We go to haunted houses, we gorge ourselves on horror movies. We want to be chased out of parlors in old mansions by headless ghosts, to high-tail it through cornfields and leap over hay bales away from men in hockey masks with chainsaws, to feel werewolves’ claws reaching out from behind bars as they long to tear us limb from limb. We want to see terrified blondes splattered with the blood and intestines of their decapitated boyfriends, to watch zombies make afternoon snacks of Achilles tendons, to jump out of our seats when blood bubbles out of children’s sinks. The haunted house ghouls can’t touch us, their chainsaws have no blades. The movie villains remain shoved behind the glass of the TV screen or stuffed into the movie theater projectors. And yet we react physically. Our hearts pound, our breath stops, we scream without planning to scream. It reminds us that we’re alive, maybe, that we have hearts that beat and lungs that breathe and throats that scream, sometimes against our will. They tell us we’ve become desensitized, and we start to believe them. Fear is a drug and violence is a syringe.
And then we find what it is to be disturbed, and we realize that they’re wrong. We aren’t desensitized. Just detached. Because that actress on the stage, she can’t touch us either. She never breaks the fourth wall long enough to so much as look at us, speak to us. She doesn’t make our hearts pound, either, or cause us to hold our breath, or pull forth violent vibrations of our vocal folds. No, these sensations are much less welcome. She wraps a hefty fist around our hearts and squeezes. She tears our souls apart and watches us squirm. And then she falls motionless, dropping a boulder into our stomachs. We don’t want to see a fourteen-year-old girl die of an asthma attack she can’t stop because she’s shackled her own hands with duck tape. In a way, she too reminds us that we are alive, because she reminds us that we are surrounded by death.
I know now what it is to look a dementor in the eye and have no strength to yell “EXPECTO PATRONUM!”
It is not normal, cool, or accepted to tell your friends the day after seeing a play about Guantanamo Bay that every noise you heard from the Subway platform tore you apart, that you couldn’t sleep a wink last night because you were haunted by something too terrible even to scream at, that special relativity was a welcome break from fighting with demons that weren’t even yours, that you had to bury yourself in chocolate from a bag you could barely open because your hands were shaking so much, not because of a boy, not because of something bad that happened to you, not even because of something bad that happened. But just because of truth. Plain, simple, unadorned, ambiguous, horrible truth.