From upside down to in between and beyond

a man in black huddles against a wall as shadows reach for him

I’ve been a horror fan since I was a young teen. I can trace it back further, to the fact that my favorite Nancy Drew books all took place in creepy locations, and I adored the original Scooby Doo cartoons that I only ever watched with my cousins. But my first real forays into horror came when I was old enough to spend summers with my great-aunt and cousins, away from my parents, and got the chance to watch the very movies and read the very comics (vintage Ripley’s Believe It or Not!) that were forbidden at home.

I could never figure out why horror was so fascinating to me, a goody-two-shoes if there ever was one; I accepted it as fact: I’m a horror fan, the creepier and more atmospheric, the better. Then a friend posted the article “Liminality, the Unsettling Space of In-Between,” which came not from a horror blog but from the website Psychopaths and Love, and the pieces fell into place.

When you exist in between

Liminality exists, of course, throughout the course of normal life; it’s part of our transitions:

  • School moves or graduations
  • After a job loss
  • Following breakups

But liminality takes on an extra cast following a toxic relationship, and that’s what Adelyn Birch’s blog post is about:

“Our homes and our selves are our basic places of safety. When violated, we have nowhere to go to feel safe. The fact that this violation was perpetrated by someone we thought we knew and trusted leaves us shaken and fearful.”

It can take a very long time to recognize what’s toxic and why, in part because you’re taught to believe you deserve it. Which is why I think horror became so appealing to me: it wasn’t about entertainment, but about processing. Here were people with bad things happening to them that didn’t necessarily deserve it; or, even if they were fundamentally unlikeable, didn’t necessarily deserve THAT. (I’m sure there are more revenge-minded people in the world who will wholeheartedly disagree.)

Moreover, I think being a horror fan possibly made the state of liminality more comfortable for me. In the aftermath of a toxic work or personal relationship, among all the questions you’re asking yourself — what kind of person am I, to attract someone like that? Why didn’t I see it sooner? What’s wrong with me? — is survival. The best horror depicts characters who notice that something is off, and respond by digging deeper; or, thrown into a completely unknown situation, survive by sheer wit until they learn and adapt.

Recentering: the antidote to liminality

The downside, of course, is that the state of liminality becomes a little too comfortable. In that state, you’re at risk of becoming self-centered, losing your ability to trust, missing out on truly fulfilling relationships with the right people. Liminality can be a time and place of learning, but it is never meant to be permanent; generally, we’re not wired for it.

(Which is, incidentally, why it’s such a travesty when people do end up living in liminality, either in a state of endless war, long-term homelessness and/or disability, etc. Effectively, they no longer exist; they’ve become part of the “vast and unknown wilderness” that Birch writes about.)

If horror offers the ability to process the in-between, then writing horror (or dark fiction generally) offers the way out of it, to the light. It’s a way to restore order to the things that have happened, that I’ve either experienced or observed. Even though I may return to the wilderness again and again — such is life — I have the tools to come back out, a stronger person for it.

When have you found yourself in a liminal space, and what do you do to get through it to the other side?

photo credit: Tigry Machinima Cubierto por sombras via photopin (license)

2 comments on “From upside down to in between and beyond

  1. This is a really interesting take on it. I used to be a *huge* fan of horror movies, but in recent years not so much. I can still watch them without feeling squeamish or whatever, they just don’t hit the same level of satisfaction with me that they used to. I wonder what that says about my liminality? Hmm, interesting… *goes off to ponder psychology*

  2. For me an unsatisfying horror movie is as likely to be about quality as anything else. It’s become such a successful subgenre that there’s not only a lot of dreck, but worse, a lot of derivatives. I find myself returning to old, classic groundbreaking work — The Birds, Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, etc. — rather than newer stuff that tries to shock or is gratuitous (I stay far away from “torture porn”). For me it needs to do something different, like the Ford brothers’ use of setting (Africa, India) to add a new dimension to zombies, or the twist in “Cabin in the Woods,” or the literary-novel atmosphere of “I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House.” But maybe that pickiness is indeed part of my own psychology!

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