30th August 2019
It’s about 11pm and I’m standing at the entrance of the Leicester Square Theatre, sobbing quietly, half hoping nobody sees me and half hoping one of my friends will rescue me.
Someone does find me but when he approaches I push him away, just repeating “I can’t, I can’t.” My hands are shaking with grief and adrenaline, holding the cigarette I’m furiously smoking, from that second packet I shouldn’t have bought, but hey… FrightFest. He stands next to me as my shoulders heave. Finally I let him hold me and I cry. We cry. At some point I tell him I need tequila.
So what the hell has happened? This is FrightFest, the event I’ve been super hyped for since… well, the last FrightFest! And horror is my safe space. How have I found myself devastated in a doorway?
I have been completely blind-sided by a film that – well, it isn’t horror in the traditional sense – but a film that reached into my soul and shattered it into a million screaming pieces. A film I will never forget, and – you might be surprised – my number one film of the festival.
Happy Face, one of the Saturday evening Discovery Screen films at FrightFest’s 20th year (introduced by Evrim Ersoy, co-founder of ‘The Duke Mitchell Film Club’) follows Stan, a 19-year-old living in early ‘90s Montreal. Stan disguises his face with painful tape and bandages in order to attend a CBT workshop for people with physical differences, with an aim to become less shallow and to reconnect with his cancer-stricken mother as her health deteriorates.
I watched my mother die of cancer earlier this year. That’s all I need to say on that, detail-wise. You’ll be able to imagine. Whether you’ve experienced something similar yourself or nothing ever like it, I believe we all have the capacity to understand what it would be like to have your mum decimated by a brutal and unstoppable disease.
When I say that horror is my safe space, I mean it’s where I retreat when I need to switch off for 90 minutes or so. Horror films allow me to concentrate on the crazy shit going down on screen, rather than the crazy shit going down in the world around me or inside my head. It’s where I can channel so much negative stuff; fear, anxiety, paranoia, my irrational hatred for strangers…
Horror allows me to experience scary stuff in a safe way; not necessarily the scary monsters on screen, but scary emotions. I can allow myself to feel heartbreak, grief, terror and shock, knowing it’s not going to do me any lasting damage by sending me into an inward downward spiral of personal misery. To this end, I watched a lot of horror during my mum’s illness, and since she died. I always watch a lot of horror, but I mean a lot.
Paranormal Activity (2007), The Witch (2015), Raw (2016), The Orphanage (2007), Witchfinder General (1968), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Hush (2016), The Invitation (2015), Possession (1981), Basket Case (1982), The Witch in the Window (2018), The Void (2016), Still/Born (2017), A Quiet Place (2018), Hereditary (2018), It (2017), REC (2007), Piercing (2018), The Mist (2007), The Strangers (2008). These films, amongst many others, shat me right up, made me cry, stripped away my hope, made me confront my fears, caused me to ball my fists and grit my teeth, made me jump so badly I covered myself, my laptop and my armchair in hot tea and in the process woke my poor sick mother who was just trying to have a sleep. These films, in many ways (and alongside some pretty full-on therapy and strong anti-depressants), saved me from going completely off-the-deep-end batshit during the worst period of my life.
Last year I shared the Vice article ‘Why Some Anxious People Find Comfort in Horror Movies’ on the Evolution of Horror discussion group on Facebook, exclaiming ‘Guys this is ME! I knew it was a thing.’ The post received a great reaction from other group members, who seemed to share this feeling of relief after watching horror, whether that was chemical or just being able to focus on something imaginary as a distraction from IRL traumas.
One episode of the podcast Halloween Unmasked talks brilliantly about the release of endorphins, serotonin and dopamine when you’re afraid. Whether it’s because you need to enter fight or flight mode to protect yourself from real danger, whether you’re on a rollercoaster, or whether you’re watching Michael Myers attack horny teenagers, these chemicals leave behind a sense of calm and relief as they leave your body. In other words, the safe fear provokes the same physical responses without you having to be in any genuine peril.
In his documentary Why Horror? (2014), which recently dropped on UK Shudder, Tal Zimerman speaks to filmmakers, writers, scientists and psychologists to delve further into why so many people love to be scared and therefore love horror. He goes as far as having his brain scanned while watching gory movie clips and, in a separate experiment, having his readings compared to those of his less-than-keen mum. In Zimerman, there’s no activation in the brain areas that normally respond to fear, instead the violent images actually helped focus his brain and engage his attention. I assume this is part of what helps me forget my anxieties when I’m watching similar material.
So where does all this leave me with Happy Face? It wasn’t scary, but it confronted me with a very different and very difficult challenge, and in the process it has given me a very different and very difficult kind of emotional release.
The film focuses on the CBT group, members of which are all played by actors with genuine conditions and disabilities. We meet the leader of the workshop, a precocious model, an ex-cop with anger management issues, a grandfather estranged from his family, a woman so put down by her own mother she’s lost all trust in the world. And Stan, who – without his disguise – is beautiful to look at. Happy Face shows us repeatedly that beauty comes from within, except when it doesn’t.
As with many films that I find emotionally affecting, the relationships are key here. Bonds created and broken, trust earned and lost, love offered and withheld, the challenges the group faces together and the strength they harness from one another. Stan’s initial deception is only one aspect of his interaction with the group; we start out disgusted at him for, what? Mocking them? Manipulating them? He’s more complicated than that, and at heart he is just as vulnerable.
How the film deals with Stan’s mum’s terminal cancer is hard for me to write about with much authority. I spent those scenes mostly with my eyes shut, head down, tears pricking my eyes and finally overflowing as stayed as quiet as I could. I know there were conversations with healthcare professionals about prognosis. Requests for Stan to bring his mum things from home. The small kindnesses he allowed himself to provide. The avoidance. The fear. The guilt. All so cripplingly familiar. At the end I ran, and smoked, and ugly cried, and drank tequila with my friends, and smiled, and laughed, and sang, and was extremely grateful.
Happy Face may be my warning to start watching trailers again or at least read plot synopses more closely for the next FrightFest line-up. But honestly, what if I had? Would I have avoided the film and subsequently missed out on a stunning cinematic experience? There were multiple points during the screening where I knew I should do myself a favour and just leave but I couldn’t because it was so good and I needed to know what happened.
And although I’m still reacting to the effect of the film – I’m raw and tearful and the images keep running through my head – if I’d skipped it completely or left halfway through, I would have lost out on the most confrontational gut-punch I’ve had since my mum died and a truly cathartic event that has, I think, left me in some way more capable of dealing with real life. Just like horror always does.
By Becky Darke