Scared Silly

How Horror and Humor Helped My OCD and Prepared Me for the End of the World

This one was written by Trevor Almy.

For Jim Brown and Ian Olson.

Ever since I was six years old, I have struggled with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In my early years, my illness manifested itself through an eclectic range of symptoms.

I lined up my shoes.
I closed closet doors.
I pushed the paper towel roll to the right.
I looked over my right shoulder whenever I looked over my left.
I touched objects with my right hand that had been brushed by my left.
I lined up shoes again.
I picked the skin behind my kneecap.
I washed my hands.
I double-checked closet doors.
I counted to thirty and backwards.
I placed my index finger into strike plates.
I prayed the same words over and over.
I never threw anything away. Ever.
I avoided knives.
I relived events–vacations, sleepovers, even whole years–until they felt perfect.
I repeatedly checked my pulse.
I tapped the front of my desk.
I tapped the front of my knee.
I hung my book bag on the hook on the right closet door.
I washed my hands again.

OCD is the ultimate Rumpelstiltskin, promising sufferers that if we bargain with it, if we engage in its assurance rituals, then we will be able to spin straw into gold and so stave off our own beheadings. And like the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale, these compulsions are compromises, seemingly negligible in the beginning, first a necklace, then a ring, until finally we have signed over the contract for our firstborn and become this imp’s slave.

All of my repetitive actions were so that:

A monster would not lurk in the closet.
My world would be rational and controlled.
My mother would not die in a car accident.
My house and everything I owned would not burn up in a fire.
I would feel clean.
A monster would not lurk in the closet.
I would not lose an important paper.
The world would stay the same.
I would not change.
I would not lose control.
I would not get a rare disease.
A monster would not lurk in the closet.
The world would not end.
The world would not end.
The world would not end.

OCD is a neurosis that centers around the monster, around the nightmare. As Fletcher Wortmann indicates in his memoir Triggered, the only proven treatment for OCD is Exposure-Response-Prevention therapy (ERP). Thus, rather than closing the closet door on my monsters, I needed to open them.


In March of 2018, Ryan Ellington brought me on as a staff writer for Grindhouse Theology, an online publication devoted to the intersection of theology and horror cinema. Horror has frequently taken a paradoxical place in my life, serving as both an object of avoidance and as a simulation for my fears. In late high school and early college, I embarked on a quest to consume as many horror films as possible, which usually involved the companionship of my brother Logan or my best friend Ryan and, in those days, often required a Russian roulette style gamble of selecting titles from Blockbuster. The irony is appreciable. While I was beleaguered with fear and anxiety, I soothed myself with movies designed to scare. I believe what was unfolding was my gradual understanding that what would be most healing for my OCD would be to confront my monster rather than to cower from it.

Horror became a sacred space for me to address hidden anxieties. Underlying my various idiosyncratic frights was a more fundamental dread. What if the world and the cosmos were not in equal alignment? What if reality, at some level, was askew? OCD, while often defined as the pathological need for certainty, has been, at least for me, a pathological need for symmetry. And horror, in its primal condition, is constituted by the asymmetrical. As part of my self-growth, I have had to learn to practice acceptance for life as being misaligned or ambiguous. Therefore, the notion of the nightmare is not the illusion that the world is asymmetrical; it is the false belief that we are endangered because the world is asymmetrical.

Another way of observing the asymmetrical is through the Grotesque, which horror fetishizes. For our purposes, I will define the Grotesque as that which is deformed in a way that is both strange and familiar, both repelling and attracting. The inability of our minds to host the Grotesque precipitates a kind of polarization that leads to retreating to an imaginal zone in order to not face the actual world.

Addressing this idea, Neverending Nightmares is a 2D hand-drawn, minimalist video game that follows the afflictions of Thomas Smith, a young man who is waking from an infinite regress of nightmares. Designer Matt Gilgenbach is candid in stating that the game is meant to evoke the feeling of hopelessness and bleakness aroused by his own struggles with OCD and depression. Experimenting with traditional mechanics, the game does not end when a player dies but rather saves and reloads with the character awakening in a new nightmare. Playing through Neverending Nightmares, I identified with the protagonist’s grief-avoidance. So much of my compulsivity had included escaping the pain and loss of life. The game helped me to process the truth that evacuating one torment inevitably leads to the begetting of another until I stop running through my rituals and embrace the incongruity of life. When Thomas dies and revives in a bed, he attempts to mitigate the shock of his nightmare by pulling a bone out of his arm or engaging in some other form of self-harm. This made me recognize that my compulsions are self-sabotaging; they prohibit me from understanding that we frisk our worst terrors of any weapons when we admit their potential existence. Instead of torturing ourselves for our dreams or thoughts and for dying, we submit to death as a kind of final acceptance of the incongruity of life.

When I was thirteen, the world was ending. And as melodramatic as that statement sounds, in many cases, it was. I was transitioning from childhood into adulthood. Arriving at such a threshold, I happened to watch an early found-footage film called Alien Abduction: Incident at Lake County. Given my penchant for all things extraterrestrial (I had elevated Independence Day to Citizen Kane status and latched on to all abduction documentaries and conspiracy theories surrounding Area 51) this movie scared the shit out of me. The story follows a rural Minnesota family that witnesses the arrivals of The Grays. Panic ensues. I was convinced this was happening, would happen, and despite my intricate compulsive actions, there seemed to be no way of assuaging my horror of the world’s end. How did I know that I would not be sucked up in one tractor beam of light by a flying saucer? How did I know that an alien race was not preparing to infiltrate our planet and subjugate us? My parents, vexed by my insomnia and altered behavior, had me visit my seventh-grade school counselor (who, humorously, resembled a young Jeff Foxworthy). The counselor provided me with the tools for meeting my fears. By tasking me with the exercise of not lining up my shoes and not engaging in other reassurance rituals, he was showing me that the world would not end if there was a foregoing of my magical behaviors. And though that might have minimized my embodying of anxiety through calming ceremonies, fear nevertheless migrated into a more insidious, innate existence.

Approaching adulthood, a major shift occurred. No longer was I captured by external and outward compulsions but instead was ensnared by mental rituals. My OCD had morphed into a different manifestation, what the literature commonly refers to as Pure-O (and no, despite the way it sounds, that is not a flavor of yogurt). Pure-O, or purely obsessional OCD references those strugglers who do not have outward, external compulsions but instead have mental and internal ones. In other words, to negate an intrusive thought, I no longer engage in an external action but rather perform an elaborate mental compulsion to nullify the unwanted idea. Whether that be thinking, “Jesus is Lord” over and over whenever I had a blasphemous or heretical thought in seminary or mentally reciting my sexual preference in order to neutralize a vulgar image, the effect is the same. I was relying on assurance rituals in order to persuade myself that the world is symmetrical and all is pure and certain.

Glyn Dillion’s 2014 graphic novel The Nao of Brown probes the psychopathology of OCD Pure-O with a kind of medicating dread and psychologically nuanced intensity. In the narrative, the protagonist’s ethnic identity itself is asymmetrical. Twenty-eight-year-old Nao Brown is hafu, half Japanese and half English, and she wrestles with violent urges characteristic of Harm OCD. The vividly illustrated panels depict these trespassing thoughts to hysterical and heartbreaking effect. With each bout of harm obsession, Nao ranks the degree of her fear on a scale of one to ten, ten being the most unbearable. Perusing The Nao of Brown, I found myself resonating with the anxiety ranking, as it was an exercise I had to do during a prolonged outpatient stay where I received treatment for my OCD. The cover art features a figure with a washing machine for a head which directs the reader’s attention both to Gregory, the washing machine repairmen who will be a prominent character throughout the story, and to the symbolism that OCD is much like a washing machine in that thoughts get turned over and over, a mental exercise called rumination. Furthermore, the surname Brown alludes to the epiphany that the title character has to make, which is that reality is not black-and-white but brown. Jettisoning the tendency to purge life of any detail that does not conform to a pattern, Nao finds equilibrium, counterintuitively, in accepting imbalance.

False equilibrium is the con that OCD achieves in so many of its sufferers. It blackmails individuals into undergoing bizarre rites in order to apprehend peace. Earlier I mentioned Fletcher Wortmann’s Triggered; now I must disclose how much of it was an interpretation of my own life. For each of the author’s obsessions and compulsions, I had near-identical ones. Reading Wortmann’s autobiography was like reading my own. It was as if his particular fixations were surrogates for mirror ones that I had. Where he feared apocalyptic doom in the form of Kurt Vonnegut’s Ice-9, I conjured up a less academic version in the style of alien abductions. Further, his Catholic scrupulosity aligned with my Southern Baptist moralism. And if I had been born a few years later, you could have exchanged my X-men craze with his Pokémon pursuits. Augmenting the similarity of our struggles was the fact that he too had endured a toxic, dysfunctional relationship, and he was also addicted to a JRPG, only his was Chrono Trigger and mine was Final Fantasy VII. Being an inpatient at the state psychiatric hospital of Peachford in my early twenties was also analogous to his college-age yearlong stint at McClean Hospital in Belmont. Through Wortmann’s book, I had found a doppelgänger in my own life’s trajectory, and for those suffering with an isolating mental illness such as this, you know that the comfort that comes with such solidarity cannot be understated.

Initiating me into the haunted nature of existence, horror, like Triggered, has habituated me to the asymmetrical and done so in a way that is communal and not individual. Given that horror provides a controlled environment to encounter the Grotesque or incongruity, I have found films that provoke my specific, latent desire for alignment to be therapeutic. That this occurs in a colosseum of onlookers is all the more humanizing. Watching Starry Eyes with Ian Olson or heckling Blake Collier about Night of the Wererooster, I am able to expose myself to the reprehensible and the ridiculous with friends who help me to look at the stitches and seams around existence. Viewing John Carpenter’s The Thing—a narrative where anybody can be a carrier of a virus that causes them to lose control—enables me to let go of my own agency phobias. Horror purges because it offers a liminal space, a purgatorial place where viewers can live out an unsure experience.

The incongruous, the Grotesque, the monster, or the nightmare is not the sole territory of horror, though. While many define horror and humor in a dichotomous way, the two are united in incongruity. What makes us cringe is often what makes us chuckle. In my own recovery from OCD, my therapist Jim Brown has helped me to develop a robust sense of humor in order to laugh at my fears. Employing imaginal exposure therapy, he has assisted me in taking my phobias to their conclusion. What if I lose my mind and end up in a straightjacket in a mental institution akin to the worst horror movie trope? Jim’s answer: he will visit me and bring milkshakes. Humor disrupts and displaces our fears in a way that does not create false assurance but examines them for what they really are. For the reason of humor’s disorienting and destabilizing effects, it works in a way that is parallel to horror. Perhaps that is why horror-comedy or dark humor can be so effective. Both exposure us to the Grotesque, the monster, the nightmare.

Fear of the asymmetrical or the incongruous has predominated my life and that is epitomized in my paranoia of impending apocalypse. Upon further reflection, what I find disturbing about the prospect of worldwide catastrophe is not its public conclusion of human existence. On the contrary, it is the private interruptions, the notion of incompleteness and of lack of thoroughness. What story will I have left unfinished? What movie will be unwatched? What television show will remain in my Netflix list? My mind has exhausted itself trying to ameliorate my concerns that I will leave something undone by giving false assurance that I can get to everything.

Horror and humor remind me that incongruity deserves both a scream and a snicker. And the coda we must apply to humanity’s narrative is the cross of Christ, in which we find the greatest incongruity and the greatest asymmetry. In the death of Christ, the end of the world has not been postponed but it has been thrust upon us, and we prepare for it not by compulsively fleeing it but by facing it. In the death and resurrection of Christ—that redemptive historical event—we are able to take solace in the absurd and the abominable. Through the horror and humor in the redemptive act of the Son of God, the vicious cycle of OCD is broken. I am able to prepare for the end of the world by gazing at it with a giggle or a gasp or, to encapsulate the two: a cackle.

As I return to another school year of teaching English Language Arts, I am reacquainted with the theme that I have centered all of my classes around, and I suppose it should be no surprise: the monster. In one of my course syllabi, I mention that the Latin monstrum has a broad semantic range, but it definitely includes the idea of a warning. Therefore, my metaphor of OCD as a monster implies its hyper-vigilance, its tendency to bring a megaphone to the mind, shouting danger at every moment.

Meeting the monster of my neurosis, then, is the monster of the cross of Christ. This monster warns of the doom that would be placed on villains were it not for its descent on the incongruous Man-God who became the Grotesque as he was splattered for our sins. He who knew no monstrosity became a monster for our sake, and that monster is more powerful than any silly imp. Even one that promises gold from straw.


7 responses to “Scared Silly”

  1. Ian says:

    Trevor, this is such a good word for folks like us— that there’s no way out of the end coming for us; the only way out is to meet the monster head-on, absorb its horror, and derisively laugh as it crumpled to the ground, exhausted. And I know you’ll appreciate the Oxford comma in that sentence. Cheers, brother!

  2. Virginia says:

    Thanks for this! I actually found this very website while recovering from my last bad bout of OCD. While I didn’t have the Southern Baptist moralism, progressive Christian moralism contributed to a similar scrupulosity designed to avoid any hint of impending disaster. Understanding the bound will — both in that I can’t avoid messing up, and that I can’t will away my OCD — has been freeing.

  3. Collin says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve suffered from bad OCD for most of my life, usually in the form of intrusive blasphemous thoughts and compulsive praying. So much of this is me. Feeling terrifies of everything and seeking to flee from the horror of our fallen existence, but then also finding strange catharsis in looking the horror head-on through books, movies, etc. I’m cautious to share this with many other Christians I meet, so it’s awesome to find somebody who understands the theological underpinnings of the horrific, and who also recognizes the theraputic qualities of horror for those of us perpetually on the look out for an “out” (i.e. our OCD rituals) from this horror. As you say, the only out is Christ. As a Lutheran, I appreciate your use of the Theology of the Cross at the end there, too. Thanks again!

  4. Sarah Gates says:

    Wow. (I loved this.)

  5. L says:

    My son is six, has suffered with OCD since age four. He used to say out loud, “It’s true that it’s true…” and then finish the sentence in his head, “… that I will survive.” At one point, he said this hundreds of times a day, even in his sleep. Now he’s less outwardly compulsive, but grapples constantly with anxiety over incongruity and asymmetry of every kind. As a mom, I never imagined I’d be shepherding such a small child through such severe OCD (despite my own history with it).

    I’m glad there are good pieces of literature out there that he will be able to read and find his own experience represented; I’ll look up those mentioned here.

    He says often he “loves spooky things”, and I’ve, as a mom, worried that this interest would spiral into something unhealthy that would ultimately harm him. But now I see that maybe I’ve missed something important, which you’ve described so powerfully here: he’s looking for ways to explore his fears. Thanks for this article.

  6. amanda m says:

    thank you for sharing, this is beautiful!

  7. […] the Mockingbird website, Trevor Almy once wrote of exactly this. Horror simulates worst-case scenarios with virtually no risk and — better — it’s often a […]

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