I love “feel bad” movies. From my early introduction to horror at the age of 8 (thanks, Dad!), to seeing Annihilation five times in theaters, I’ve always been enamoured with all things depressing and horrific. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, I realized I was watching and rewatching films that upset me more than ever, and quickly began deeming certain films my “comfort films.” One of those films, Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, is something I’d only been able to watch twice before. Since Canada’s first lockdown, I’ve watched it three more times, and it doesn’t get any less distressing. So why can’t I stop?
I truly think being alone during this time has allowed me to retrace certain traumas, and painful films have accelerated the process. David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, though hard to watch at times, has allowed me to feel content in my loneliness. The film’s dreary setting and melancholy score sweep me up each time I watch, and maybe that’s all I need. But there’s more to watching painful films than just having a slight reaction—so I decided to dig deeper into why we like them.
The main thing that strikes me about painful films is finding myself in their characters. I’m not a perfect person, and many movie characters are. When I watch horror films or films about people exploring their trauma, I’m able to see a piece of myself reflected through the screen. Jakob, a 22-year-old writer for Scratch Cinema, feels the same, noting, “When I saw First Reformed, it was like all of my own awful feelings were on screen—every bit of sadness, despair, and existential dread was characterized in [the film’s main character].” In a way, indulging in these films feels like a session of group therapy.
When watching a film like Mysterious Skin in particular, I’m aching for the main characters to get better, but I’m also hoping I can do the same. “There’s a [certain] catharsis in observing tragedy. Sometimes when you’re having a bad day, you need solidarity more than optimism,” says Erin, a 21-year-old writer. It’s hard to realize that other people around you might feel the same things you are, but the people in the films we watch aren’t necessarily real. Sympathizing for them feels easier, in a way, for this reason. Watching our own situations play out on screen allows us to indulge in a fantastical version of our lives and pretend that maybe this isn’t even happening to us at all, even if it’s just for a few hours.
While it’s easy to romanticize life before 2020, we must remember that life before the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t a utopian safe haven. “It’s easy to forget what real life was before all of this, and watching films that don’t romanticize reality but rather do the opposite can be very refreshing to watch,” Erin says. Watching horror films or films that display trauma grounds us in some sense of reality, as they usually don’t have happy endings. Films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remind me that sometimes, life’s true plans are out of my control. With or without a mutated virus, the Earth we inhabit isn’t perfect: it’s gritty, tough, and sometimes unbearable. Eliza, a 22-year-old writer, muses that in most of these unconventional comfort films, “characters make peace with the horror of their existence rather than let it consume them. [These] are stories of perseverance where the filmmakers trust their audiences, rather than coddling them with empty escapism.” When watching painful films, the audience is allowed to find catharsis in the fact that sometimes – even in fictional worlds – pain is inescapable.
Ahmad, a horror enthusiast and the editor-in-chief of Film Updates, says, “There’s this strange comfort in seeing your own story and your own experiences portrayed [on screen] and in this genre specifically. [It’s] a different kind of escapism, [but] one that feels more authentic.” Before quarantine, I was already an Annihilation enthusiast. But since the first lockdown in 2020, I’ve been thinking about the film more than usual. Now, watching the characters scream and gasp and let go of their earthly inhibitions is cathartic. Even though I’m not being transported to a sci-fi hellscape, my mind feels like one at times—and films like these allow me to sit with nothing but the booming reverberation of their music. As they end I’m left stunned, but I can breathe again. It almost feels like the person I was before rewatching these films has changed, and when they end I feel more capable of honest introspection.
Maybe it’s the need to let myself cry or maybe it’s because I’ve always had a hard time processing traumatic experiences, but watching painful films has continued to save my life. Like 20-year-old Ash says, “cathartic cinema can offer more than just a film. It can be a way of coping [or] it can be a form of empathizing and growth. [It’s] a solace to seek comfort in.” Watching characters on screen go through things that are unimaginable to my current self or hit too close to home is a vessel for catharsis. I know these films make me cry and give me anxiety, but I still keep watching. I know this subgenre will continue to provide me and other viewers the support we need. It may be an unconventional source of comfort, but it’s one that never fails to find me when I need it.
By Kaiya Shunyata
Illustration by Ashley Setiawan