“Sometimes the unseen is more terrifying than what’s in view,” writes Gina Nutt. In a horror film, the camera passes over empty rooms, training the audience to look for what may or may not be there. Almost scarier than the figure that appears is the one that doesn’t, the feeling of dread left unfulfilled by a ghost or monster that isn’t where you thought it would be. Across the eighteen essays in Night Rooms, Nutt mines the tropes of horror for the meanings they may or may not impart to her, interrogating the significance she gives to subtle details, a creative practice any fan of horror knows well.
“This isn’t a ghost story,” Nutt begins one essay, “but I’ve become more aware of the furnace stopping, the sharp cutoff of air rushing into a room.” As with the whole of Night Rooms, Nutt is less concerned with whether the ghosts of her stories are real than zooming in on the feelings that haunt her. “I am making a lineage of what lingers,” she writes elsewhere. “I am trying not to be afraid anymore.”
Nutt embraces the atmospheric texture of a horror movie as an opportunity for the essay form, writing in aphorisms that move from one room to another, leaving us to fill in the blank spaces between. As a young girl competing in beauty pageants, she hints at the horror of teaching girls a particular set of cultural values: “someone was judging us, we had something to live up to.” The “someone” and “something” go unnamed, but we can choose to see something sinister or pedestrian, the response more a reflection of our own lens than Nutt’s.
She then moves from the beauty pageant to the story of a girl who went missing when she was ten. “I didn’t know why anyone would hurt her,” Nutt remembers, looking at her face on the cover of tabloid magazines at the grocery store. Nutt only hints at the violence that was present, but she points to something horrific between what’s there and isn’t: “The story of a girl’s life and death bought alongside the bread and eggs.” In these subtleties of detail, Nutt suggests a violence in the casual collision of everyday life with the terror wrought against girls. Night Rooms functions as its own kind of horror film, one where Nutt and we enter a space and determine—alone or together—what to fear.
In an essay about a relationship that she will not describe explicitly (“I split against the sounds he made …”), she examines the expectations of women to tell their stories of surviving abuse. Using the horror trope of a final girl—the one who ultimately escapes the crazed male murderer—Nutt observes the assumption that “her survival is attached to telling; she is expected to say it, to tell, again and again; she can’t live without a saying so revealing she is bare before the audience, the moment is bare.”
Here again, there is the initial violence that remains off the page—the violence that Nutt did not author—and a second, implied violence, the one where women become responsible for recounting the events they endured at the hands of men, as if “he and I were, are, both on trial.” In pointing to two different but related violences, Nutt upends her assigned role as final girl and offers a searing criticism as director of her own narrative.
As Nutt dances between real and imagined horror, she questions herself at every turn, like the final girl choosing which door to enter, which way to safety. “Perhaps I am ascribing significance to something that does not deserve any,” she muses, connecting the search for figures on-screen to her own obsession with signifying the ephemera of her life. Nutt considers the “heavy feeling” that has followed her throughout the years, understanding that our culture warns against despair, however justified: “I try to stop the feeling—rather than slow my descent—I feel more upset. I tell myself, This is just a feeling. I shrink the intensity. I telescope heaviness with words like only and just.” Once she has convinced herself that she is making ghosts of her own outline, she recalls how in horror movies “the characters laugh so hard at themselves for being afraid, they miss the shadow approaching them.”
For Nutt, she sees herself in relation to a family history of suicide, moving between a lifetime of ongoing grief alongside her own fears of the heavy feeling that resides in her. Against the norm of grieving either temporarily or privately, Nutt reveals her wounds and allows her camera to linger on the pain. She frets over not being polite when talking to a friend about death, but in Night Rooms, she determines that politeness is not a key to anyone’s survival. In a world where suicide rates grow while frank conversations around mental health falter, Nutt opens a door to a room we have not looked at long or hard enough. “I have felt the future closing in instead of expanding,” she writes, “I have imagined days and nights tilting forward without me.” I read these sentences and felt my held breath exhaling in appreciation of her honesty.
Where we cannot trust an unreliable narrator because they appear unaware of their biases, Nutt’s own admissions of uncertainty make her voice sing with vulnerability, a channel toward a deeper authority. “Who decided despair was darkness?” she asks, confronting the societal expectation—especially of women—to smile. “Who feels it as an awful painful blast of light?” Nutt worries that her tendency toward despair is like that of an infected character in a zombie film, who will hide their illness to appear normal, but at a cost to themselves and—eventually—others. Instead, she carves a path for heavy feelings: “Survival may have less to do with strength and bravery and more to do with tenderness and vulnerability. Asking how long can I sit here with this feeling?” Night Rooms becomes a meditation in sitting with haunting feelings that linger long after the final girl’s last page.
Night Rooms, by Gina Nutt. Columbus, Ohio: Two Dollar Radio, March 2021. 173 pages. $15.99, paper.
Ben Lewellyn-Taylor lives in Dallas, TX. He is an MFA student in Antioch University’s low-residency program. His essays and reviews appear in New South, No Contact, and New Critique, among others.