I sat across the aisle from my classmate, Kyle, on a bus filled with counseling students from our master’s degree program. We were heading back to campus from a day trip to Taos, NM. Kyle and I were engaged a lively discussion about our favorite horror movies. As our conversation turned to some more obscure titles and topics, another student eventually turned around to express that our conversation was a bit morbid. With seeming disgust, the student questioned why someone would be drawn to such dark topics as a source of entertainment.
I was familiar with this tone. It rang with both curiosity and mild disgust. My tastes in the darker side of art had been questioned by friends, romantic partners, teachers, parents and others throughout my life. Truthfully, I had not seriously questioned these interests until after the brief incident on the bus. I did, however, observe that most of the people in my life looked at some of my interests in a negative light. On that bus, I also observed that many individuals working towards a career in the counseling profession, where judgment is frowned upon, had no problem chiming in to let us know that the subject matter was a bit offensive to their sensibilities. As I continue to consider the idea of why some of us are drawn to darkness, the answer seems simple. These pursuits are therapeutic.
When watching a horror movie, one is faced with the uncanny, the mysterious, the obscene and the paranormal. In a sense, these are concepts of unreality in that what we see in horror movies does not reflect the world’s present reality, except in rare circumstances. As a result, the movie creates a world that is separate from our own. It is a fantastical surrogate, used to represent the atrocities of our world without forcing us to witness those atrocities in a reality that is too familiar to us. It is inhabited by fictitious people and entities playing out fictitious stories. In this alternate reality, the viewer can safely engage in fantasy and take on any role from hero to perpetrator of evil. This feels permissible because the fantasy takes place in a setting so removed from reality. The viewer has a safe place to explore their most distressing, unwanted desires without slipping into a place of self-judgment, and without inflicting harm on others. This is cathartic.
Catharsis is not without value, but there is deeper work to do. This is where both art and therapy can play a larger role in allowing the individual to process the emotions related to horrific or scary thoughts.
Personally, poetry was the medium I chose to explore darkness. The lens of the poet allowed me to take my most negative thoughts and twist them into beautiful language. Using this lens to explore my psyche, I could see light and dark integrate to form a more complete picture. I saw myself expressed on the page and accepted the positive and negative as equally important parts of my personal narrative. They were not good thoughts and bad thoughts, they were simply different thoughts, the integration of which allowed me to feel whole, and the denial of which made me feel disconnected. Poetry was a door to vulnerability that allowed me share myself with others on a deep level. I no longer needed to live in denial of what I believed were unacceptable feelings and thoughts. It was a starting point to self-awareness and self-acceptance.
Writing worked well for me and has become an essential part of my mental health, but counselors can foster the same kind of exploration in their sessions if they are willing to go there with clients, fostering an atmosphere where these thoughts can be explored, imagined, experienced and processed.
The clinician can use a variety of skills to accomplish this. If the clinician senses that a client is keeping something hidden, they may inquire about this, maintaining a non-judgmental stance, the clinician can ask the individual about songs or other movies they may be connecting with at present. Jungian depth work would also be helpful in helping a client connect to some of their thoughts that they may shy away from. Having the option to provide the clinician with an image or metaphor representing a thought should let clients feel safer disclosing and processing. This creates separation from the client’s inner thoughts, allowing them to process a representation of their thought when the thought itself is too difficult to swallow. That being said, it is not necessarily the method that will make a difference, but the willingness to dialog with the client about these thoughts creates a space where self-acceptance is possible amid unacceptable thoughts. Without a route to accept and process such thoughts, an individual may avoid or deny these thoughts, seeing them as taboo. This closes an individual off to vulnerability and can lead to destructive behaviors, such as self-harm, substance abuse and various other unwanted behaviors.
***Rich Brodt is a former intern at People House, and is currently a co-owner and private practitioner at Elevated Counseling, PLLC in the Highlands area of Denver. Prior to training to become a therapist, Rich practiced as a mental health litigation attorney in New York City, where he first became passionate about the field. Rich draws on knowledge of law, philosophy and poetry, bringing a unique perspective to his sessions.
Rich’s current practice utilizes a client-centered approach, integrating Gestalt, existential and depth approaches. He focuses his practice trauma and anxiety-related issues, including PTSD, high-stress careers, life transitions and other major stressors. Rich’s first priority in counseling is to create a safe, non-judgmental space, where clients can feel comfortable sharing and processing their most difficult thoughts.