Monster (Part V)

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.

If you haven’t yet, check out:

  • Monster (Part I) about why I believe monster stories are positive for people of all ages.
  • Monster (Part II) about befriending monsters, and learning empathy from them.
  • Monster (Part III) about the relationship between monsters and madness in our culture.
  • Monster (Part IV) about the differences between the monsters that haunted me as a child and teenager and the monsters that haunt me now.
  • And now, Monster (Part V) about Halloween costumes, and why it’s a good thing to pretend to be a monster once a year.

Halloween will arrive soon, and it’s on a Friday this year, which makes it especially exciting. I actually will be working the full day on Halloween and Samhain, so there’s no way I’ll be making it to any late night parties in between. But, I’ll still be wearing a costume, because thankfully, my workplace is fantastic and allows that sort of thing.

When I was a teenager, there first became the nudges from the culture that maybe, wasn’t I a little too old for this? I’m sure many people will remember that feeling. You get all dressed up and celebrate every Halloween for years, and then one year, it changes, and you feel a little embarrassed, or at least you feel that other people think you should be embarrassed.

But I don’t think costume is, in any way, embarrassing. I don’t think it denotes anything childish, and I think it’s actually really beneficial to most people emotionally and psychologically.

For me, Halloween is different from all other holidays in a very important way. Other holidays are all about celebrating feast, family, good moments, the special feeling of holiness, and love. All those things are positive, and I’m glad we have other holidays too. But Halloween is, in our culture, about life and death, it’s about the self, it’s about the power of imagination, the border between the real and the fantastic.

Halloween lets us celebrate who we really are, who we want to be. Who I am is not my body, it’s not my job, it’s not my family, my education, or even my hobbies or history. All those things are parts of me, important parts, but they are not all of me. I am also a mind, an imagination, I am a fluid entity that can change its presentation but is often not allowed. You are too.

When you were a child, you were allowed this. One day you could call yourself an astronaut, the next a dinosaur, the next a princess, the next a warrior demon, and at the end of the week you could still be a kid who loves cookies and the color orange.

But at some point, we collectively decide that adults never feel that way. We’re not anything outside our jobs, hobbies, or relationships. We identify as ‘teacher’ or ‘mechanic’ or ‘hiker’ or ‘wife’ or ‘father.’

I don’t really know about anyone else, but I’m still all sorts of other things. I’m not only every fictional character I’ve ever given life to, but I’m also most of the fictional characters I’ve ever read. I’m anyone I’ve ever empathized with. I’m a collective being made up of everyone who’s mind I’ve ever visited, real or imaginary. I might need to keep it a secret, but it’s there.

tumblr_mbwuzsDqqd1qizbpto1_1280So, I think that on that level, wearing a costume is a practice in being true to yourself. You can honor ideas, fears, and characters that you identify with. None of them are exactly who you are, but they are a part of you. They’ve shaped your person, your self, and donning costume is honoring that.

On another level, I also think that wearing costumes is good for anyone dealing with insecurity at all. Like my point about identifying with fictional characters, I may be projecting here. I certainly can’t generalize across seven billion people, but I do think that there’s probably a good percentage out there who have some issues of fear, insecurity, or general powerlessness in certain aspects of their lives.

One great thing about monsters is that they generally are not plagued by doubts or insecurities. They are strong and capable. Demons, ghosts, shape shifters– they are in control of whatever situation they’re in. They have power, knowledge, and confidence. They are beautiful and ugly and blend into crowds, and none of that matters, because they’re never embarrassed or plagued with feeling they don’t meet societal standards of beauty. They don’t worry that their loved ones might be disappointed in them, or that their love might be unrequited. They have better things to do, like haunting ancient tombs and soul harvesting.

“People fidget. They are compelled to look engaged in an activity, or purposeful. Vampires can just occupy space without feeling obliged to justify it.”

-Charlaine Harris, Living Dead in Dallas

Monsters, more than anything, have purpose, and they don’t really care whether anyone else knows, or what they think.

I’m not saying everyone should go out and pretend to be a monster (okay, I’m kind of saying that). I just think that feeling like you have purpose, feeling confident, intelligent, powerful, and in control– those are all really great feelings. Emotionally and psychologically, it is really refreshing and positive, especially to people who feel a bit powerless, directionless, or inadequate in the rest of their lives.

Halloween gives everyone the chance to become a monster for a little while, and engage with that part of themselves that is more than just their resume and small talk. Becoming a monster for a day let’s you tap into the well of yourself that has imagination, goals, and the power to reach them, no matter what other people say. Dressing like a monster for a day can get you back on track in your life. It’s a motivational tool.

So no matter how old you are, or how serious, I encourage trying it. Buy a costume prop, or throw together something you’d never normally wear in your closet (but maybe something you’ve secretly wanted to wear). Or just do some gore make up with cotton balls, old red lipstick, and Elmer’s glue.

You might be surprised to find yourself walking with a more confident stride, or realizing your wishes aren’t that hard to grant. You might find doubt slipping away like a shed skin, giving way to a sense of control and excitement you thought you lost. Tap into your imagination, explore fictional worlds, honor your secrets, and find that transparent border between the every day and the magical.

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Monster (Part IV)

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.

(*This post contains some spoilers from House of Leaves, The Devil of Nanking, Hotel Rot, and Breaking Bad. Seriously, major Breaking Bad spoilers. You’ve been warned.)


While I’ve read horror since I was very young, I’ve also continued to engage with the genre through most of my life. There are certain things that make horror horrifying. The most important, as far as I’m concerned, is that horror creates monsters that allow us to engage with a fear of ours. Often, the fear is something that we don’t know what to do about, like death, that causes anxiety. We worry in the back of our minds all the time, but horror lets us release our emotions about it, fight it in a fictional setting, and either triumph or fail. It’s cathartic.

In my opinion, this is the essence of horror. It brings out our emotions relating to a fear. Because of this, though, not everything that I consider horror is classified that way. Just because something has zombies in it doesn’t make it horror to me (a lot of zombie movies are really more in the action genre) and just because something doesn’t have any murderers or undead people doesn’t mean it’s not horror.

I really think that as I’ve grown, my opinion on what is considered horror has changed, and because of this, I’m starting to feel there is a real, identifiable difference between ‘young people’s horror’ and ‘adult horror.’ And that has nothing to do with the gore or sexual content.

See, the thing about children’s horror is to communicate that “dragons can be beaten.” It’s to encourage people that their problems are solvable and to comfort them about their fears. Because of this, your main characters (usually) live, and those who are morally upstanding will definitely prevail. More than that, the monsters are either not as bad as you thought, or dead and can never get you.

The most important part of horror for young people is to make it clear that the monster can not get your audience. We speak in terms of boogymen, werewolves, goblins, and ghosts which allow for reassurance that even if they could get children in the world of the story, those things don’t exist here. We hold up blankets and plug in night lights and everything is better.

This is excellent, because it’s what horror is all about. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of horror, and if you prefer your stories to only contain fantastical elements so you can separate yourself from the world after you set down the book, I completely understand. I still really enjoy this kind of horror. It’s not immature or juvenile, it’s legitimate and scary, and allows for catharsis because the monsters represent things that do exist.

But the difference is, I think that kind of horror can be good people of any age, but I think the other kind should only be for adults.

The other kind, the ‘adult horror,’ are stories where the fear can get you in the real world. These stories just build the tension higher and higher, and when you leave the world they just sit in your head for weeks. These bring out your emotions and leave them there for you to sort through, and they usually are dealing with things that actually happen.

My first ‘adult horror’ book was probably House of Leaves. In this book, there is a house bigger on the inside than the outside, expanding into ever-shifting black hallways, and a documentary is made, which a blind man watches and writes a long academic narrative about, but then dies, and the book is then sorted through and arranged by a man who is clearly going insane.

It’s definitely not for everyone, especially because it’s a difficult book. It requires active participation of the reader, and because it is about the concept of the labyrinth, the book tries to get you lost in the maze. But what stuck out to me was that there was no monster, no minotaur, in the actual house in the book, if there was an actual house at all. It existed in layers, and in the real world. The house was the book and the leaves were the pages. The house, with all its dark hallways, was your brain. If there was a monster, it would be inside you, something that would haunt you, the reader.

“This much I’m certain of: it doesn’t happen immediately. You’ll finish [the book] and that will be that, until a moment will come, maybe in a month, maybe a year, maybe even several years. You’ll be sick or feeling troubled or deeply in love or quietly uncertain or even content for the first time in your life. It won’t matter. Out of the blue, beyond any cause you can trace, you’ll suddenly realize things are not how you perceived them to be at all. For some reason, you will no longer be the person you believed you once were. You’ll detect slow and subtle shifts going on all around you, more importantly shifts in you. Worse, you’ll realize it’s always been shifting, like a shimmer of sorts, a vast shimmer, only dark like a room. But you won’t understand why or how. You’ll have forgotten what granted you this awareness in the first place

You might try then, as I did, to find a sky so full of stars it will blind you again. Only no sky can blind you now. Even with all that iridescent magic up there, your eye will no longer linger on the light, it will no longer trace constellations. You’ll care only about the darkness and you’ll watch it for hours, for days, maybe even for years, trying in vain to believe you’re some kind of indispensable, universe-appointed sentinel, as if just by looking you could actually keep it all at bay. It will get so bad you’ll be afraid to look away, you’ll be afraid to sleep.

Then no matter where you are, in a crowded restaurant or on some desolate street or even in the comforts of your own home, you’ll watch yourself dismantle every assurance you ever lived by. You’ll stand aside as a great complexity intrudes, tearing apart, piece by piece, all of your carefully conceived denials, whether deliberate or unconscious. And then for better or worse you’ll turn, unable to resist, though try to resist you still will, fighting with everything you’ve got not to face the thing you most dread, what is now, what will be, what has always come before, the creature you truly are, the creature we all are, buried in the nameless black of a name.

And then the nightmares will begin.”

-House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielwski

There are many others that I would consider adult horror that do not involve such play with meta-fiction and weaving layers of narrative. Mo Hayder, for instance, writes about fictional characters, but all of her monsters are humans doing human things. She explores the absolute horror of what people are capable, the terrifying behaviors and realities that are a part of humanity.

In one of her novels, The Devil of Nanking, she writes about war crimes committed during the Rape of Nanking. Tied in with this are the horrors of being uneducated about one’s own body. It deals with fears of war, violence, pregnancy, censorship, and of not knowing. The themes are very adult, and the content is completely disturbing, especially because atrocities described are entirely possible in this world, and many actually occurred.

One author, Aimee Bender, writes what is usually considered magical realism. Her work was recommended to me by a friend who rarely, if ever, reads work specifically labeled horror, but one of her short stories has continued to stick in my mind.

Hotel Rot” is about a group that collects birds, flowers, and bones– as many as they can find– and packs them all into three large rooms, charging entry fees. The flower petals wilt and dissolve, and the birds suffer and rot there over the course of a few days. Custodial workers try to clean it all, and their lives are forever changed in ways that are horrible but hard to articulate.

I feel incredibly anxious every time I read the story, and consider it adult horror. The use of life as something to sell, the suffering of living beings for momentary displays, is very real in our world, and not something that vanishes once the short story ends.

One piece of adult horror you may have seen was Breaking Bad. For me, the true horror in the show wasn’t because of the cancer, the drug dealing, or even the constant death toll as the show progressed. What really got to me was how utterly accurately the show depicted abusive relationships.

Not that most abusive relationships involve homicidal meth kingpins (though, certainly some do), but just the way the story was told was startling to me.

You begin with Walter and Jesse’s relationship, which slowly becomes a friendship of some sort. They have some degree of commitment to each other that grows through their making meth together. It actually is a bonding experience, despite how morally gray the whole thing is, and once you see how Jesse’s parents treat him, and how under appreciated Walter is, you’re pretty grateful they have each other. It seems like a positive relationship, it really does.

Then things get worse, and worse. Jesse gets hurt and Walter doesn’t seem to care. Walter disapproves of Jesse’s friends, and starts to tell Jesse exactly what he can and can’t do. He begins to pressure Jesse into doing things that horrify him, and then slowly offers him less and less of the affection Jesse is trying to earn.

At one point, after it turns out Walter has literally been tracking Jesse, bugging his car to see where he is every minute, Jesse confronts him about it. Walter immediately twists it around into making Jesse feel bad and worthless, basically telling Jesse to go die: “I’m sorry, after everything you’ve done for me? What you’ve done for me? You’ve killed me is what you’ve done! You’ve signed my death warrant. And now you want advice? I’ll give you advice: Go to Mexico and screw up like I know you will. And wind up in a barrel somewhere! “

Walter makes Jesse kill people, he lets Jesse’s girlfriend die in front of him (then waits to tell Jesse until it will hurt him most) and makes him leave the love of his life and her child when he sees them getting close. Walter physically abuses Jesse, threatens to kill him, and then gives him up to nazis so they can torture him for months.

At some point during all this, you realize that Walter is a monster, and that Jesse has been trying to escape him for a long time, and you didn’t even realize. How could you have not known? How could you possibly been complacent in this completely toxic, dangerous relationship for so long? Everything spins.

 “I am not turning down the money! I am turning down you! You get it? I want NOTHING to do with you! Ever since I met you, everything I ever cared about is gone! Ruined, turned to shit, dead, ever since I hooked up with the great Heisenberg! I have never been more alone! I HAVE NOTHING! NO ONE! ALRIGHT, IT’S ALL GONE, GET IT? No, no, no, why… why would you get it? What do you even care, as long as you get what you want, right? You don’t give a shit about me! You said I was no good. I’m nothing! Why would you want me, huh?”
-Jesse, Season 3.7

Jesse: Would you just, for once, stop working me?
Walter: What are you talking about?
Jesse: Can you just, uh, stop working me for, like, ten seconds straight? Stop jerking me around?
Walter: Jesse, I am not working you.
Jesse: Yes. Yes, you are. All right? Just drop the whole concerned dad thing and tell me the truth. I mean, you’re– you’re acting like me leaving town is– is all about me and turning over a new leaf, but it’s really– it’s really about you. I mean, you need me gone, ’cause your dickhead brother-in-law is never gonna let up. Just say so. Just ask me for a favor. Just tell me you don’t give a shit about me, and it’s either this– it’s either this or you’ll kill me the same way you killed Mike. I mean, isn’t that what this is all about? Huh? Us meeting way the hell out here? In case I say no? Come on. Just tell me you need this.
-Season 5.11

The scariest part of the whole thing is how gradual it all is. The viewer is so willing to excuse one thing after the next. Even things that are clearly awful, we find excuses for. “Well he has cancer.” “Well, he was in a hard situation.” “It was just the one time, he clearly cares about Jesse.”

It is absolutely eerie, because by the time Jesse realizes it’s time to get out of the relationship, it’s far too late. He can’t, no matter how hard he tries. Walter lies, threatens, and manipulates until he’s back again. And the viewer is the same way. By the time we realize what’s happened, we’ve excused terrible things. Breaking Bad is horror because it shows us how easily we could be manipulated by real life monsters, and how quickly people become them.

‘Adult Horror’ lets us explore the fears that exist in our world. They’re personal and unsettling, and sometimes leave lingering anxiety rather than release it. But, at its core, it is still horror, and I believe that it helps us articulate our fears, and thus, understand and discuss them.

Many adult fears relating to the brain, perception, war, ignorance, suffering, environmental damage, consumerism, and abuse, actually can be fought in the real world to some extent through open dialogue on these issues.

Perhaps it doesn’t really have to do with age, this divide. Perhaps the kinds of horror are just for different sorts of fear.

What I called ‘Young people’s horror’ is horror which explores anxieties that we can do nothing about, and the stories let us imagine fighting them, and allow us to release our fear. ‘Adult’ horror is horror that explores anxieties that we must strive to do something about, and heightens our anxiety about those issues so that it haunts us after the book is closed, the television is off, and we’re staring at our ceilings in bed.

Maybe we don’t always need characters to battle for us. Perhaps this horror helps us fight our fears in our own lives.

Monster (Part III)

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.


This week I wanted to talk about the relationship between the word “monster” and our culture’s notions of “madness.”

There are a lot of misconceptions and prejudices regarding psychological disorders and mental illness in our culture, and before we had any real concept of what these were, we just grouped it all together as “madness” or “insanity” and treated people as mindlessly dangerous or in need of strange treatments. In all of this, we began to tell horror stories with the main antagonist being a “mad” person.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A mad scientist makes something dangerous or does something horrible. Right, how about this one? A psychopathic killer with a large weapon kills a bunch of teenagers. That one too?

Somewhere along the way, we started equating problems with the brain with danger, death, and the horror genre, and we’ve never quite gotten over it.

In contemporary horror, there is usually some level of sympathy for the “mad” character. The serial killer was abused in their childhood. The ghost had a rough time before death and is trying to find peace. There are series like Dexter where our protagonist is a serial killer, loves to kill people, and we love him anyway just because of our point of view and the power of storytelling.

These characters are seen, on some level, as monsters. And on another level, being monstrous is being equated with being “crazy.” I shouldn’t need to say that this isn’t exactly great for social progress in terms of understanding mental illness. And it certainly doesn’t encourage people to seek help, because it makes it sound like going to therapy is confessing to being dangerous or on some level “worse,” or “other.” I am a horror fan, but I do acknowledge this trope as being problematic.

We also have stories where people are accused of being crazy, but in the end they are the ones who are simply seeing more than other people. This often happens in haunting stories, where one character can see the dead when others can’t. Sometimes haunting is tied to one person, and only the haunted will be pursued by demons, spirits, or other intangible apparitions. This idea occurs so often in urban fantasy that it’s pretty much expected. What makes the genre work is that your main characters know all kinds of things about the hidden other world of monsters, but if they told anyone, they would be perceived as crazy.

In Supernatural there is an episode where your protagonists get themselves admitted to an insane asylum by telling the truth about their experiences. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer there is an episode where Buffy thinks she might just be crazy, that maybe that’s more probable than the reality of her life.

We also have another connection in our horror between monsters and madness that I’d call the Lovecraftian Causation Connection. The stories with this sort of connection have monsters that are so terrifying and incomprehensible to the human mind that one instantly goes mad upon encountering them. Lovecraft was big on this kind of monster, and there were stories like this before him and many since. It’s an especially scary idea, because anyone who discovers the monster is mostly unable to convey their discovery to anyone else, and so the enormous threat persists without notice.

And so we have three sorts of relationships between monsters and madness.

  1. Monsters are the result of madness.
  2. Knowledge of monsters make us seem mad (or) Madness lets us see monsters.
  3. Madness is the result of monsters.

With these three relationships, we can understand that our culture relates these two ideas strongly. There is something about monsters that makes us worry about our brains.

I think, at the heart of this kind of horror storytelling, we are getting at a deeper distrust of our minds and of our perceptions of the world. All we truly have in life is ourselves, our sense of identity, our perception, and our senses. It’s natural for our fears to involve terrible situations in which we cannot perceive things we should in order to protect ourselves, or for them to involve sensing terrible things that other people cannot see. We’re scared, on some level, of our reality not corresponding to the reality of those around us. We’re scared of a severed connection to other humans, of not understanding them, of not experiencing the world as they experience it.

There are stories, like The Shining, which are so scary because we can imagine the horror of a loved one suddenly going “mad” and trying to kill us. But scarier than that is the perspective of the father, and losing enough of yourself to try to kill your loved ones. One of the most horrific ideas to us is not being the one killed by the serial killer, but somehow relating to him. We’re terrified of anything that could happen to who we are that would allow us to commit atrocities that horrify us.

The relationship between monsters and madness is that we fear ourselves. This horror reflects a type of deep doubt and existential crisis. It is a fear worse than getting our arms chopped off or being eaten– the fear of losing one’s self, and the connection between that self and understanding the outside world and other people.

Monsters, in this sense, reflect our fears about identity and the mind. And monster stories may be some of the only fiction that allows us to articulate that fear.


Visit again next week for “Monster” (Part IV). 

Monster (Part II)

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.


When I was growing up, I read a lot of stories about monsters. In a lot of fairytales it was the job of the hero to kill the monster. But, in my household, there was another theme that was present a lot: befriending the monster.

There are a couple particularly notable examples. There’s a Nightmare in my Closet begins with a little boy afraid of the monster hiding in his closet. One night, the monster starts creeping towards his bed in the night, so the boy turns on all the lights and threatens to shoot him (with a toy gun).

Only, then the monster starts crying. The boy’s anger at the monster softens, and he takes it by the hand, calms it down, and tucks it into his bed. The monster ends up being quite peaceful in the end, even though it looked scary.

Another book The Story of Poppyseed Hill was a bit more complex.

In this book, a group of lost children begin living with an old woman named Miss Kessy, who has no children of her own. They can’t remember where they used to live, or when they started walking, or even what their names were, so the old woman names them all after spices and takes care of them. The family is pretty happy, living on the little hill with an old elf man, except the children don’t have any other kids to play with.

Other kids live in the town across the river from them. But in the river lives a terrible monster. This monster will destroy boats when they try to sail across, and prevent anyone on Miss Kessy’s hill from seeing anyone in the town. The children try their best to send cookies over to the other children, tied in cloth bundles to their doves’ feet, but the monster in the river causes storms and the birds never reach them.

One little girl in the family, Poppyseed, gets upset by this and asks the elf man by the river why the monster is so mean. She tells him that all they’ve been trying to do is be nice to everyone, and the monster is being cruel for no reason. The elf man points out to her that she really hasn’t been nice to everyone. Everyone treats the monster like a monster, and so it behaves like one.

So they try to be the monster’s friend. They make it a monster-sized cookie, a crown of pretty flowers, and write it a poem (this is still the best show of friendship to me). To their pleasant surprise, when they call to the monster to give it gifts, it is completely adorable and loves having flowers on its head, eating cookies, and reading poetry. For the rest of the book, the monster gives them rides to go see the other children, and they all hang out together.

The idea behind these stories is clear: different does not mean bad, and sometimes people who seem like monsters are just lonely. They have been treated like they’re bad, and others’ perceptions of them begin to shape their behavior and identity.

You can see the same themes in Beauty and the Beast. Just because someone at first appears one way does not mean that your first impression is completely accurate. You need to look at circumstances to understand behavior.

As I got older, this theme appeared again and again.

A version of it was frequent especially in paranormal romance. Almost every single one of those stories follows the plot: human meets monster, human realizes that the monster is more complex than just a vampire, werewolf, or fairy, and the human and monster fall in love. These stories are largely about diversity and the ability to recognize thoughtfulness and beauty across barriers of culture and background.

Another version of this became very popular in recent years in the form of the anti-hero. This is a protagonist who may do some monstrous things due to their troubled past or misunderstood role in the events currently unfolding.

These characters are capable of saying cruel things (if it means keeping people at a distance), lying (if it means achieving some secret act of good in the long run), thievery (if it means helping someone), and even murder (if it means trying to save an innocent person).

Sometimes these characters start as completely morally pure and then are forced to act in more morally gray ways as their circumstances become more difficult. Sometimes these characters even did absolutely monstrous acts without any hidden kind motive in their past, but now actively try to reform. Other characters don’t trust them at first, often for good reasons, but come to understand and defend them later.

The importance of monsters in these stories is to realize the complexity of identity and human behavior. In these cases, the word “monster” relates to our ability to understand other people. We cannot reduce someone down to one thing, whether that’s our impressions of a few behaviors, their appearance, their background, or their reputation.

And so, this is another reason why books with monsters are so positive for people to read. They teach us to understand the complexity of people, and show us the importance of empathy and understanding. Monsters teach us to be kind.


Visit again next week for “Monster” (Part III).