Horror as a Safe Space

A new book by Oklahoman Preston Fassel and writing partner Chris Grosso delves into horror movie characters while offering relevant analysis and self-help exercises.

In the summer of 1953, my father died of polio. I was four years old. A few years later, I was a full-blown fanatic for horror stories, devouring the work of Poe and every other author of terror tales I could get my hands on, regularly losing myself in scary movies and TV shows like Thriller and The Twilight Zone. 

To her own dying day, my mother was convinced that my lifelong love of horror came about because of what happened to Dad when I was so young.

As it turns out, she may have been right. 

“I feel like a lot of people who are really big fans of horror find that connection because of some sort of formative trauma,” says Preston Fassel, an author and journalist who grew up in Tulsa and Broken Arrow. “It becomes this identity for them, in the same way that, for some sports fans, the team they support becomes a defining thing.  It gives them a grounding structure in their lives, a place to go to and turn to when the world feels too much for them. Horror becomes the safe space.”

For some, however, just escaping into frightening entertainment isn’t enough to sustain them. These individuals, Fassel explains, “don’t know how to look or ask for help, because horror is such a subculture. It has this ‘us vs. them’ mentality and underground lifestyle, while mental health and psychiatry can so often be seen as very consummately the Establishment. So how do you get people who see themselves as completely separated from and opposed to this thing [the Establishment] to acknowledge that they need to get some kind of help from it? That’s a reason it was important for Chris and me to write this book.”

Author and Oklahoman Preston Fassel teamed up with Chris Grosso for a new book, Necessary Death. Photo courtesy Preston Fassel

“Chris” is Chris Grosso, a San Diego-based drug and alcohol counselor, artist, writer and film producer who, like Fassel, is a horror fan of long standing. The two met a few years ago after Fassel’s first novel, Our Lady of the Inferno, began making some noise among genre aficionados. Grosso invited Fassel onto his podcast to talk about the book. 

“After we were done recording,” recalls Fassel, “he asked me to stay on the line for a couple of minutes. He’d had this idea for a book for a couple of years, a book that would combine self-improvement and horror movies, but he wasn’t sure how to get it off the ground himself. And he said, ‘After reading your book, and especially now after talking to you, I think you’re the person that I’ve been looking for to help me bring this to fruition.’

“I went through Sam Houston University in Texas and hold a degree in psychology, but I just kind of burned out after I got it and decided not to pursue it as a career. So I thought this would be a fun and interesting way to actually use my academic background. We started working on it in 2019, through COVID and everything else that’s gone on in between, and we finally got it out there.”

“It” is a fascinating new book called Necessary Death, published by the Florida-based Health Communications, Inc. The subtitle, “What Horror Movies Teach Us About Navigating the Human Experience,” tells you a lot of what you need to know about its contents; essentially, it’s made up of 13 chapters (probably not a coincidence), each dealing with a famous horror-film figure – A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, for instance, Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface, even Bruce the Shark from Jaws. 

Each chapter is separated into two parts. The first, “Oh, the Horror!” looks at the film or films that spawned each character, mixing psychology with well-crafted synopses and sharp observations that often veer into the humorous. The second part of every chapter, under the general heading of “Oh, the Humanity,” plays off the first, offering pertinent self-help exercises and practices based on each horror icon and what he or she (or it) represents. The first sections are written by Fassel, the second ones by Grosso.  

“Practically, it’s theory and practice, with me tackling theory and Chris tackling practice,” says Fassel. “I would write my portion first, then I would feed that on to Chris. He would read what I had written and then build his sections of the book around those portions. So it was a process of I write it, send it to him, he writes his, we review it together, and then that gets put into the book.

“In the early stages, I kind of struggled with how to structure and write my chapters,” he admits. “Then, I decided, ‘Let’s give a little rundown, kind of tongue-in-cheek, a little bit wry, with a couple of jokes, and give readers context if they haven’t seen the movie, or refresh their memories if they have.’

Once he found his structure, Fassel really took off with the whole concept – sometimes into unexpected places. For instance, in a footnote for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre chapter, he notes that under Texas law, Leatherface’s killing of three of his four victims in the original movie would “technically be justified,” since they were trespassing on his property at the time.

“That was the first footnote I put into the book,” he says with a chuckle. “And that’s when I realized I could have this fun, running commentary in it.” 

At the same time, he acknowledges the greater purpose for Necessary Death. 

“Anytime I’m writing, I want it to have an impact on the people who are reading it,” he says. “I want it to mean something. I want it to connect with a reader. And considering that one of the primary goals of this book is to help anyone who needs that help, it’s really important to make that connection and to get into the deeper and more philosophical and psychological and emotional components of what we’re discussing.”

The book, he adds, “is not a substitute for psychotherapy, or pharmaceutical intervention, if that’s what a person needs. But I hope that if there are people out there who are struggling, who don’t know about getting help, that this can be a stepping stone for them. If they can read this and recognize things they’ve been struggling with, and learn some coping mechanisms and some emotional strategies from Chris’s section, maybe they can then move forward in their journeys toward wellness.” 

Although Fassel hasn’t lived in Oklahoma for years, he went through his school days in Broken Arrow and Tulsa, graduating from Broken Arrow High. He also received another form of education during his teen years, indulging his love of horror and grindhouse features (the latter named for low-end movie houses that specialize in exploitation-film fare) through the video-rental stores in his hometown.  

“I would not be writing about what I write about, I would not have gone down the road to who I am as a writer now, if it had not been for the video stores of Broken Arrow and Tulsa at the turn of the millennium,” he says. “The video stores in Broken Arrow at that time were an unexpectedly wonderful resource for grindhouse movies. They had Super Video at the Warehouse [Market] supermarket, they had Hollywood Video – they had the greatest selection of exploitation and grindhouse movies. My whole origin story is there in the Broken Arrow video stores.”

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