Arts & CultureCultural AffairsMagazineOctober

Into the Abyss

How horror helps you understand yourself

DISCLAIMER: This has spoilers for Melvina’s Therapy by A. Rasen.

The root of horror is the sickening urge to flee when recognizing a danger to oneself or something you care about. Unlike terror, which is a short adrenaline boost to an immediate threat, horror unsettles you. Even as the moment passes, horror lingers in the background until a slight, unassuming reminder dredges it up again. Despite being an unpleasant feeling, people use books, films, games and other media to willingly subject themselves to it (along with some unwilling friends). One of those people was me.

Over the years, I exposed myself to various media out of morbid curiosity and to increase my tolerance towards it. It was as fascinating as it was fun to get scared, especially with friends. Books generated a deeply personal experience as they rely mainly on your imagination, with illustrations helping shape (perhaps too accurately) the horror.

As you decide the pace, you decide if you really want to see the next page or if you want to sleep for the next three days.

Audiobooks, radio, and other non-visual media offer better direction through sound effects, music, and voice acting. This creates a clearer sense of mood and tone, but sacrifices self-pacing for automatic progression, so you’re essentially strapped in for the ride.

Films and haunted houses sacrifice even more ambiguity and use more visual tools in order to increase immersion. Costume design, lighting, set design, and in the case of films, editing, create a more visceral experience.

Video games allow for interaction between the player and elements within the game, increasing tension by reintroducing self-paced progression, introducing penalties to the player, and placing pressure on the player to fight or flee. However, mechanics necessary for fun or playability can clash with the story or atmosphere. Additionally, the volume and diversity of horror videogames is comparatively low, with some titles restricted to older, barely accessible platforms.

Despite my initial enthusiasm, I slowly withdrew myself from the genre as mainstream horror gravitated towards tropes and cheap jumpscares. It was like the difference between getting dragged into a haunted house as a child versus routinely maintaining it as an adult. I knew exactly how each mechanic was queued to enhance the fear, but the core reason of why I should have been afraid faded quickly. It lacked realism and inspiration.

It was in this state that I read Melvina’s Therapy by A. Rasen on Webtoon.

The premise is about the psychological treatment of typical people by the titular character. They have problems like not having the will to follow one’s dreams, coping with unresolved childhood memories, and the struggle to reconnect with a family member even as they succumb to dementia. These mundane motivations coupled with insight into their fears helps ground them, making them more empathetic.

The first story is about a woman, Gina, whose irrational fear of rabbits stems from a traumatic childhood memory. Her boyfriend, Owen, pushes her to investigate the memory so she can finally resolve it for the sake of their relationship, and so she braves the house where the trauma occurred despite her anxieties. Tension builds as Gina uncovers bits of her past, timidly moving past room after room. Surprisingly, I feared for Gina as I identified with her mission to address the root of her stress rather than treat the symptoms of it. I found my fingers hesitant to go down panel after panel until Gina finally found her answer.

Owen, ignoring all the cues that something is wrong, finds Gina in the house. He immediately admonishes her for isolating herself, making it difficult to find her. Owen doesn’t understand that a mirror has taught Gina what she truly is. And so Gina reveals her monsterous form before his very eyes.

It’s at this point the author introduces you to his signature: body horror. Webtoon forces you to view each panel in fullscreen, allowing you to see every elaborate detail. When viewing this part for the first time, I almost closed the Webtoon, deleted the app, and then ran to St. Joseph’s for holy water. The author begins with a canted angle of the woman in an awkward pose, her face and clothes indistinct, invoking the eeriness of the uncanny valley. It continues with two close-up panels of her face, now wrinkled and hollow, peeling off like a beauty mask and revealing two large glowing eyes, a bony nose, and gaping maw.

The image stuck with me despite many attempts to banish it. Body horror reminds you that the monsters are not just conjured purely out of one’s imagination. They’re based on humans. The remnants of an arm, leg, or eye forces you to acknowledge that these people were twisted into becoming monsters, and that this could have affected anyone. This effect synergized with the narrative, as with Gina rejecting her weak-willed, human outer appearance and accepting her grotesque, but liberated form. The scene was horrifying not only in its execution, but in its relation to the premise that wantonly exposing another’s true self can have drastic consequences.

The internal struggle becoming an external nightmare became a motif over the course of the story, as mundane things like chairs, rabbits, and branches took on macabre forms linked to the patient’s underlying, disturbed condition. One patient pursuing art must overcome the dual terrors of his mother’s disapproving ghost, as well as a murderer whose pursuit of similar dreams were crushed. Another patient unwilling to accept his mistakes gets trapped in a time loop. A pair of patients try to escape from a nursing home occupied by deformed, forgotten seniors and their sinister staff. It became harder to ignore how scenarios like these could be seen in the society and people around me.

With all the smaller arcs having a moral lesson, I examined Melvina’s overarching character arc for this Webtoon’s purpose. In some ways, Melvina is a stand-in for the reader. She knowingly, apathetically sends her patients to their own personal hell while she sits back to gather results. It’s almost identical to how the melodrama, dumb decisions, and shallowness in some horror pieces dehumanizes its characters, making it hard for the audience to express empathy as they wait for the major scares to occur. The use of her patients’ blood to immunize herself from fear is similar to the way readers vicariously live through the protagonists’ horrors to try to become braver. Her goal of destroying the world because of her basic incompatibility with it is akin to a horror fan lapsing out of the genre, as their expansive knowledge of horror has left them feeling that there is nothing of value anymore. By making the patient more relatable, Melvina’s actions are seen as reprehensible in contrast while insinuating that the reader should not become like her.

Another therapist named Beatriz acts as Melvina’s foil. The lessons gained through her horrors allow her to survive. She accepts her negative emotions over faking happiness, forms bonds with others, and reconciles her decision to leave her abusive mother to reclaim her life. Beatriz represents what the reader should take away from this Webtoon: that being afraid, vulnerable, and struggling at times allows you to learn from yourself and others, allowing for meaningful change.

Through this Webtoon, I realized my immunity to fear limited my emotional connections to a certain degree. I was unwilling to make investments in other people or causes beyond the surface level. Rather, I would use that time for myself, for any quick, cheap thrills that barely met my excitement threshold. I was like Melvina; free from any worries, but also free from any pleasures.

Inspired by Beatriz, I decided to revisit some of the horrors I had dismissed before with a fresh perspective. Emily Carroll’s comic “The Groom” showed how subtle details in imagery and dialogue can dramatically change the outcome of the story. Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling’s Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared video series showed how fulfilling your goals by any means necessary is less important than doing it according to your own standards. Fromsoft’s Bloodborne reminded me that, even if something unexpected ruins your carefully laid plans (like an eldritch entity), it doesn’t make your actions completely futile. Not all of it was interesting, some of it was cringeworthy, none of it was regretful, and all of it worth sharing.

Slowly, I empathized with others again because I implemented my old lessons. I listened closely to different aspects of a conversation like tone, pitch and pacing to determine subtle changes in my friends’ emotional states. I offered better advice by identifying the best means for someone’s success. I could patiently comfort others until they were ready to move forward. Finally, I found valuable people and causes to devote my time and show I cared.

And slowly, I began to feel scared. 

Jonathan Hocnalon

Jonathan Hocnalon is a fourth-year immunology student. He believes everyone's got a story to share: it's just a matter of finding the right questions, knowing when to ask them, and listening respectfully.

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