Living with Ghosts

Warner Bros.

When I was released from the hospital, the first thing I wanted to do was watch movies. Not just any films, but the ones I’d avoided at Blockbuster since I was 12, and had forbid my best friend to even speak about. She was the first person I called. “I need to watch The Ring. Will you come over?” An hour later, I was squirming in my seat. I held a pillow in my lap to block out the images “just in case”—but I was determined not to use it. I forced myself to watch. I flinched when my best friend’s cell rang with 15 minutes left in the film. She laughed. It was her brother. Soon, the movie was over.  

I survived—but I also hadn’t thought about the hospital for over 90 minutes. I didn’t think about anorexia nervosa or what the doctors had told me about my heart rate. The only things I thought about were phone calls and horribly disfigured faces. For an hour and a half, I was completely free from the intrusive thoughts about my body, the ones others labeled my “body dysmorphia.” For once, I wasn’t the person in peril, constantly on the edge of death. Naomi Watts was.

When the TV went off, silence surrounded me. I swore I heard nurses’ shoes or the clanging of the scale, but I was at home. For all intents and purposes, I was safe. I was healthy and healed. But still, I felt haunted by something I couldn’t see.

This is how my obsession with horror movies began: a way to block out my two week hospital stay and the subsequent four months spent in a day treatment center for anorexia nervosa. As a child, I’d never watched any horror films, in case I saw something I couldn’t unsee—like a grimace on a severed head in Prom Night or the decaying flesh of the best friend in An American Werewolf in London. At 16, though, I needed these nightmares. I welcomed intrusive thoughts about witches, werewolves, and monsters; it meant my own trauma didn’t bubble to the surface.

So, once my friend ran out of movie suggestions, I scoured online lists and message boards looking for the goriest, most disturbing, or underrated horror films. Anything worked, as long as it gave me chills and kept my mind busy.

Everywhere I looked, one film kept appearing, often in the number one spot: The Exorcist.

Watching it, I found something I didn’t expect: not just a nightmare to help fight off the memories, but an expression of all I had been through.  

*

The plot of The Exorcist is simple. After playing with a Ouija board, 12-year-old Regan (Linda Blair) begins to act strange. She talks to someone who isn’t there, has abnormal strength, uses obscene language. Her mother believes she’s been possessed by a demon. Soon, Regan is confined to her bed. An exorcism is performed by two priests.

It’s a basic plot in most possession films. A young girl acts strangely, and religious figures are called in to re-establish order. Whether it’s Witchboard or The Exorcism of Emily Rose, these films often tend to follow the same basic structure.

And as an eating disorder patient, this structure was intimately familiar to me.

In Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, Joan Jacobs Brumberg states that the first cases of anorexia nervosa were girls who wanted to be saints. By not eating, they grew closer to God. When this devotion led to damaging physical conditions—such as low heart rate, amenorrhea, or death—doctors labelled these desires pathological. Once labelled, God didn’t matter. Intrusive thoughts were a kind of possession, a demon that starved them from the inside out and left a mark on skin that was too thin.

Being marked by anorexia nervosa meant they needed to confess to their possession. The demon needed to speak.

Three days into my own treatment, one of the counselors pulled me aside from the group. She asked if I liked how I looked, if I liked having an eating disorder, and if I actually wanted to get better. I told her I did. She insisted that I didn’t. Our sparring went on for several rounds before I finally said I liked being skinny; I even confessed to still exercising. I confirmed that I was just as pathological as the doctors thought I was. She thanked me for being so honest.

Anorexia nervosa became a third entity in my treatment center, something that we would refer to with separate pronouns, as a separate self, sometimes even with a name. When we had difficulty completing a task, Ana was to blame. She was a skinny creature who had invaded us.  Like a hungry ghost, she would remain until we fed and fed and fed ourselves back to health.

When I watched Regan flop against the bed in The Exorcist, I saw my hospital room and heard the nurses telling me not to move. When she threw up split pea soup, I saw the endless meal replacement shakes I’d been forced to drink as my sole source of nutrients—since it was supposed to be “easier” for my first two weeks—and remembered the threats of a gastro-tube that would force us to drink it if we didn’t do so voluntarily. Each time one of the fathers entered the room and chanted at the devil’s form in Regan, I saw the same counselor putting me in a corner and begging me to confess.

In The Exorcist, Regan—as the devil—fights her exorcism. She grips her shocks and restraints with vulgar language. The devil fights but, of course, is cast out in the end. Regan, and order, are restored.

I wanted to fight my own exorcism, but I couldn’t. To fight meant I was even sicker. To fight meant a devil named Ana would win. So I let them strap me to the bed. I drank down what they told me to. And as I waited to gain weight, I started to think more and more about the supernatural.

*

Warner Bros.

The Poltergeist franchise is best known for its eponymous curse. First, Dominique Dunne—the actress who played older sister Dana, was murdered by her boyfriend. Then, the young Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Anne, became ill and died, followed by Will Sampson’s early death a year after his role in the second film. Multiple crew members either died or had accidents shortly after wrapping the film, some of which has been blamed on the use of real-life skeletons on set. These stories have become Hollywood legend, a superstition akin to not saying the name of the Scottish play out loud, but people do believe. You can find a dozen websites and E! Hollywood specials devoted to it. True or not, the implication is clear: If you tangle with spirits, remember that they fight back.

The same can be said of eating disorders. Tell a group of people they’re pathological, that their demons must be cast out, and you’ll get a dozen relapses. Almost all the patients I was with in treatment ended up dropping the weight they put on. Many came back to the same hospital, while others went to more advanced facilities in different cities. One was even in the newspaper and became a sideshow case that daytime TV and talk shows lapped up.

The next year, I dropped down to 90 pounds. I went to a different treatment center but was given the same message about possession and confession. I was sick and needed to be healed. I was marked by distrust. There was no need to exorcise me this time, though. I willingly strapped myself into a bed and made myself gain weight. I redeemed myself, and I did it so well that this time around, I had 12 minutes of screen time devoted to my story on a reality TV show. When I watched myself on-screen, I wondered if I was tempting fate. So many of us had already relapsed—who was to say we wouldn’t meet a more grisly ending off-screen, like Dominique Dunne or Heather O’Rourke? Anorexia is the deadliest mental illness. To talk about recovery is to hex yourself over and over again.

A year after my show aired, I did drop down. My weight yo-yoed throughout university. Each time someone touched my body, I would remember I was pathological, and would fight demons in the dark again. Each new person I met had to be reintroduced to my curse. And of course, when they disappeared, I would chalk it up to the miasma of horror that was following me around.

My body was a haunted house. I was going to have to start getting used to it.

*

In The Amityville Horror, Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder) is embraced by the entity of the house. It’s a sexual embrace, but also a comforting one. Her house may be riddled with the ghosts of the murder victims who used to live there, but their presence may not be all bad—at least, for her.

Like Regan and the young girls at the center of possession films, the women in the quintessential haunted house film—think Poltergeist, The Conjuring, or The Haunting—tend to be seen as volatile bodies with deviant sexualities. Kathy Lutz is a single mother who has remarried; Eleanor (Julie Harris) in The Haunting is possibly queer; Carol Anne becomes singled out by the ghost in Poltergeist, to the point where she’s pulled into the other side; and Carolyn (Lili Taylor) is outright possessed in The Conjuring. These films suggest a connection between the body and a house: both can become possessed, both can become haunted—especially if you’re a woman.

When you’re an eating disorder patient, it’s assumed that you’re a thin, white, straight girl who probably did this to be seen as “pretty”—i.e. desirable. Some of the research has changed over the years, and there are genuine doctors out there who no longer start with this assumption, but many still do. And many doctors also don’t consider being queer as an option. For someone who is queer, like I was figuring out at 16, therapy was a mixed bag. I was told my thoughts about food were wrong, but I was told that thoughts about my body were wrong, too. In the dark, when I reached out a hand to touch my own skin, I’d be greeted with bones. With a womb that no longer produced hormones. To like my body, as it was, meant I enjoyed the eating disorder; it meant sleeping with a demon.

But I wanted to sleep with a demon, to feel as if my body could be used for pleasure rather than pathology. Since these two ideas didn’t seem to co-exist, and my desires couldn’t be queered in a way I wanted, I ended up eroticizing the horror I saw on-screen. Margot Kidder, as Kathy Lutz, was captivating to me precisely because she embraced the ghost when it embraced her. In The Haunting (even in the 1999 remake), I fell for Eleanor because she and the other female-lead, Theo (Claire Bloom), were decidedly queer. Later on, I fell in love with the concept of The Final Girl in slasher films—not only did she get to be a tomboy with a masculine name (perhaps a butch lesbian) but she also survived the horror.

I desired these characters, but I wasn’t quite sure if any of them were me. I still felt as if I’d left myself with Regan, strapped down and silent.

*

According to horror theorist Carol J. Clover, the possession film allows the possessed girl to transcend her feminine body. She speaks in a man’s voice and adopts macho expressions. Like Regan in The Exorcist, she often speaks in vulgarities, and references explicit sex acts. This sexuality is precisely why the possessed person is dangerous—and so often, why the possessed person is depicted as a teenage girl. In the West, a teenage girl’s sexuality is one of the most volatile things there is. It’s the monster in these films, where the young girl is made to seem older through how she speaks. The voice is deceptive; it’s sexual and inviting, but it’s also the voice of the devil.

The demon or ghost in these bodily hauntings, then, is often masculine. It’s a boy trapped in a girl’s body. It is, effectively, a trans man narrative, except we never get the final release of allowing the demon to stay. The girl always goes back to her girlhood with the hope of one day growing into a woman.

The only people to question that assumption were writers Kyle Lukoff and Rae Spoon.  They documented their personal struggles with eating disorders as a direct response to the onset of puberty and a rapidly feminizing body. To not eat wasn’t a way to be pathological, or even an attempt to be saint-like, but a way to stop the oncoming puberty that only gave them a future as women. Gender transition was their solution. They did not need to be exorcised or banished or solved. They just needed to grow up into something else.

I read and reread their words. I picked up The Exorcist and watched it again. And then I returned to all the possession films I’d watched, along with haunted house flicks like Amityville and Poltergeist. All these stories had young girls on the edge of puberty, wondering if the end goal of this transformation had to be womanhood.

What if these stories about girls possessed by demons were trans man narratives? What if the body that I had wasn’t pathological, but merely mismatched? What if the voice that spoke inside of my head wasn’t a third entity, Ana, a demon to discard, but just as much a part of me? What if instead of trying to change the mind to fit the body, I changed my body to fit the mind?

My possession no longer had to haunt me. I no longer had to be haunted at all.

*

Warner Bros.

For the next two years, I swapped out body dysmorphia for gender dysphoria. I made doctor and therapy appointments all over again. I started to confess to different ghosts that rummaged around and kept me up at night. I started to believe in a different narrative of the true belief, and waited for a priest in the form of a plastic surgeon to come and release me through a double-mastectomy and hormone treatments.

A week before my appointment, though, I returned to The Exorcist. I watched Regan get strapped to the bed. I realized I was strapping myself down, all over again. I was enacting the same story. A different genre, but still a horror show. The ending of the possession story is always an exorcism, like the ending of the transgender story is always a surgery.

At what point, I wondered, do we stop seeing ghosts and demons as separate selves and merely start to see ourselves? At what point is a house haunted with things it cannot contain and at what point is the creak on the stairs just part of its structural design?  Maybe I didn’t need an exorcism or ghost hunters or surgery to heal what was wrong with me, especially if nothing was wrong in the first place.  

I cancelled my appointment.

I sat in my apartment alone, waiting for the ghosts to come.

Nothing ever did.

*

At the end of the first Poltergeist, the dad pushes the TV out of the hotel room. It’s supposed to be a subtle laugh at the end of the entire ordeal. He doesn’t push the TV out thinking it will make the ghosts disappear; he does it so his family can have quiet time, some peace from the madness, for a moment. The ghosts, and his memories, are still very real. He just doesn’t want to deal with them right now.

In The Conjuring, there is an entire room devoted to haunted objects. As in Poltergeist, the dad in this film doesn’t lock the objects away thinking it will rid them of the problem of ghosts. He does it because the only way to not become possessed completely is to learn to live with the ghosts.

I used to watch horror movies because I wanted to lock away all my possessed objects and forget they were there. Whether it was my body, a memory, my gender or sexuality, or even the experience of feeling cursed, I didn’t want to think about it anymore. I wanted the horror that washed before my eyes to be someone else’s nightmare.

But it doesn’t work that way. No matter what film I viewed, I saw myself in the edges of the screen. The horror never really fades. Ghosts will always be around—whether in memories or bodies or a physical place—but that doesn’t mean you can’t live there. It only means you need to be careful who you let inside.