Entering adulthood is like stepping into a dark room in a haunted house. Or that’s what it was like for me. As an undergraduate student living on my own for the first time, I stared mortality in the face. After not taking care of myself for several months, subsisting on boxes of mac and cheese alone, my body welcomed an illness that refused to leave—and no doctors could tell me what was wrong, why I kept dropping pounds, or why a fever kept ebbing and flowing, again and over, over several months. It was just a virus, they said.
During this nebulous time, I had my first panic attack. I was watching Buffy, second season, a show I’d seen a hundred times before—and suddenly, I went weak all over, my heart pounding and palpating. That was the first time I went to the ER, and as I explained my shitty college lifestyle to an overtired doctor, I realized that fear—anxiety—could affect the body. It could make me feel so scared I thought I was dying.
Over the next years, I collected a series of phobias like new hobbies. After moving to Oregon, I developed a fear of flying that made it difficult to get home to see my family. After a bad car accident, I acquired a phobia of driving. I grew frightened of medications; food I didn’t prepare myself; storms, crowded places. As I gave into them, they changed my life—for the worst.
This isn’t about those phobias, which I overcame with years of exposure therapy and medication. These days I can climb onto a plane; drive; enter the world without worrying that a satellite might fall from the sky and kill me. But one persistent fear stuck around: the fear of fear.
After so many panic attacks and nights wasted in a shaking ball on the floor, losing control of myself became my greatest fear. I hated every reminiscent sensation: dizziness, tiredness, a tremor. But how does one expose oneself to fear?
I didn’t know the answer until I met my current spouse. He was a horror aficionado, and when he begged me to watch some of his favorite movies, I agreed—as long as it was daytime. He put on Hellraiser. I made it through. Next was Nightmare on Elm Street. That one was more difficult; there was no happy ending, no monster defeat to wrap things up neatly. The unsettled feelings remained a little longer, and that was okay. It didn’t last forever.
From there, I watched every classic horror film I could convince my friends to consume. I’m most frightened of ghost stories, but I stay up several nights a year turning the pages of some haunting book like Sarah Gailey’s Just Like Home or Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
People often ask me what drew me to writing horror after mainly exploring sci-fi and fantasy. Fear is powerful; it has such a hold on us, both when we wake and when we sleep. It dictates what we do every day—and more so, what we refuse to do. To watch, to read, to write horror is to stare fear in its face—and to understand that it’s nothing more than shadows.
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam is the author of Glorious Fiends, out now through Underland Press. Her short story collection, Where You Linger, came out earlier this year from Vernacular Press. Her Nebula-nominated fiction has appeared in over 90 publications such as LeVar Burton Reads. Find out more about her at BonnieJoStufflebeam.com.
Glorious Fiends: Underland
Where You Linger: Vernacular