"It's just a movie!" my mom said adamantly to me when I was 15 years old. She made that remark when I protested not being allowed to go to the theater to see the Daredevil movie, of all things. But it wasn't "just a movie" to me. No movie was, or is, or will be.
I went to see Daredevil anyway, of course. It was a matter of principle to me. My parents—conservative and religious—were pretty strict about monitoring the content of any PG-13 movie I wanted to watch, and R-rated movies were always off the table. When there was doubt, they'd check one of those parent's content guides, like we have now on every IMDB listing. I don't remember what it was they found problematic in Daredevil, and it didn't matter to me anyway.
I was more upset with myself that I'd even told them I wanted to go. Usually I didn't bother, but I assumed there wouldn't be an issue with fucking Daredevil. But there was, and it made my clandestine trip to the theater more troublesome, but I got away with it. I always did.
Movies were my teenage rebellion. I was pretty much a good church kid. I didn't do drugs or drink or have sex with anybody. I just watched a whole lot of movies I wasn't supposed to. It started around my 14th birthday, during the summer before my first year of high school. I had a church friend who was a few years older who had downloaded a huge number of movies and burned them on CDs, and he loaned me a tall spindle full of them.
I ate 'em up, figuratively speaking. Part of it was that many of the burned moves were rated R, and thus forbidden fruit, but mostly it just felt like a new world was opening up to me. We all enjoy watching movies, of course, but with the full menu right there in front of me for the first time, film quickly meant something much more to me. I couldn't get enough, and before long I was renting, borrowing and downloading movies constantly.
Last week I watched Step Up Revolution on blu-ray. I'd seen it many times before—I bought a 3D TV in 2011 more or less so I wouldn't have to watch the flat version of Step Up 3D--and yeah I like this series a lot. But something strange happened when I watched Revolution this time: I became breathless, and then weepy. I was crying happy tears because of a Step Up movie, and not just a little bit.
I was surprised by my own reaction, but I didn't question it. This is who I am. I'm guarded, but emotionally raw. When I feel something, I feel it more than other people do. I may be so sad that I want to kill myself, but it works the other way, too. When I'm truly happy about something, it's the purest ecstasy.
There aren't many things that can take me there. Almost all of them are movies, music or video games. The real world need not apply.
It was during my early high school years that I started feeling depressed. I'd always been great at school but my grades started to fall off as I took honors and AP classes. During the school year I'd typically only sleep for a couple hours a night, sometimes because I was trying to do all the reading and other homework, and sometimes just because.
I had a couple girlfriends in there, and those relationships set off huge red flags because I got way too into them and was comically dramatic about being dumped—like in the "I'm going to mope and cry for weeks" kind of dramatic. I was quite the sensitive child, yeah, but this was over the top even for me.
I washed away my tears with the movies I wasn't supposed to watch and also games I wasn't supposed to play. I'd been playing games my whole life, but I usually stayed within my parental guidelines there. And then Grand Theft Auto III came along and set me off the path, as it did with lots of other kids.
And that's how it went. I'd stay up until 4 or 5 in the morning most days, often crying and always bummed out, feeling like everyone I knew hated me, and wanting to die. I didn't know why I was like that, and not knowing made it worse, but at least I had my contraband media at the ready at all times. There was some weird poetry in that. I was embarrassed about being depressed, and I couldn't really be too open about my movie-watching habits for fear of my parents finding out, so I mostly kept both to myself.
Given my religious upbringing, I obviously went to church a lot. I bought in, too, but praying didn't seem to chill me out much. I think going to church, or at least going to that church, exacerbated my depression-fueled inferiority complex; I certainly never felt like I came close to the standard I was supposed to live by. I thought I was capable of getting there, but since I didn't I felt tremendous guilt about it.
There was one time during this period, in the middle of the night during a crying fit, I managed to make myself call a church friend and tell her that I felt completely alone and wanted to die. She prayed with me and told me she cared about me and so did my family and other friends. She stopped talking to me after that.
During spring break when I was 15, I spent the week at home trying something new: violent horror movies. I'd expanded my entertainment horizons greatly, but I'd only barely touched graphic violence by stumbling upon movies like Desperado and games like Soldier of Fortune 2. The nastiness and morbidity of Soldier of Fortune, one of the few games I've played to date that featured an attempt at realistic gore. in particular struck a nerve with me. After shoutouts I made a habit of taking long looks at what I'd done to my enemies—exposed brain matter, intestines and bones were common and I couldn't look away.
So that spring break I watched all of the Friday the 13th movies, all the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, the three Evil Dead movies and some other selections like Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. Though some are comedies, none of these have any kind of real positive outlook, and of course there's a lot of death involved in each. I found them fascinating and even resonant, having been suicidal for a while at that point.
But mostly I found them stimulating. I felt all the feelings while watching the carnage: sadness, sympathy, fear, disgust… and joy. Joy? That didn't seem right to me either, but there it was.
I have a very close friend from college named Corey who I've always bonded with over our shared love of film. Our tastes are similar, but they diverge in a very distinct way: he's more of a typical film snob, while I'm more vulnerable to sheer sensory input.
What that means is I'm partial to movies that overload me, whether it be through sound or audacious visuals or raw emotion. Whatever it is still needs to be something I think is actually good or at least sincere—beating me over the head with noise is no guarantee that I will love you.
Still, my taste being what it is has led me to enjoy what others might say are my less credible favorite movies and games and music. It's certainly why I wept over Step Up Revolution, and it's why I've been obsessed with the Fast/Furious movies for years, and it's why I like to fall asleep listening to Ellie Goulding.
And it's why I find joy in disgusting, vile horror movies. The more bleak and violent a film, the more likely it is that it will get an emotional reaction from me. And emotional reactions are what I want.
I turned 16 the summer before my junior year, and that's when things got really awesome/went straight to hell. Since I could drive everywhere, it became much easier to go to the theater for movies I wasn't supposed to watch. I took advantage.
Strangely, the main way I'm able to keep track of my memories from when I was 16 and 17 is through movie release dates. I saw everything that hit a theater in my hometown (we had three back then, one of which was a Regal that would carry at least one arthouse movie every week), and the movies I saw became tied to important events in my memory.
During those last two years of high school, I dated one girl on and off for a little over a year. Our first date was to see Mystic River, which I had to go back to see alone the next week because I didn't pay much attention the first time. That was a dumb choice for a date, anyway.
It wasn't until the next year that our relationship really became a thing, though. In March I took her to see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (I had already seen it and recommended she go, but she wasn't going to without me), and then we went to my junior prom. That summer things became serious, and by the time senior year began we were a legit thing.
I loved this girl, and she loved me back, and to this day I can't say that about anyone else. It felt realer than real to me, like heaven. But we had a problem that I'd been ignoring: she didn't see much value in the "frivolous" entertainment I held so dear. This led to some sitcom-ish but still emotionally devastating conflicts.
The first came in October. We were watching Alabama play Tennessee in college football at her stepdad's house, and afterward we were going to see The Grudge. But the game turned out the best the longest in Bama history, taking five overtimes to settle. We were going to be late, and my girlfriend was mad, but I didn't really care. I wasn't going to leave before the game ended unless somebody was dying.
When we eventually got to the theater, The Grudge had sold out. I suggested we see I Heart Huckabees instead. She didn't want to, but we did, and afterward she was somehow even more furious than before. She hated that shit. It was a fun ride home.
In case you've lost track, we're in October of 2004 at this point, and I'd bet you can guess what our next big conflict was over. That's right, it was Half-Life 2. Like everybody else I'd been waiting centuries for that thing, and I bought it day one. My girlfriend was extremely unhappy with me for wasting my money on a stupid video game.
Through all this, as always, I was suicidal. I was in love, but that couldn't fix me. I also made the tragic mistake of telling my girlfriend that I was sad all the time, and I even cried in front of her more than once. Fun fact: I've cried in front of a lot of people, and very few of them continued to be around me for very long after. My girlfriend was not an exception.
On Sunday, December 19, 2004, my girlfriend dumped me. I remember the date because we broke up right after I saw Mike Nichols' Closer at a Sunday matinee. I later found out she'd been getting close with some older guy she worked with at the bookstore—to what extent I don't know, but they got married nine months later. It was so thematically appropriate I'm getting kinda nauseated writing it down.
It's not easy to explain how I felt after that. I mean, yes, I wanted to die, but the pain was worse than usual. I'd gotten used to being miserable, but this was epic. I went into a tailspin, and honestly I don't remember much of how the rest of my senior year went. But there are some things I do know.
I know I played a ton of Counter-Strike: Source. I know I played through Half-Life 2 several more times. I know I practically lived in San Andreas. I know I saw at least 50 movies in the theater. I know I watched the first season of Battlestar Galactica as it aired.
And I know I went to Star Wars Celebration III in Indianapolis, did a volunteer gig for two hours at the official merch stand so I could legally snatch more of the convention-exclusive action figures than a normal attendee would, and then I re-sold them in line before the Revenge of the Sith midnight show for $50 a pop. Which was good, because I absolutely hated the movie.
It was a period of extreme darkness for me, absolutely. But what I had then, and what I have now, and what I will always have as long as I'm here, is my media. I had always loved games, and my relationship with film had become romantic in nature by the time I graduated.
I was not a nice person, not really. I was unstable and angry, and when I went to college in Tuscaloosa I shut my true self off from the world, coming out only to talk about movies at University of Alabama Film Society or write entertainment reviews for the student paper or go to football games. I put on my best mask, and I sold it well.
I later worked at that student paper full time as an editor. For three years I did that, and only there could most people see who I really was. My two closest friends, Chloe and the aforementioned Corey, saw inside sometimes, but it was rare for others to get a straight look. They had to settle for learning about me through what I said and wrote about movies and games.
Through all this, I've never been one to avoid emotional triggers in media. Quite the opposite, in fact—I want to be triggered. I want movies and games and books and music to cause all the emotions that exist. I especially crave sadness and despair, but really I just want to experience media that makes me feel. Having watched so many movies and played so many games, that can be a tall order.
Sadness brought on by a movie is obviously not the same as something in real life making me sad, but there's also no bleeding effect, either.There had been times when a movie made me totally distraught, but it's always been the sort of distraught that's completely separate from my own depression.
I use entertainment media to draw out my emotions so I can examine them in a safe space and learn more about myself. Movies and games have become a lens through which I see myself and my feelings. Studying my reactions to media helps me work out what's going on in my head.
In 2011, about a year after I began writing about games for a living, I was still living in Tuscaloosa when an enormous tornado came down right in the middle of town and destroyed a wide swath of it on its way out. It missed me by half a mile, but all the death and destruction took its toll even so. I did some volunteer work for several days, sleeping very little, and on the weekend some of my friends and I gathered for drinks at one of their homes. I got drunk and wound up and insulted one of my friends. His girlfriend took exception, and I stormed out.
Later that night she texted me to see if I was OK. I tried to be honest and say I wasn't, but that's hard. When somebody asks if you're OK, you're supposed to say you're fine. But she weaseled it out of me. She asked if I wanted to kill myself.
It was a good question, because I'd been sitting at home in the dark, crying and trying to figure out the best way to do it. So I fessed up.
Everybody came over, and they hugged me and cried with me, and the friend who'd finally gotten past my shield made me agree to go to therapy and a psychiatrist, and she committed to go with me. This was a turning point for me, to be sure.
Well, it was the start of the turning point. What I'd left out of that anecdote was that this breakthrough occurred the weekend Fast Five came out. I'd been aching to see it, but the tornado ruined the mood and we were busy with cleanup even so. So during our come-to-Jesus gathering there on my porch, we agreed we'd all go watch it the next afternoon.
And we did, and it was amazing. My turning point was complete. I was genuinely happy that I went to see Fast Five instead of killing myself.
Today, my career is a bit more difficult to manage because I don't have a steady and reliable source of income like I did when I worked at Game Front. Working freelance sucks, but I usually manage. I'd probably have an easier, less stressful life doing something else. Some months I could probably make more money working at a convenience store.
I never give much consideration to changing careers, though. I've found what I want to do, and I'm not willing to give that up for the sake of something as paltry as "quality of life." I am a mess, and I always will be a mess, but at least this mess is one that I like.
And so I write about video games, and I am video games. This is me, the movie guy and the games guy, and this is my world. It's all I have.
And it's all I have to live for.