Bingeing on Horror No Longer Works, What Do I Do?

By Helaina Hovitz 10/31/18

This insatiable hunger to feel scared has almost completely jaded me, and now I have no idea what to do with this realization.

Woman sits in low light on a couch, holding remote and pointing at camera. She has a serious expression.
I’m always trying to recapture that initial rush of fear.

As a kid, I was scared of literally everything; as a teenager I was perpetually living in all forms of fear — of the real world and the imagined — as a result of undiagnosed (and then later, diagnosed but still active) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after surviving 9/11.

About two years ago, I started dipping my toes into the murky, red-running waters of scary movies, and then I became straight up obsessed. It was my go-to genre, and I couldn’t get enough; it became my favorite escape as a sober alcoholic, this new world that could pull me out of job stress or just take me away for a while.

And when I started to “tolerate” these movies, but still enjoy many of them, I decided to test my boundaries and go on a scary “haunted hay ride” (made for adults). I was grossly disappointed. I wasn’t even jumping when everyone else was. It was just a ride through occasional sketchy looking scenes and people in costume assaulting our tractor. I’m from New York City, guys. That’s pretty much how it is to drive in rush hour traffic.

My worst fear, now, is that over the past year I have become such a horror fan that I actually have become almost entirely desensitized to anything that is supposed to elicit that kind of fear. It’s to the point where not only am I now virtually un-scare-able, but even the jump scares in movies — scenes which are literally designed to assault your senses and that cause everyone else to flinch or scream — don't even cause me to blink an eye. Or I'll go see a horror movie with a friend and try to have fun, but…meh. It's not like I set out to be a stick in the mud, I go in with high hopes. I’m always trying to recapture that initial rush of fear.

It almost feels as though I have binged on horror so much that it's stopped "working" and half the time it’s no longer fun, the same exact way it was with alcohol. I still want to use it as an escape, but I just end up disappointed.

This insatiable hunger to feel scared has almost completely jaded me, and now I have no idea what to do with this realization.

To back up a bit, it is common for people with a history of trauma to turn to horror in order to drum up that adrenaline rush. It’s kind of like a coping mechanism used in the face of life stressors, or just in general: seek out events or experiences that evoke similar feelings to the original trauma. Often, survivors will engage in this behavior if the trauma hasn’t been worked through all the way. There’s this interesting place where the movie or the scenario is different enough, separate enough, to feel like you’re an objective viewer or participant, yet similar enough to conjure up the feelings you need to work through in some way, to trigger the catharsis that you crave. You feel brave, like you’ve faced or conquered the demons.

After years of therapy, I was able to work though my trauma and come out as far on the other side as is possible for someone with a condition that can always be woken up by the “right” trigger at the “right” time. It’s the same with my sobriety — with 7 years under my belt at 29 years old, my life and my brain and my body just work differently now because of all the work I put in.

Which brings us back to this: Have I started bingeing so much on horror that it no longer provides a “fix?” And even beyond that, I’ve stopped enjoying it altogether, and sometimes even get angry at Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb reviews for “lying” to me. I knew I had crossed an arbitrary threshold I had set for “stronger” material when I sought out stuff I said I’d never watch, or would never watch again. I started with the movie that ruined my entire youth, The Exorcist. It was boring. I slept like a baby. Something was not right.

So here I am, as another Halloween approaches, watching these meta-movies about really bad things happening on Halloween but nobody realizes they’re happening because it’s Halloween. I’m taking friends’ Netflix recommendations for movies I’ve avoided because I know they’re crap, on the off-chance they might not be and that I was too quick to judge (novelty seeking anyone?). It's the worst.

I then wondered if it was possible that I’d already watched all of the “good ones,” leaving me scraping the bottom of the barrel for the undiscovered. But I don’t think so. Based on IMDb ratings, a lot of them should have held up — including a few new ones in theaters. Then there’s also the issue that I have simply run out of movies. Literally, run out. I’ve seen everything on every “list” of what’s currently out, streaming, rent-able, and every other option: the indies, the lesser-knowns, the big blockbusters of the past, oh, 40 years.

I just can’t get the same thrill from horror that I did last year. I don't want to keep pushing to find more extreme movies — I don’t want to actually be disturbed by some underground violent, cruel nonsense. Gore porn is not my thing.

So, what’s a girl to do?

For now, I think the only thing left to do is the same thing we all do when we realize we’re feeling a little restless, or bored, or like we need a hit of something to make us feel different. And there’s no universal formula for that; for an alcoholic, it’s whatever we’ve learned works to help us feel settled and peaceful.

As for finding more ways to get Halloween thrills, chills, and just plain have fun with these movies again—the jury is still out, but there are two things I know.

One, when I have the thought “I bet if I was high, this would scare me way more” it means I need to take a step back and evaluate what’s going on with me. Why do I feel so disappointed at not getting my “fix” that I even begin to go down that road? Honestly, my life is pretty great right now, and it’s a lot more stress-free than it used to be. I need to tell myself: girlfriend, enjoy your reality, please. You worked hard to get here.

Two, I need to look at the forest and not the trees—I have conquered horror. And if I’m being honest, every movie or show I’ve watched recently hasn’t been a total stinker. It’s kind of a victory, I suppose, that I actually smile really wide when the rare good scare hits me, even if I don’t jump or scream, and that I feel happy when an entire movie comes together for me, which it still sometimes does. I have to realize that’s kind of a good thing--I went from being scared of everything to understanding that the real world is a lot scarier than the movies—and that is a mixed bag of tricks and treats that I’ll just have to be satisfied with this year.

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Helaina Hovitz is an editor, journalist, and author of After 9/11. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Glamour, Women's Health, Newsweek, Teen Vogue, VICE, Reader’s Digest, Forbes, The New York Observer and many others. Visit her on Facebook, Twitter, or