(I originally intended to wait on this post until it was at least October first, but Halloween is somehow bleeding into late September for me, so I’m just going to embrace it.)
The word “monster” has a special place for me. I hope to post something each week of October exploring my experiences with this little bit of language.
My mom has always been into horror (and anything with elements of horror, like science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, mystery, thriller, and magical realism). So, I absorbed a good deal of this when growing up.
When you love someone, you share your favorite experiences with them, so I have all sorts of memories from childhood and early adolescence of the two of us hiding under an afghan on the couch while we watched ghosts haunt, vampires stalk, werewolves bite, zombies eat, and murderers slice open victims.
By the time I was in middle school, I aspired to become the next Stephen King.
The fact that I was born in late October and every single birthday party of my life was Halloween-themed also cemented my good feelings for general spookiness. My ideas about death, life, fear, excitement, imagination, and monsters have always been braided together.
As a child, some of my favorite books were horror stories. And I don’t mean child as in ten or twelve, I mean as a tiny little person, eyes wide at picture books. Sure I started with Go Away, Big Green Monster but the amount of horror I craved steadily increased.
I was a really big fan of Scared Silly.
My favorite story being one where a little girl, Tilly, starts to hear a voice whisper to her at night. Of course, her parents didn’t believe her, because those silly parents never do. But the voice continues. Each night it tells her how close it’s gotten.
I remember my mom’s voice reading,
“Tilly, I’m on the fifth step.”
“Tilly, I’m in the hall.”
“Tilly, I’m at the foot of your bed.”
On the last night, the voice growls “I’VE GOT YOU” and a big hairy arm yanks the girl out of bed. My favorite story ended in the scared child getting eaten by a monster. I was terrified and excited, and I loved it.
Lots of kids read Where the Wild Things Are, and they weren’t all necessarily horror fans, but to me the idea of a child sailing away to go dance with the monsters was thrilling.
“We’ll eat you up, we love you so!”
I watched The Nightmare before Christmas religiously, starting when I was two-and-a-half and learned all the words to every song. My mom told me that before the movie became really famous, other parents would look at her strangely when her little daughter was smiling, singing “I am the one hiding under your bed, teeth ground sharp and eyes glowing red” or listening to kids discussing various ways to torture Santa Claus by clenching his ankle in a trap, boiling him alive, burying him, throwing him in the ocean, or locking him in a cage.
For people who never got into the holiday or the genre, it’s hard for me to explain why it’s so completely addicting. I know that there’s all kinds of problematic cultural ideas reinforced in cheesy horror movies with young women constantly getting murdered. I know that the special effects and ideas can seem silly. I can understand someone thinking that all that romanticism of death, blood, and monsters can be distasteful at best, or dangerous at worst.
But for me, monsters have always been a symbol of both freedom of expression and empowerment.
As a child, I quickly realized that there was a whole lot in this world to be afraid of. Not just the drooling nightmare in the basement, but the cars that might squash me if I crossed the street, the waves that might pull me into the deep or smash me along the cliff-sides, the strangers that might try to lure me into cars, the blood vessels that might burst in a parent’s brain and make them go away forever.
It didn’t take me very long to realize that death wasn’t just a story— it applied to me, too.
But we’re not supposed to dwell on those things. We’re all supposed to act happy, or at least content, as we go through our lives. We’re not really allowed to be afraid or grown ups think there’s something wrong.
“I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”
When reading horror stories, you’re allowed to feel afraid, and allowed to say so. You can scream or hide or laugh, and no one judges you for your emotional release. A scary story is permission to be honest, permission to feel and express feeling.
We invent monsters as ways of exploring the things that we’re not allowed to talk about the rest of our lives. Skeletons and corpses help us understand the troublesome relationship with our mortal bodies. Stories about hidden ghouls that only lurk when we’re alone teach what to do when no one will believe or help us. Axe murderers are people who hurt us, or who could. Zombies are the looming threat of death, or our distrust of our minds. Giants, beasts, and dragons are the great, uncaring universe which doesn’t think about us much at all. We can allow ourselves to address fear, powerlessness, inevitability, and pain.
“It’s a way of talking about lust without talking about lust, he told them.
It’s a way of talking about sex, and fear of sex, and death, and fear of death, and what else is there to talk about?”
-Neil Gaiman, “Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot”
But horror doesn’t just make you think about it, or no one would like it. Horror lets you be brave. You have permission to not only fear monsters, but to try to fight against them.
Whether you’re the character in a book, holding up your sword to the hungry wolves or great dragons, or whether you’re the person in bed, alone at night, who has the power to close the book whenever you want, you get to be in control. You can choose when your fears can get you and when they have to stop, and it’s the only time in life that’s true.
You can be brave when you’re afraid. In fact, you’re especially brave when you’re afraid, because it means you’re facing your fears (even if you need to hide under a blanket while doing it).
The definition of monster is:
monster |ˈmänstər| noun
an imaginary creature that is typically large, ugly, and frightening.
I believe it’s important to let our imaginations find monsters. There are real large, ugly, frightening things that lurk in the corners of our lives— secret things that bite and hurt that we pretend aren’t there.
It’s important to confront them in stories, movies, or on Halloween, because it’s the only time that the monsters need to play by our rules.
We can think about the dark things and confront them. We have the freedom to be scared, to hide, fight, or scream. We get to be brave.
Visit again next week for “Monster” (Part II).