I’d like to tell you a story. Three months before my wedding a friend of mine killed himself. Out of his mind on drugs, he dove headfirst out of the first floor window of his house, onto the concrete patio below. He knew exactly what he was doing, yet even with the apparent evil coursing through his bloodstream he had just enough mental fortitude to call the police to calmly utter the final words anyone ever heard him speak: “I feel dangerous.”
Earlier in the night, he’d invited some friends over, and although the evening was fairly sedate, he became anxious, disappearing from the room intermittently, only to return even more uptight, before aggressively demanding that everyone leave. What happened between everyone vacating the premises and his death was never established, suffice to say that during the intervening minutes (or hours) he destroyed his room in a fit of narcotic rage.
I’d moved away a few years before, and although we’d see each other from week-to-week when we played football, I had no idea of the trouble he was in. Speaking to his brother-in-law a few days after he died, it seemed his addiction ran far deeper than any of us could have imagined. For a man who prided himself on health and fitness, it seemed inconceivable, but on more than one occasion he’d disappear, rent a room and get high, which often resulted in self-harm: he once returned home, white shirt splattered in his own blood.
It’s easy to paint a picture of someone who has passed away with broadly positive strokes, but the truth is, he was a genuinely good man. Loyal to a fault, an adoring uncle, something of a leader among friends, even if that didn’t always extend to being first to the bar – in life he was highly-regarded. In death, he was acutely mourned.
Why didn’t he get help? The art of the addict is the ability to make plausible excuses, and even the most loving family, which he most certainly had, probably found it hard to admit the truth. How does one admit to oneself that their friend, their brother, their son is an addict?
Whatever demons were consuming him became all too much, and drugs were probably an escape at first and then a prison. Long before the secret addiction, I’d always sensed a sadness in him. A longing. I believe he just wanted to find love, settle down and ease into family life, but it always seem to elude him. I was lucky enough to find that and, in a strange way, I’ve always felt a sort of guilt ever since.
But why do I write this? What relevance does this have to horror movies? It’s a very good question. Josh Millican’s* excellent piece on the Evil Dead and the nature of addiction got me thinking. Horror, of all genres, never shies away from tackling tricky subjects, either directly or indirectly. It is the very beating heart of movies, its brain, and more often than not, its moral compass, too.
Whereas the romantic comedy, for example, is pure emancipation, the equivalent of burying one’s head in the sand (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, given the world’s current situation), horror, however, does not flinch. Horror filmmakers; historically Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, et al, held up a mirror so that we could take a good, long look at ourselves and what we were becoming as people and as a planet. Yes, it was uncomfortable and downright disturbing, but it was essential that humanity could view itself through a clear, unblemished lens.
More recently, the likes of Jordan Peele and Ari Aster have taken that mantle, covering systematic racism and mental illness. These are not subjects they would have tackled lightly. They are dark roads to traverse and the destinations unknown. It’s worth noting, though, that this isn’t a new state of affairs for horror. The genre isn’t trying to piggy-back on the zeitgeist. Racism and civil rights were part of the agenda as far back as the sixties in Night of the Living Dead, and the spectre of mental illness earlier still in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Horror is proudly representative of ostensibly physically and mentally weaker characters who find the courage and strength to fight back. Marty Coslaw in Silver Bullet, the incarcerated kids from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, and countless final girls have faced insurmountable odds head-on and emerged victorious. It’s not perfect – there’s still a tendency to stereotype, particularly with regards to race and disability, but horror’s fallibilities are also our failings. What the genre does is strive to be better. Can that be said of all of us?
In his article, Josh mentioned that despite the cabin retreat to cure Mia’s addiction her friends misconstrue the foreboding signs as symptoms of her withdrawal. I’m not suggesting for a moment that my friend was possessed by a malevolent spirit, far from it. His acute dissatisfaction with his lot in life probably nudged him down the particular path that he took, and it’s feasible that he struggled with undiagnosed mental health issues too. Was my friend’s addiction, to quote Josh, ‘a shield for even darker demons’, that incessant little voice in your head that tells you to take the darker path? It’s entirely possible.
Even now, eight years on, I can’t help but wonder how utterly alone he must have felt as he teetered on the window ledge. What demons were quietly whispering in his ear to let go? Josh also talks about Seth Grossman’s Inner Demons, which addresses the problematic belief of certain people that addicts should simply be able to muster up enough strength to quit – a most egregious school of thought that anyone who is or has been in the grip of addiction will surely dismiss outright. No one chooses to be addicted or controlled. Free will is the power to act without the constraint of necessity. Addiction removes that.
Truth be told, I’ve never written a word about my friend or his death until now. I have never been able to, for reasons that I can’t really comprehend other than to say, words failed me. I feel in a perverse way he’d get a kick out of appearing on a horror movie website (even one with as small a following as mine), but he’d love that he was helping me out in some way. That’s just how he was.
Before I finish, though, I hope anyone reading this understands that I’m not making moral judgments on the nature of addiction or anyone who has ever, directly or otherwise, faced it head-on. I am simply telling a story and for the first time ever, trying to make sense of my own emotions surrounding the death of a dear friend. Not everything is shrouded in unyielding sadness, though. One of my abiding memories is spending the evening at his house watching Romero’s Dawn of the Dead with everyone doing their best ‘ghoul’ impression as The Gonk played. Honestly, after a few beers, that stuff is comedy gold!
Of course, the sorrow is always there, lingering. And sometimes a hazy ghost of a memory will appear. In more circumspect moments, I’ll recall when I was informed that someone discovered our wedding invite among the debris in his room. I’d handed it to him just a few weeks before he died. He made a point of telling me how much he appreciated the effort that my future wife had gone to in hand-making the card, and that he was really looking forward to the wedding day.
*My heartfelt thanks to Josh Millican for inspiring this article and for setting the words free so I could finally write about my late friend.