Trauma, Alcoholism and Horror: My New Relationship With Fear

By Helaina Hovitz 10/31/17

People with PTSD frequently seek out events or experiences that evoke similar feelings to the original trauma in an attempt to work through it.

Scary hands and silhouette pushing against a window
Many people in recovery love Halloween because of the opportunities for adrenaline rushes.

As a child I was terrified of EVERYTHING, including the baby roller coaster that just went in a circle, and growing up I’ve done my best to avoid potentially scary experiences. But all of a sudden, over the last year, I’ve had this growing interest in horror movies, and I realized about halfway in that they sort of served as my “new escape” from a stressful job, or a distraction when I wanted to change the way I felt (and the bronze medal for self-awareness goes to…).

Staring that idea down of the scared child with PTSD whose mind tortured her and who could never handle such movies--especially found footage “real” or POV films--there’s definitely satisfaction in the fact that I sleep most nights like a baby and have little to no reaction to these movies (unless they’re REALLY good).

But, I've got six years sober and almost a decade in successful recovery from PTSD. So why this interest all of a sudden?

Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, an internationally renowned clinical and consulting psychotherapist who works with individuals and families in the US, UK, UAE and the EU, says about my new affinity for horror movies: “In that AA parlance, you're exactly where you need to be. Biologically you've reached an age where your primitive brain is matched by the efficiency of your prefrontal cortex.”

“Along your path of recovery,” he continues, “you've figured out healthier, albeit not perfect, ways to manage your trauma response. You've moved from profoundly destructive coping mechanisms to ones that, while still activating, are certainly not deadly and can actually be fun. I also find the math interesting. You're 28 with 6 years of sobriety, and statistically, right at the median age of maturity.”

Is binging on the scares, though, better than binging on candy or alcohol?

Hannah Weiss, a psychotherapist at Resilience Psychological Services in downtown Chicago, confirmed what I know about people with a history of trauma and their coping mechanisms in the face of stressors: it is common for the person with PTSD to seek out events or experiences that evoke similar feelings to the original trauma when it hasn’t been worked through all the way. There’s a desire, she says, to integrate feelings and experiences which don’t fully feel like “your own,” or an impulse to recreate past trauma to create a different result with the hope of solving old conflicts.

“When emotions begin to feel unregulated, like ‘[this is] too much,’ the mind protects itself in a variety of ways - some helpful, and some not so helpful,” she says. “While on the surface it may seem paradoxical, one may turn to horror films as a method of containing emotions which feel out of control, unregulated, or unbearable”

She continued to explain that film offers the viewer an opportunity to experience intense emotions through identification with the characters portrayed, sort of like walking in their shoes.

“Yet, the boundary of the screen can offer the viewer some distance from the experience. Your shoes aren’t actually dirtied,” Weiss says. “This may enable the viewer an opportunity to re-experience strong emotions associated with past traumas without becoming flooded to the point of feeling out of control, or disconnected from reality.”

Monte Drenner, a Licensed Counselor and Master Certified Addictions Professional in the Orlando area, has 30 years experience helping people with various addictions and comorbid mental health issues. He told me that many of his clients, especially those in recovery, like to attend Orlando Universal Studios “Halloween Horror Nights.”

“Many people in recovery would drink to escape and due to boredom. Adrenaline is a great way to address both of these issues in a legal fashion,” he says. “For many of my clients, this is their favorite time of the year because of the adrenaline opportunities this event provides, and [they] will visit the event multiple times during its course.”

He added, “Binging on candy has its own dangers. Whatever the brain finds pleasurable it will seek out again. Since candy is so accessible it is easy to substitute one chemical, in this case alcohol, for another one like sugar. But, when it comes to finding healthy alternatives, no one I’ve ever worked with was arrested for being too scared.”

Fresh from seeing Houses October Built (total dud, skip it) and Hell House LLC (amazing, nearly lost it, a must-see), the next best thing I could do was to cross state lines in search of a real-life scare.

The only other experience I’d had with a haunted house was at six months sober, with my then-boyfriend and his cousin’s niece, who wanted to go into the haunted house at Universal Studios. Her parents said she wasn't scared of anything. She must have been about 4 or 5 years old. It was, for sure, not in the kids section.

“OK, let’s go,” I said, holding her hand as my boyfriend and I went through. The second the strobes hit us and the sound effects started, she let out a scared whine, started breathing faster, and I could feel her begin to panic. Something inside me changed instantly. I went from being worried about myself being scared to taking care of this little girl. I held her hand and eventually picked her up, and around every turn i just kept yelling “Please don't do your job, there’s a scared child here.” My boyfriend went ahead and basically smack-talked them and shouted into nothing asking them to stop, but most likely, they couldn’t hear him. The whole time, things that would have terrorized me and possibly given me a panic attack were nothing. They were people in costumes, and all I cared about was taking care of this little girl I barely knew and offering her reassurance.

That day I learned about what it was to get out of myself and anything that my own mind wanted or didn’t want.

I still had no desire to walk through a haunted house, but the closest thing I could think of to holding the power and protection of a TV remote was being taken through it. On wheels. Or hay bales. With no option to raise my hand and get off the ride that went through an alleged 65 acres of New Jersey farmland, off we went.

I felt a tiny jolt of adrenaline as we took off towards what was designed to look like an abandoned castle, but the pinprick of fear I was feeling quickly morphed into disappointment, and I actually kept hoping for something that would actually scare me. Aside from cracking raunchy one liners with the actors who jumped on board, it was kind of a miss.

…except for that one actor with the super realistic chainsaw who told me he knew where to find me.

This essay was found on the computer of Helaina Hovitz, who is still missing.

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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