Fatherhood ruined horror films for me

[This article was written by Aaron Pruner and originally published at The Washington Post]

I’ve been a dad now for over half a year, and there’s no going back to the man I was before welcoming my daughter into the world. That’s a given. But aside from the many life-altering details that come with being a parent, there’s one way being a dad has changed me that I never expected: I can’t watch horror movies like I used to.

For over three decades, I’ve been a horror fan. I first discovered my passion for storytelling, as well as the power that words and visuals can have over an audience, through horror. I was introduced to the genre at the age of 6 with William Friedkin’s terrifying classic “The Exorcist.” Just three years later, Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” changed my view of the world, and how I chose to fit in it. A few months ago, after watching an episode of “The Walking Dead,” which depicted a crying baby being used as bait to lure an undead horde, I experienced an infuriating mix of fear and rage that was very unusual for me. As an entertainment reporter and former actor, I found the low-hanging fruit of this scene glaring: Of course I’d feel the empathy and fright that came with the visual of a defenseless baby lying unprotected in the middle of a dirt road, with a mob of bloodthirsty monsters barreling down on her. But the rage? That came from someplace else entirely.

I was angry at the characters on screen for following through on such a callous act; I was mad at the show's writers for even putting this scene on screen, to begin with; and I was beyond annoyed with myself for letting it affect me the way it did.

Immediately, I felt inclined to destroy everything and everyone between myself and that helpless child. All these years of exploring humanity’s darker side through various forms of pop culture entertainment, and it took just one five-minute scene in a TV show to unravel me.

They say parenting changes you, and boy does it. The horror genre has an innate ability to examine the human condition, holding a mirror up to our own moral and mortal woes. Now that I’m venturing forth with the newfound hope and love my daughter has brought into my world, I’m left wondering whether this is it for me — whether I’ll now be going through life with blinders on, shielding me from the dark human narratives that once, not that long ago, made me vibrate with a steady hum of creative inspiration. For better and worse, horror movies are a big part of what makes me — well, me. But now I’m looking inward, taking a mental inventory of who I was before my daughter was born and comparing that person to the man I am now.

Horror is human. The demand for scary stories with a deeper message and emotional core have brought us horror movies like Jordan Peele’s “Us,” Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” and even Mike Flanagan’s hit Netflix series “The Haunting of Hill House,” all of which delivering the scary goods while also reaffirming who we are as a society, as families, as humans — and the undeniable progress we still need to achieve.

Upon watching the new big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary,” I was floored. The story of Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), an emotionally broken father on a precarious downward spiral of grief, was nothing new to me — but it revealed itself as a fresh concept for my dad brain to unpack. As I took in each questionable choice he made, causing further damage to himself and those he held dear, I found myself unraveling once again. More than once, I have found myself watching my daughter asleep in her crib, affected by the moment — only to have my anxieties take over and show me all the ways she could be harmed in mere seconds. What if my daughter died? And if I had the chance to bury her in a magical cemetery, knowing full well she’d return alive but murderous, well — would I do exactly the same thing Louis did anyway? I can’t say no.

Whether it’s Chris MacNeal (Ellen Burstyn), the mother in “The Exorcist,” or “The Shining”’s Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), I’m now viewing these iconic stories from an unfamiliar perspective: the parent’s. When you start empathizing with the psychologically disturbed caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, a whole new outlook on the genre begins to emerge. Horror does a great job of holding a mirror up to reveal our collective weaknesses. But what I didn't know going into this parenting thing was that children can also cast a reflection of sorts. I now see the best version of myself in my daughter's eyes — a collection of ideals guiding me to constantly strive to be the type of guide and mentor I never had as a child. My daughter, through all her complicated wants and adorable needs, brings an overwhelming sense of responsibility with her. I’m in awe of her primal drive to live — and I’m in fear of it, too. The more she acclimates to her environment and the stronger she becomes, the more vulnerable I begin to feel.

Love and fear: They’re two sides of the same coin. And that gritty, morally ambiguous space in between love and fear — that is where the horror genre truly thrives. I have come to the conclusion that this coin will never stop spinning.

So, can I watch horror movies like I used to? All signs are pointing to no — but that’s okay. My internal barometer for terror has been recalibrated. After all these years, I’ve become re-sensitized to the genre and the world around me. It’s all enough to make me vibrate with creative inspiration.