Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
In college, I used scary movies and books to challenge the monsters of my abuse-filled youth. As a 10-year-old and through my early teens, I was so convinced Freddy Krueger was trying to possess me, I slept with the light on and the door open. Out on my own as an undergraduate trying to be an adult, I used horror films and books to process my childhood traumas. I needed to prove to myself that I could be strong and resilient.
According to Margee Kerr, sociologist and author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, humans are hardwired to fear the dark, the sight of blood, being bitten or infected with a life-threatening virus, and the shape or movement of animals we’ve evolved to fear (like snakes and spiders). These things trigger a fight-or-flight response, injecting adrenaline into our bloodstream, which raises our respiration and the oxygen supply to our brains and muscles. Experiencing fear elevates our heartbeat, initiates our sweat glands (fear pheromones are a real thing), and even activates white blood cells to fight off infection. It raises our metabolisms and burns calories.
Simultaneous with these physical reactions, our brains calculate whether the danger is familiar (something we’ve survived before) or unfamiliar (never before encountered, the outcome uncertain) as well as how other humans are reacting. In the end, we are marked by the experience: We learn to avoid those things in the future. And then, as a reward for survival (and to keep us from crawling into a cave and never reemerging), our brains are flooded with pleasure chemicals, like endorphins and dopamine—the same natural painkillers we feel in response to exercise, orgasm, spicy food, and chocolate—to soothe the stress of the encounter.
My earlier-term miscarriages truly felt like disappearances.
Kerr asserts that watching horror on-screen is the vicarious version of real-life danger. Everything about it—the scenarios, of course, but also the lighting, the music, the camera angles, and the movement—works together to provoke that same thrilling innate response. It floods the veins with adrenaline and sends the heart racing, breath panting. The aftereffects of a brain washed clean with pleasure chemicals can make a mere human feel at once calm and invincible. For years, horror—a sort of safe danger I knew had an end—got me through some seriously traumatic situations. Walking away from scary novels and films laughing bolstered me.
But once I started having children, I seemed to fossilize in a state of I can’t watch. The empathy I’d cultivated in order to properly nurture my children didn’t allow for even vicarious experiences of peril. The constant anxiety of being responsible for the lives of dependent humans was horrifying enough. The few movies I’d tried watching during my child-rearing years were too much for me to process. The scenarios and images—even the ones having nothing to do with children—had me bolting out of bed in the middle of the night to check on my sleeping kids.
Today, all four of my children are thriving. My youngest is 8 and my oldest is 18, which means I’m trying to prepare myself for the eventual empty nest. When Midnight Mass came out in September of this year, Mike Flanagan’s 7-episode series on Netflix, I figured it was time for me to repair my relationship with horror, to slowly regrow the calluses I’d built in college. Flanagan’s horror series are known for having a lot of downtime—moments in between scare scenes where viewers get to know the characters through lengthy emotional monologues—diluting the horror, postponing the thrills. The perfect show for someone trying to ease back into scary stuff.
WARNING: MIDNIGHT MASS SPOILERS
In the show, Crockett Island, a Catholic community, falls prey to a well-meaning priest who lovingly exposes his congregation to what he tells himself is an angel but who the audience quickly understands is a vampiric creature. During the priest’s daily masses, he slips drops of the “angel’s” blood into the sacrament—the wine and bread meant to represent the body of Christ—which begins to heal the congregants’ ailments and restore their youth.
I was fascinated by Flanagan’s creative and potentially controversial idea to put a Christian spin—a religion founded on supernatural blood—on a blood-fueled monster that has traditionally been seen as evil. While I still couldn’t look at the gory parts head-on—I watched adjacently so I could turn away at slasher scenes—I was relieved to be enjoying horror again. With each new episode, I further congratulated myself on my progress. Right up until Erin Greene’s ultrasound.
Greene arrives on Crockett Island prodigal and pregnant. She attends mass every day to redeem herself as a divorcee and soon-to-be single mother. But when she goes in for an ultrasound, the fetus—whom she’d nicknamed “Little Foot” at her previous ultrasound appointment—has vanished. She goes to a hospital on the mainland to get a second opinion, where doctors not only confirm there is no fetus but also fail to find any physical trace she was ever pregnant.
I have miscarried five times. Two were late-term losses wherein I had to deliver and cremate the fetuses. Greene’s ultrasound appointment hurled me back in time to relive my own prenatal appointments where I went in breathless, expecting to see blurry images of my healthy swimming fetuses, only for the doctor to be unable to find heartbeats, with subsequent ultrasounds confirming that the babies had, for all intents and purposes, vanished. Though my most recent miscarriage happened more than eight years ago, I am still nearly daily affected by these horrible losses. Watching Midnight Mass was supposed to be my foray back into horror with an imaginary scenario, but the show had suddenly transformed into my very real nightmare, reopening wounds I hadn’t addressed in nearly a decade.
My earlier-term miscarriages truly felt like disappearances. Those three fetuses were just ideas, plus signs on plastic sticks, movie reels in my mind of the future. Their chubby cheeks, giggling voices, and bumbling steps—real only in my imagination—faded away gently, without medical intervention. A heavy period at the end of an incomplete sentence. Friends and family further rushed this erasure with their well-meaning platitudes, insisting “you can make more” and “you already have three beautiful children.” Their violent smiles shamed me for wallowing, for daring to publicly process my grief.
With my later-term miscarriages, having to go through labor and delivery actually soothed my grief. These births meant no one could deny my children’s existences; they forced those around me to acknowledge that our dead babies were real people, not just in my head. There were two bodies for which I was legally required to make funeral plans. There were two tiny urns delivered by hearse. Two death certificates in black-and-white print that could not be smudged or erased. People sent flowers. My dead fetuses and I were co-starring in a real-life nightmare, stalked and chased by a system and a society that wanted us to shut up and move on, to smile and to be OK. So stubborn am I that these little people deserve to be remembered, I post photographs of their tiny fingers to my social media accounts on their stillbirth dates.
In the show, mainland doctors try to gently dissuade Greene from what to them must have seemed like hysteria—a miscarriage that far into a pregnancy would have left behind elevated hormone levels and a swollen uterus, conditions she does not have. While watching, I relived the rage and despair Greene must have felt in that moment, having doctors erase her child—her only physical trace being that first ultrasound photo. I ached to climb inside the screen, to shake my fists and shout that Little Foot was just as real as anyone in that room. I was no longer horrified by and cowering from these losses. I was royally pissed off, my dukes up, ready to fight for Little Foot’s memory.
Later in the episode, back on the island, Greene delivers a monologue about how her fetus might have experienced death. How it must have been a gentle passing in a safe place. I remembered thinking the same as I walked away from my own devastating ultrasound appointments. How at least my babies would never know the pain of a skinned knee, or loneliness, or bullying, or being taken for granted. They had spent the entire duration of their fleeting existences loved and worshipped in warm, soft safety.
Greene goes on to say that she’s comforted by the thought of Little Foot being in heaven, held by her ancestors and never being alone—a life of pure imagination that made it easier for Greene to move forward.
I found myself doubled over sobbing, the image of Greene paused on the screen, my own trauma scab picked and hemorrhaging. I am no longer religious, but I allowed myself to follow Greene’s thinking, to imagine my own five lost children living on in some imaginary place, surrounded by people who love and celebrate them as I had done before they passed.
I do wonder if the show should have some kind of content warning so other folks with pregnancy loss memories might be spared my jolting, bloodcurdling experience. If there had been, would I have watched it anyway?
At the end of the episode, my brain soaking in the feel-good chemicals only a horror show and a good cry can bring, I caught my breath, wiped my eyes, and laughed at myself. I had finally summoned the nerve to ease back into horror, only to have the show heave me back into my own very real torment. But in a way, the show fulfilled my expectations, albeit painfully. I finished Midnight Mass having further processed my own monstrous grief—feeling stronger and no longer as skittish in the face of fictional peril.
Joj has had pieces published in Insider, YourLifeIsATrip, and Five Minutes. They are writing a braided memoir about their nomadic childhood, their first year in France, and flashes of the movies that made them think France would be the solution to all that was wrong about them, entitled How I Learned French. They have a Substack called The joj Show, where they chronicle the adventures of a former hillbilly living in France. They live, write, and parent in southern France. They can be reached at: [email protected]