Oct 31, 2011 - Physical Ed, Psychology    4 Comments

The Boo Factor

It’s Halloween, but there will be no horror movie viewing in the Banks house. At least, not for me. Because I can’t watch horror movies.

Please note: I said I CAN’T watch horror movies. Not “don’t want to,” but “can’t.” I love all the ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night. But if something goes BOO, it’s all over for me.

The best we can figure is that my startle reflex is seriously frotzed. If something jumps out at me — no matter how cheezy or predictable — it feels like I’ve been hit by lightning. Red cable, black cable, ZOT — 50,000 volts straight into my nervous system.

And, like you’d expect, this does not have a good effect on the rest of my body (or my mood). The initial impact is a distinctly electrical sensation, similar to the crawly, needley feeling of the electrical stimulation therapy that physical therapists sometimes use. I’m left with a horrid, plaguey feeling, with muscle pain that’s similar to the day after serious overexertion plus poor sleep, a vicious headache on par with a migraine, and nausea. This all sticks around for anywhere from an hour or two, up to I’ve had a chance to get a good, restorative sleep.

I haven’t always had this reaction. In fact, at my tween and teen sleepovers filled with pizza and nail polish, I was the one around whom all my shrieky friends huddled, as if they could absorb my bravery through osmosis. I began a lifelong love affair with Hitchcock movies in the darkened theater; my grandma took me to see classic movies on the big screen at Milwaukee’s great landmark theaters. I even saw Alien for the first time from a 70mm print — if you’ve ever been in one of those landmark theaters, imagine the screen AFTER the curtains have been cranked all the way back, then slap a frisky Giger monster on it.

And I’m not a nervous wreck about other things that leave folks reaching for the smelling salts. I’m the chief bug killer in our household, and in general, there isn’t anything in nature that does much more than just ook me slightly. And I’m crazier now for roller coasters and thrill rides than I ever was as a kid — you can’t tear me away from Tower of Terror at Disney Hollywood Studios, or the Hulk coaster at Universal Islands of Adventure.

But whatever enjoyment I might be able to get from horror movies for their stories or effects just isn’t worth my physical “boo response.” I know my limits: the tension and release of the final scenes of The Silence of the Lambs is about as much as I can take without triggering the backlash. I’ve got a few people who helpfully advise me on a Boo Rating for films I’m considering, and every once in a while, I give them a try, but that’s usually an abortive effort. I managed about 20 minutes of The Others before I vaulted off the couch like I was sitting a springplate. For the most part, it’s comparable to someone who’s allergic to strawberries giving them a whirl every couple of years. Like you’d expect, it usually ends with the phrase, “Yup, still makes me miserable. Next time I think this is a good idea, hit me, okay?”

I don’t know why I’m wired this way, or whether it’s from the fibromyalgia, or my sensory processing stuff, or a PTSD leftover, or my general psychiatric issues. I’ve never seen any research about this effect, though a woman at a fibro support group once said her fight-or-flight response had gone all wonky too. I’d be immensely grateful to hear from other folks who experience something similar, or who have read any research that might relate to this.

As a creative-type person, it’s incredibly frustrating to know there’s a whole genre of material that I’m excluded from. Sure, I may think that many of the current crop of horror movies are stupid and exploitative, but I’d like the choice to opt out on the material’s merits. Missing all the monsters because my body chemistry trumps my logical mind makes me nuts.


  • As one of the theories about FM/CFS is that it’s a disfunction of the HPA axis (hypothalamic, pituitary, adrenal gland system), and as many studies seem to indicate that there’s some it completely makes sense that you might have some sort of problem like this. I still watch horror movies, but my tolerance for the fear is much less than before. I actually get dizzy when I get too scared, and often have to close my eyes to calm down. And I used to love roller coasters, but haven’t been able to do that since I got sick.


  • Can you *read* terribly scary stories, though?

    That might be an interesting comparison.

    That also reminds me that a friend is getting EMDR-based therapy for PTSD, and that it’s seemingly been helping her.


    • I’ve got no trouble at all reading terrifying stories, because the words can’t sneak up on me. Does that make any sense? I can read them as quickly or slowly as I need to; even when something horrid happens right after I turn the page, there’s no BOO. I think there’s definitely an audio-visual factor in my Boo problem, though it’s worth pointing out that, even when there’s shrieky violins and obvious “something’s about to jump out” signals all over the place, the actual BOO still shocks my system. This, of course, leaves me feeling even more irritated, because Stupid-Scary shouldn’t have the right to work on me.

      This is all quite difficult to articulate, but thanks for helping me work at it. 🙂 And thanks for the EMDR ref — I know that’s great for some people, but I haven’t found a practitioner who can make it work for me. Definitely on my List of Things to Try.

  • Hello mate! I quite agree with your thoughts.

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