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 I)

(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.

Hocus Pocus captivated me, I was a huge fan of Scooby Doo and Courage the Cowardly Dog , and I treasured all the ghost stories in Hey Arnold. 

(from “Headless Cabbie”)

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.”
-Maurice Sendak

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).

(From “Dragons and Giants” in Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel)

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).