My estranged dad died, and all I got was this obsession with horror movies
On April 15th, I turned 29 and my dad died. Yes, on my birthday.
The odds of your dad dying on your birthday are 1 in 365, or 1 in 366 if it’s a leap year. Percentage-wise, that’s .2 percent. Even on that very day, I think I appreciated the oddity while reading emoji-filled birthday text messages and simultaneously drinking sad glasses of bourbon.
What do I remember about my father? I remember him being angry and my childhood being anxious. I remember whole afternoons when I wasn’t allowed to leave my bedroom because my father’s friends were over for drug parties in the living room. I remember those hours spent hungry and thirsty and holding my bladder, all so my dad could get high. Then, when he was finally high, he was still angry. I learned, rather quickly, to duck when he threw beer bottles at my head.
Perhaps more harmful than my father’s volatility was his silence. I was too terrified of him to say anything, and he certainly never started a conversation. Never a “how are you” or “how’s school.” Even a hello grew rare.
Occasionally, though, he’d call me “Ronbelina” and we’d wander through Blockbuster in search of a horror movie that I was definitely too young to watch.
Thinking of this now, I find there to be such beauty in the routine: Inspecting the VHS cases for ‘90s slasher films together, closing my eyes at the scariest parts, and my dad teasing me for doing so. Routines like this feel as mundane as pocket change when you’re inside of them, but they often become the things you miss most.
Still, occasionally watching horror movies like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, or Urban Legend wasn’t enough to save our relationship. It suffered under the weight of so many emotional wounds. At 19, I moved out and never spoke to my father again. 10 years and two weeks later, he died on my birthday.
My husband had to work on my actual birthday, so the night before, he cooked us steaks that we paired with a bottle of orange wine and Jigsaw, the latest film in the Saw franchise. I’m the one with a soft spot for the Saw movies and their twisty, gory puzzle, so that film selection was a bit of a birthday present. As we slept later that night, our dark bedroom was suddenly lit by my vibrating phone’s screen: Mom Calling. A call from my mother at that hour would have elicited an immediate answer on any other day of the year, but I assumed she was calling past midnight to wish me a happy birthday. On the second call, I sat up and answered with that needles-in-my-neck feeling that something was wrong. She told me my father had died. And really, it was not an especially interesting phone call. It’s a phone call that so many people receive during their lifetimes.
I got off the phone and wondered what I was doing when my father died. I wondered if he died while my husband and I live-streamed Beyoncé’s Coachella performance in bed after we watched Jigsaw. I wondered what exactly he was doing when we watched Jigsaw—those being the last few hours of his life and all. I wondered why I even wanted to watch that dumb movie.
Deciding not to speak to my father didn’t seem monumental since we spoke so little as it was. But my inability to conjure the last time we spoke to each other, face to face, gives me a special pain—heaviness on my chest, tightness in my throat—that I haven’t before felt. It’s guilt, not regret. Two feelings I had always assumed were intertwined, unable to taste one without the other—but I can’t regret our broken relationship because it not a 6 or 10 or even 16-year-old’s responsibility to build that relationship; it was my father’s.
Guilt, however, is a different beast. It’s that awful feeling of knowing my father died alone, save for the medical professionals performing CPR. It’s knowing he died having not spoken to his daughter in 10 years. I don’t regret the chain of events that led to our estrangement, but that fact itself drops me into a river of guilt where all I can do is tread water. I often wake up in the morning to find that the river has receded, but my pillow is still damp from swimming through it.
At normal funerals, the children of the deceased usually get to be these shining pinnacles of sorrow for everyone to marvel at. My dad was a man who I had loved, at times hated, and no longer spoke to. And because of that last part, no one really knew what to say to me. People seemed hesitant to bring up my father at all. Mostly, they just told me I looked pretty. Compliments about my appearance would normally fill me with a certain sense of warmth, but on this day, I was filled with awareness that bodies are just bodies. And all bodies, even the pretty ones, die. On this day, I would have much preferred a relative taking me in their arms and telling me my dad loved me despite the distance and the silence.
No one did that, but I don’t fault them. I wouldn’t have known what to say to me either.
Some of the people tough enough to love the complicated thunderstorm of a man who was my father offered stories about my dad getting drunk, about how much he enjoyed racing friends down driveways and up hills, and about the times he dressed up as Santa Claus. The stories were so specific, so oddly endearing, and so different from my own experiences with my father that I wondered if those people were at the wrong funeral. I tried to reconcile these stories with my own memories, and I was left with what felt like two distinctly different people. They got to remember my father as the rowdy life of the party in a Santa Claus costume, while I was left to remember the time he threw a freshly delivered pizza at my mother, and how the slices crawled down the wall.
I tried to remember better moments, but I could only conjure sitting on our green sofa and watching horror films together. That was all I had.
It felt so deeply unfair. So finally, I cried.
I cried in the TSA line after the funeral while my father’s remains went through the x-ray machine. I cried on the six-hour flight home between two strangers who politely ignored me.
I cried until April 26th, at which point I decided Avengers: Infinity War would be a perfect reason to finally leave my apartment, as well as a perfect distraction. It was an intense, fast, loud, neon display that interrupted my continuous thoughts about my relationship with my dad—until the film became a neon display of my relationship with my dad. I watched Gamora think she’d slain her adoptive father, Thanos, and let out a guttural cry—relieved to have vanquished him, yet anguished at the loss of him. I knew that feeling in my bones. I know the weight of a father like hers. What was supposed to be a trivial distraction sparked a new hobby: For a week straight, I sat in my grief—no bras, no showers, no cooking for myself, no leaving the house—and binge watched movies.
Months later, I still cry sometimes. But I’m no longer inside that fresh, thick grief. And having some distance, I’m able to appreciate that I mourn my father through movies.
It makes sense. After all, the warmest, softest memories I have of him are not the times he kissed a boo-boo or calmed me after a nightmare—because that never happened. My fondest memories are those nights after Blockbuster, filled with the blood and gore of teen slasher films from the late ‘90s.
What we remember of the dead is romanticized. I hated the crushed Cheetos meatloaf my father used to make me eat on the nights we had dinner together. Now, I think it’s utterly charming. Likewise, watching bloody horror movies suddenly seems like such a lovely, appropriate way for a father to bond with his too-young daughter. These memories are completely altered since his death—like someone just had to put them in the washer and dryer, so now they fit again. Now, I love horror movies with a nostalgic tenderness. Give me a demonic haunting, a murderous child, or a psychopath with a knife any day. I love it all.
But the thing I love most about horror movies is that they aren’t actually about death. They are celebrations of life and survival and grit.
They aren’t about the blood of split guts, but about the blood under the fingernails of the girl who lives. They’re about the glory and devastation of being the one still standing in the end, even though all your beautiful friends at the house party are dead.
I think of my father. I think of sitting on the couch together and watching Urban Legend, or Scream, or I Know What You Did Last Summer. And maybe this larger lesson wasn’t my father’s intention—maybe he just thought it was funny that I squirmed through the scary parts—but these films feel like his way of teaching me to survive in this world, at all costs. They feel like his way of teaching me how to outlive him. How to swim in that vicious river of guilt and wake up the next morning. How to finish writing this essay even though it makes me cry.