice when I wrote my first horror novel 10 years ago. One of my dearest friends was murdered at gun point and I was with her when it happened. The trauma was magnificent, as was the experience of testifying twice against the murderers.

My novel, AMERICAN MONSTERS, features a number of characters who develop superpowers as a result of various traumas. Their powers then help them make sure that the trauma never happens to them again, or provides an avenue for revenge.

I finally launched the book this year and I must say that such a load was taken off my shoulders upon doing so. I didn’t realise how much the trauma of my friend’s murder was linked to the book, and by self-publishing and getting the story out into the world a small piece of me healed in a way it could not have otherwise. While I am still troubled by my violent imagination from that horrible time in my life, I left the novel much as it was when I first wrote it even though so much of me wanted to re-write the entire narrative. I felt it was important to remember the raw anger, the rage that inspired the book, and not re-imagine my own history.

I agree with every single thing that Dr. O’Doherty has said about the therapeutic value of giving yourself the freedom to explore sides of oneself that may not be comfortable or even usual. My friend Vesper says that the shadows must be respected, and I take it further that the shadows must be explored.

Trauma takes us into that shadow world and until we can be okay with that darkness in our lives we will never heal.

Thank you again for this fantastic post,


Until chatting with Sher I hadn’t realised that releasing my novel served the same emotional function for me that MARTYRS did: It exorcised demons, it’s helped me sleep better. While on one level it has opened an old wound, it has also helped to clear it out and now the scar doesn’t ache as much as it has in past years.

Synchronicitously, I had two more events in the last couple days that really brought this point home: The first took place after picking cards to choose an episode of Cold Case. The episode featured a character named Theseus, a reference to a god in Greek mythology who was “sent to do to bad guys what bad guys did to others”. The character had suffered horrific physical abuse as a child and was so damaged that when he got older he started torturing and then murdering children as well.

The second event was finishing Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a story that mirrors MARTYRS in so many ways. In Beloved, a woman named Sethe escapes slavery with her four children. One day, her old slavemaster finds her and instead of going with him she attempts to murder all her children, but only succeeds in killing one of them. Eighteen years later a woman appears who seems to be the physical incarnation of the dead baby girl, though aged and made flesh. Sethe’s daughter, Beloved, eventually turns violent, hurting her mother and feeding on her pain. Like Lucie in MARTYRS, Sethe is literally haunted by her past as a slave as well as what that traumatic history of slavery led her to do.

In each of these instances the shadow side of human beings is explored and brought to the fore in some way or another. We as the viewer have the opportunity to engage with our own shadows, our own traumas, our wounds, the scars of history and let the delving heal us. For trauma survivors it is so important to not let past hurts live with us, become flesh, enslave us to the point where our concept of right and wrong are compromised.

These stories function as cautionary tales encouraging us to heal our own wounds, for without healing we are at risk of becoming the monsters who hurt us once upon a time.

Cheers to the healing power of horror.

©Sezin Koehler, image via Film Fetish

4 thoughts on “The Healing Power of Horror

  1. Hi Sezin,
    What a very powerful post. What you say is so true. We have to face these evils we experienced in the past in order to heal those memories as much as possible.

    This process can be horrendous to go through. Pouring hydrogen peroxide on a wound might be one way to picture this process, though peroxide is not as painful as what we have to face from the past horrors we experienced. Even so, getting those thoughts, feelings and images out of us is exactly what needs to happen so that, as you put so succinctly put it, past hurts won’t become flesh and enslave us. The process of healing is far from easy, and it can be quite complex, but the effort will save our life.

    The power of past hurts and traumas will be dissolved, allowing us to move forward into better and fuller lives.

    Thanks for this great post and the mentions, too!

    Have a great day,
    Sher :0)

    1. @Anastasia – I love that! I get it all the time when I tell people that my first novel is horror. They always give me this puzzled look as they try to fit my great big smile with the shadow side I am very proud of. I think it’s good to challenge people’s preconceived notions of us and remind them that they too have emotional nuances as well. It gives people confidence to explore their own shadow sides. Thanks for sending me that fantastic article!:-)

      @Sher – Thank you! I agree that the healing process can be horrendous and it always gets unbearable before it gets better and I agree that peroxide on our skin is nowhere near as painful as working through emotional traumas. Although I’m not sure if past traumas can fully dissolve, nor am I sure if I would want them to. For me, remembering is extremely important, but so is moving beyond them. I heard somewhere that trauma and loss are things you never get over, but you can get used to them. I always liked that. Being able to accept and come to terms with horrors, while acknowledging their presence in our lives. Thanks for commenting and inspiring!

  2. Thanks Sezin, great point.

    I knew I was on to something when I submitted a piece to my critique group that showed me in a most negative and realistic light and one member said “This isn’t you.” Yes it is, honey, and it was good to write!

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