After the Sirens Fade: Post Traumatic Stress and it’s Under-representation in Horror

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an illness that’s finally coming to the forefront in the recent years. Odds are that someone you know suffers from it, whether it be from an accident, war, childhood abuse, or any other form of trauma. People that go through stressful and traumatic situations are almost guaranteed to suffer from some form of PTSD.

So that begs the question: with horror being centered around traumatic situations and the characters that go through them, why is there such a lack of representation for PTSD?

Seriously, I can count on one hand the amount of horror films and other media that actually deal with the fallout of a horror scenario, the most recent being Halloween from 2018. After so long, we finally got an answer to how Laurie Strode was living with the trauma caused by that fateful Halloween night. Other than that the only ones I can think of are the book The Shining Girls, movie The Descent, and possibly a case can be made for Jacob’s Ladder.

Considering that the tag line for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was “Who will survive, and what will be left of them?”, I feel like what happens after the story should be a large focus for horror creators. It forty years just to find out how Laurie Strode handled it (we’re discounting the other sequels. I’m looking at you, H20/Resurrection.), but think of all the other survivors of these slashers, ghosts, creatures, and general terrors.

Think about someone like Ellen Ripley, who I will forever use as an example of the most badass character to ever exist. She started out as an engineer on the Nostromo and was the only survivor of the xenomorph. Next movie she has a couple of nightmares about a chest burster but after that? Next to nothing. Here’s a woman that’s seen her entire crew murdered by horrific space monsters MULTIPLE TIMES OVER and she just carries on kicking ass across the galaxy. There’s room there for a rich exploration of the toll that takes on someone. I love badass Ripley, but give us some good moments of vulnerability instead of her playing basketball.

Now that the rant is out of the way, there are some stories that did it right. The first one mentioned of course, Halloween. It picks up forty years after the events of the original movie, completely ignoring all of the previous sequels. Myers got arrested that night after killing all of Laurie’s friends and traumatizing her forever. We FINALLY get to see the effect this had, as Laurie is rampantly paranoid, to the point of raising her own daughter almost like a doomsday prep fanatic.

Seriously, Laurie jumps at almost every sound, knowing that Myers is out there somewhere just waiting for his opportunity to strike back and kill the woman that got away. Thing is, she was fucking right! Myers took the first opportunity he had to break out, finding his old mask and everything before unleashing a second reign of terror on Haddonfield. When they finally get to the finale it shows the extent of Laurie’s obsessiveness caused by her trauma, as her entire house is rigged with traps, a panic room, weapons everywhere, and in general not a safe place for anyone. Not a surprise that her daughter didn’t want her kids over there. Really, it was a death trap.

The Descent is a little different when it comes to PTSD, as it follows Sarah, the only survivor of a grisly car accident that killed her husband and daughter, trying to cope with that loss a year after the accident. Her friends attempt to cheer her up by going on a spelunking trip to North Carolina, exploring a network of unmapped caves. Things obviously go wrong, but I’m not going to spoil that as it’s one of the best reveals in a horror. If you haven’t watched this film do yourself a favor. The film follows Sarah and the group as they get lost in the caves, struggling for survival, and is frequently intercut with Sarah’s own flashbacks and panic attacks that she experiences, reliving the car crash. It shows some of the common symptoms of PTSD in a raw and real way, as well as the struggle of the sufferer to survive both it and their current trauma.

Last one is a double whammy of two fantastic books that I highly recommend: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, and The Fisherman by John Langan. Shining Girls deals with a main character that survived an attempted murder by a time traveling psychopath, and if that summary doesn’t draw you in I don’t know what will. It gives small glimpses of the recovery period, but mostly takes place a couple of years later as she teams up with a journalist to try and track down the killer, wanting to bring them to justice. The story deals with her trauma by showing how she is wary of anyone now, constantly looking over her shoulder, waiting for the killer to come back and try to finish the job. She’s guarded, understandably, because the man that tried this has popped up at multiple times throughout her life and she never knows when he may again.

The Fisherman, by comparison, features two main characters suffering from PTSD. One, Abe, lost his wife to after a prolonged struggle with illness. The other, Dan, lost his wife and two children in a car crash, gone in an instant. They bond out of a mutual love of fishing, and eventually hear the story of an old Fisherman from colonial times in their area, who supposedly wrangled in a leviathan as old as the earth itself, and could use it to do whatever the wrangler wanted. This leads Dan on a mission to find it, hoping to use it to bring his family back. It’s understandable, after being through that kind of stress to want to do everything in your power to fix it, even if it means to sell your soul to a Lovecraftian monstrosity.

Abe, on the other hand, struggles with the desire to bring his wife back. He wants it, of course, but knows that the time they had together was special and if she came back she may not be the same. He struggles with this, pleading with Dan to reconsider what he’s doing, before finally walking away, leaving Dan to whatever fate he chooses.

The point of all this is, PTSD is rampant, but it is survivable. You can deal with your illness as Laurie Strode did, by preparing for any eventuality that it may come back, or as Abe did, accepting what happened and embracing it, leading to healing. You are not defined or limited by your trauma. You have the ability to overcome what life throws your way. For many survivors of horror, it seems like life is an endless hell after what they’ve endured, but for others, there’s a way to find peace, to move on and have a new life. Sidney Prescott in Scream survived Ghostface FOUR FUCKING TIMES. She showed that there was trauma there, but with therapy and a support system you can get through it. So you go, fight your demons or slashers or cosmic beings, and kick ass. Keep living, keep surviving, and become stronger each day.


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