I See Dead People—Forever

I once opened all the cabinets in my house looking for something to eat. My older sister came into the room and saw what I had done and immediately said, “I see dead people,” which is, of course, one of the most iconic lines from the 1999 horror movie The Sixth Sense. In that movie, apparently (at five years old, I had not yet watched it), there is a scene in which the spirits trying to contact the young medium of the story open all the cabinets in his kitchen. His mother turns around, and suddenly, there they all are, open, and is startled by the sight.

I hadn’t seen this, or even known the cabinets were part of the film, but I did know that line. For my mother, father, and older sister watching this movie had been somewhat of an event in our house that previous weekend. I was to stay in my room while they took over the living room for the night. I didn’t even know the context of that line, or what it meant to the plot of the film, but I knew that movie had been enough to scare my parents and my fearless older sister (keep in mind, if I am five at this point, she is only nine). Kirsten saying it to me was enough to scare me for about a week, prompting me  to crawl into my parents’ bed night after night saying I’d had some bad dream in which the phrase “I see dead people” had occurred.

After that, horror movies became kind of taboo for me. No matter how old I got, if my mother or sister wanted to watch one, I had to stay in my room because seeing any part of it would prompt nights’ worth of bad dreams and subsequent sleeping in my mother’s bed. And I was okay with this; it was an identifier for me. I was a person who didn’t watch scary movies. I had no interest in them, and I had no problem telling whichever friends I was hanging out with that I would not watch or go to see any kind of horror or thriller film—even though this became more and more difficult, as watching horror films as a teenager became a certain rite of passage in my hometown.

But then, after I went off to college and my older sister would take my younger sister with her most weekends to our family friend’s apartment—our family friend who loves all things horror and thriller and paranormal and psychological—my then twelve-year-old sister not only hopped onto the horror bandwagon, but enjoyed it! She was able to watch scary movies and hear scary stories and to sleep soundly by herself that same night. And then it became a weekly ritual that the two of them would go over to Caitlin’s house, watch scary movies, and Marianne would be just fine with it all, braver than I’d ever been.

So of course when I would come home from school and want to see my family, Kirsten warned me, “You know, when we go over Caitlin’s, we always watch scary movies. I just don’t want you to be uncomfortable.” To which I replied, “Kirsten, I’m nineteen years old. I think if our twelve-year-old sister can handle it, I can,” even though I was completely panicked inside. I faced quite the dilemma: either stay home and do nothing by myself that night or go bond with the people I’d come home to see while enduring my one true weakness.

That was the night The Babadook (2014) was on the agenda. This is a film that seasoned horror film critics have described as having, “a sense of urgency [that] immediately establishes itself [as] a nightmare scene,” and have further claimed that “The hiding-in-the-dark entity called The Babadook is the most slippery kind of menace in contemporary horror.” 1 Quite the cannonball for someone who hadn’t even thought of horror films since they were five, no?

And a cannonball it was indeed. This movie still haunts me. The premise of it is that, basically, this demon known as The Babadook lives in the house of this recently widowed woman and her young son, and it reveals itself once a picture book about The Babadook is somehow found and read aloud—which of course the son does. You know it’s on its way once you see a black hat, suit, and shoes suddenly and subtly hung up somewhere around your house. Then, inevitably, when it finally comes, it knocks three times while saying its name. And while the mother chooses to ignore everything even as her son urges her it’s all true, you know they’re both screwed this entire time.

After watching this mess, I was convinced I kept seeing the suit on the wall in the shadows, and I was afraid to investigate further on the off chance that I was right, and this demon was coming for me and would make me kill my cat and possibly my family (as it made the mother kill the family dog in the movie). And while my sisters and Caitlin all agreed this movie was beyond scary, their rationale was that it was all fake anyway, so I could just forget about it after watching it. But I knew the truth: That’s exactly what the evil spirits of the world wanted me to think. It would be completely arrogant of me to say it’s all made up, and the second I believed it, they’d be after me because I am a textbook horror film character who sort of believes in these things but tells herself she doesn’t until it all starts happening, and then my family cat ends up dead.

You would think this would have been the end of the horror genre for me, being nineteen and still not able to handle it, but you’d be dead wrong. Here we are three years later, I’ve built up absolutely no kind of immunity, and my sisters still show me horrifying things they sociopathicly digest and immediately forget about the second it’s over. I am now on constant vigilance for the Slenderman, the Smiling Man, the spirits who apparently live in vents from that one ghost story they made me listen to, psychologists who turn out to be spirits trying to contact me from the beyond, the demon from Insidious that takes over the child (for, you know, something to be afraid of once I become a mother), and killers who will watch my every move from some hidden place outside my house and then eventually attack and when I ask why they’re doing it they’ll say, “Because you were home.” If it’s dark in my house, I even sometimes have trouble opening closed doors because of one clip—not even a movie or a story—they showed me in which the demon was just hanging out outside the door, waiting for someone to open it. And of course, sometimes I can’t decide whether or not to sleep facing the inside of my bed or the outside because I could just wake up and something or someone will be right there, and do I want my back to be to that or my face?

Now, I’m not sure if my sisters and Caitlin just keep showing me the very best of the horror and thriller genre, because there have been a handful of supposedly scary movies that have not inevitably ruined the next three to four nights’ worth of sleep. One of which being Disturbia (2007), the story of a boy on house arrest who discovers one of his neighbors is a serial killer. This one I watched with some friends at a sleepover, and the actual scariness of the plot takes forever to pick up, so much so that there’s not even a hint of his neighbor’s creepy behavior until the movie is well half over. Basically the last twenty to thirty minutes are what made up the over-advertised Hollywood trailers for this movie, and I remember wondering what the hell I was so afraid of after watching—this was of course, pre-Babadook.

But when it’s left in the hands of my sisters, I’m shown these hole-in-the-wall, indie, low-budget, most times unrated gems that just popped up on Netflix or YouTube one day (that my freaks-of-nature sisters somehow find) that always end up being ten times scarier (and therefore better?) than anything Hollywood could ever muster. This was the case of Creep (2014), a movie starring one of the Duplass Brothers (Mark) that I’m not sure ever made it to theaters, or was ever intended to for that matter. In this film, there are only two characters throughout the whole thing, and the shots are set up to look like found footage. There are various jump-cuts, walking and/or running with the camera, and even the quality of the picture makes it look as though it was taken on nothing more than a camcorder. The found-footage feeling gives the movie that real-life factor, the thing that these high-budget films strive for but don’t quite seem to grasp, especially because most of the action happens in broad daylight, while most formulaic Hollywood films stick to the archetypical night horror. There are no spirits and therefore no special effects, no score or any other type of omnipresent music playing, and while one could look at the situation that drives the plot as an isolated incident unique to the characters of the film, I couldn’t help imagining seeing the creep of the movie, Joseph, just standing somewhere around my room at night, watching me. All I need to see now is Mark Duplass’s face with his bug eyes and just-creepy-enough smile to have all these memories come rushing back (which happens more often than you think, as one of his shows was advertised on the side of city buses for quite some time this year and now make me flinch whenever I see them).

I will say though, that in some kind of masochistic way, although I have built up no kind of resistance to these films, because I like spending time with my sisters, I’ve sort of come to associate this feeling of bonding with being scared. I’m scared constantly now, but it reminds me of being with my sisters and sort of having fun in being scared with them—although I still can’t seem to separate the fear from the movies. The horror genre has truly become a labor of love between my family and myself, and although I curse myself every time for letting them talk me into yet another thing that sticks with me for weeks, I also don’t regret it at all, because I’d rather have this with my sisters than avoid the fear.

  1. Kenny, Glenn. “The Babadook.” RogerEbert.com. November 28, 2014.