Horror and Halloween

There are only two days until my favorite holiday of the year, Halloween. None of you should be surprised that Halloween is my favorite. I’ve loved it since I was first able to make my own decisions about the costumes I would wear, and I continue to love it as I help my two kids pick out their own costumes, a neon skeleton with a tutu and a Power Ranger for this year. (I might have bought a Wonder Woman t-shirt with a cape attached and a felt headband for myself.) I have decorations, skeletons and a giant spider web for our house. I stock up on spooky Halloween decor because I might put some of it up in my house year round. As my youngest kid notes, “Mommy likes creepy things.” He’s not wrong.

Part of the reason that I have loved Halloween is that I have loved horror too. Ghosts, goblins, werewolves, vampires, zombies, and all manner of things that go bump in the night were my favorites. I was reading ghost stories as soon as I could read chapter books. I was reading Stephen King in middle school.  I read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery (1948) in high school and loved it, while my fellow classmates were unnerved. I have watched The Lost Boys (1987) more than I am willing to admit.

There’s something comforting and familiar horror stories because horror is easy to understand. The rules are always clear, and there’s the gruesome reminder that it is so, so easy  for human bodies and minds to break. When I need to escape from the world we share, I often turn to horror movies, shows, and novels. More now than ever before, which I don’t want to think about too carefully. Over the years, I’ve continued to love horror, even as I wasn’t quite sure that it loved me back.

Not only have I loved horror, I’ve written about it too, as both a religious studies scholar and a personal essayist. I keep coming back to horror. It keeps coming back to me.

This year, I wasn’t able to write anything Halloweenish in October. Too many things got in the way, including hurricane Michael, and I’ve found it hard to write even about things that I usually enjoy writing about.

Instead, I’ve pulled together some of my essays on horror, monsters, and Halloween, for you dear reader, in one single post. I hope they aren’t too scary for you. Maybe, you’ll want to read them with the lights on. Maybe, not.

Hell Houses and Horror

Hell House tortures women’s bodies to send messages about morality, chastity, and the peril of sexuality. The bodies of the lost are feminine in shape. A girl, who is date-raped at a rave, later commits suicide while being slut-shamed by a death monitor. An abortion gone wrong kills another young woman, but not before we hear her ear-splitting screams and see her anguish, physical pain, and so much blood….Before these female characters die, men insult, threaten, choke, slap, push, and rape them. These young women die by their own hands or the hands of another, death monitors drag them to hell. An angel spares the abortion girl, who cries out to God to be saved. She finds salvation, but loses her life. Women’s bodies appear broken and wounded. They are clearly victims.

The South has always seemed seriously spooky to me. The rural cemeteries lining long stretches of road with faded plastic flowers and cement angels. The abandoned houses that almost proudly show their wear and dare you to enter. The trees and bridges that once held the ropes hung around the necks black men by white men while white crowds watched on….The stories passed down to me from my grandparents about all the people who died from their own mistakes, natural disasters, or the more mundane things that we imagine won’t kill us. One small mistake, they seemed to note, and your life could be over. We’re always just a foot away from the grave. We’re always one small step from salvation or damnation. 

Monsters and Zombies

There Be Monsters

I have a hard time watching The Walking Dead. I hate to admit this as a scholar of zombies, but I will anyway. The show is hugely popular with viewing audiences, and fans of zombies, who first proved skeptical of this melodrama with monsters, have come around. On Sunday evenings in the fall and spring, viewers tune into AMC to see what will happen next. What new methods can be used to kill zombies? Which of our survivors will last throughout the season? What will they have to do to survive? Who will kill or be killed? 

Welcome to the Dark Side

Satan and demons appear as serious problems that must be eliminated. The world around us emerges as antagonistic and full of peril. Safety is elusive and temporary. Demons target everyone, if we refuse to acknowledge their presence. Practitioners can see the signs that the end is near everywhere: for example, they issue warnings about people who listen to heavy metal, wear silver jewelry, and have piercings and tattoos. (My fashion aesthetic seems to signal the demonic. I never realized.)

Staking Monsters

There’s a moment in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), in which I always try to convince myself that if I quit watching then everything will turn out okay.  If I don’t witness what’s to come, it won’t happen, right?…Every time, I watch Night I wish that the movie ended with Ben’s survival. I wish Ben would walk away into the new post-apocalyptic world, find his place, and live a long life. And then, the movie would fade to black. I wish for a hopeful ending rather than the tragic one that follows

Personal Horrors

Wrenches Your Insides

Horror showed me how bodies could be unmade. How bodies were maimed, cut, shot, tortured, and killed. How a body’s hurts could be physical and visible. How blood splattered on the floors and walls was a sign that things had come undone. Horror showed me the consequences of violence, physical and psychic. It stood as a warning of how terribly wrong things can go.

The Final Girl

My father loved horror movies and novels. His love of horror passed down to me, whether I wanted it or not. He’s the reason I first read Stephen King. He’s the reason I came to crave scary movies. He’s the reason I learned to love horror. And hell, he’s probably the reason I now analyze horror as a way to write and think about American culture. He’s responsible for my attachment to horror, even as I hate that he is.

 

Happy Halloween!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breaking, Not Yielding

So, I convinced Chris to watch Nanette , which is Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special. (Here’s the trailer.) I had heard from a number of women that it was remarkable, and I assumed that they meant remarkably funny. And I was reminded of the show when this image popped up in my Facebook feed:

Seriously, this is my kind of humor, and now, I will never look at a beautiful bald baby without assuming they are a feminist. What a lovely gift from Gadsby to me (and everyone really).

And Nanette is funny, but it is also so much more.

***

Before I go on, please note that the rest of this post will have SPOILERS for the show, so abandon ship now if you don’t want to be spoiled.

I’ll even give you until the count of three to ignore this post and pretend that you never actually received it.

1…

2…

2 and a 1/4…

2 and a 1/2…

2 and 3/4…

3…

Okay, so that’s way more of a warning than I give my kids.

***

So, Nanette is remarkably funny, rife with jokes about sexual identity, the difficulty of coming out in a small town in Tasmania, feminism, the privilege of straight white men, trauma, and also art history. But, Gadsby shifts gears on the viewer in the second half and you can kind of, sort of, tell what’s about to happen. There were glimmers and glimpses. And yet, I wasn’t entirely prepared and neither was Chris. We hadn’t expected her meta-discussion of what comedy can and can’t do. Or her devastating critique of comedy as a genre that focuses on beginning and middle but never really lets us see how a story ends. Or that instead of laughing our way to the end that we would actually be shocked and crying by the time Gadsby walked off stage.

I finished Nanette, and all I could think was: Holy shit, I was not prepared.

I was not prepared for Gadsby’s realer-than-real discussion of trauma, assault, and the attempts of men to annihilate women. I was not prepared for her to dwell in the tension of what seemed like a joke but to never deliver a punchline. I was not prepared for her masterful critique of deprecating humor and how it further marginalizes already marginalized groups of people. I was not prepared for her jokes about Picasso to reveal the nasty truth of misogyny. I was not prepared, and Chris and I had to pause Nanette often to take a breath and process what we just heard. At the end, we looked at each other shell-shocked and decide we were done for the day.

I tried to escape into a paranormal romance novel to no avail; he picked up Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning (an excellent book that also deals with personal and historical trauma and what it means to survive).

What I found is that I keep thinking about a particular line from Gadsby. Near the end, she says, “To break and not yield is strength.”

When I heard her say this, those words resonated in my head, To break and not yield is strength. There’s truth in her words that I’m still grappling with, even as I want to embody what she’s saying. I kind of want to have her words tattooed on my forearm as a reminder to myself that we can break but we can also not yield. Something I can glance at as I make my way through a world that encourages men to break and annihilate women just because they can. Just because women appear as objects not people. Just because we still have to fight for our humanity.

To break and not yield is strength, I think and remember a conversation with a friend last week. He told me  that I have managed to write about mental illness and trauma in a way that refuses to center on brokenness, my brokenness in particular. Somehow, I keep telling stories about my experiences that avoid the pervasive narrative of brokenness as a story all of its own. Even when I write about how people attempted again and again to break me or tell a story about my broken brain, I don’t appear broken; that’s not the center of my story. And I wondered how I managed to do this.

His insight astonished me because I used to think that I was broken beyond repair. I spent years believing that I was an irreparable, deeply flawed person. My biological father and his mother, my grandmother, needed me to feel that way, so I did. Until I didn’t. It’s no coincidence that I feel more and more compelled to write about my early life and shape my story from one of supposed brokenness to survival.

I might have broken, but I never yielded.

Gadsby gave me a new way to think; she gave me words that I didn’t know I needed. Breaking but not yielding is strength, and moreover, it is a hugely powerful way to interpret those stories that we tell ourselves over and over about the things and people who break us and all the damage we manage to survive.

Admitting how we break and how other people have broken us is not weakness. Rather, we show that their attempts to hurt us—to annihilate who we are—aren’t the end of our stories; they might be the beginning or the middle, but they aren’t the end. We get to decide where our story begins and ends. We might break, but we are also unyielding. We get to find and understand our strength. We get to tell our story, not them. Never them. We can’t control what breaks us, but we are narrators of our own lives, not those who harmed us.

Gadsby’s Nanette made me stop and consider the place of trauma in my stories and the stories of other women that I can’t help but read. In Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay wrote how she loved stories about girls who survive some shit, and I do too. There’s potential and power in survival and stories of survival. We, they, survived other people trying to break us, them, beyond repair. We are always reparable, if it doesn’t seem so at the time. Stories of survival show us the way.

But, what really struck me about Nanette is how a supposed comedy show gave me clarity about my reticence to detail all of my trauma in essays. How I don’t want to catalog for readers all the ways I’ve been broken because I would rather focus on survival. How I would rather write about learning not to yield. How I would rather document what it is like to repair myself, all those jagged edges, and how those repairs made me who I am today. Maybe, my story of survival helps too.

My trauma isn’t up for an any audience’s consumption. The horrors I’ve faced aren’t yours; they are mine. I decide what to share. I decide whether I can make suffering into art. I decide whether writing about what broke me is useful to me or whether it will do more damage than good.

Writing about trauma, and also mental illness, is my method to shape my own story. I attempt to make sense of what happened and what I continue to struggle with today. Some editors of some publications urged me to appear more broken and less reparable. More trauma and less survival is supposedly what I need to be publishable. And now, Gadsby gave me the language to respond to them: I broke, but I also didn’t yield, and that is strength. Show my strength alongside my wounds, not just my wounds and scars.

Not yielding is, perhaps, the crux of my story and maybe yours too. It’s where our strength lies.

Thank you, Hannah Gadsby, for helping me, us, realize that.

***

This post was originally a TinyLetter from August 15, 2018, the day I turned 38, for real this time. If you want to subscribe to my TinyLetter, Cold Takes, you can right here.

Nail Polish and Boys

*My kiddo had his first memorable brush with gender policing.*

Last week, the kiddos and I were watching a movie in our living room strewn with stuffed animals and the occasional Lego. While they watched a movie we’ve already watched at least a dozen times, I tried to finish an assignment on my laptop. (This never really works, and yet, I keep trying.)
The three-year-old stepped closer and closer until he was standing right next to me. He sighed a deep, dramatic sigh and looked at me.

“What’s up, kiddo?,” I asked quietly.

“I’m tired of people asking me about my fingernails,” he said with remarkable frustration.

I closed my laptop and looked at him. His response concerned me. He’s my easygoing, laid back kid who inherited my partner’s easy smile and sense of humor. He doesn’t get frustrated easily, so I knew something was wrong.

“Who asked you about your fingernails?”

“Everybody,” he almost growled.

“Who’s everybody?”

“My friends and my teachers.”

“What did they ask you?”

“Why my fingernails were painted? Why, why, WHY?,” he noted with a belly flop onto the couch. I looked at his blue fingernails and resisted my own urge to sigh dramatically or growl.

(more…)

Anger

*Who would I be without my anger? I don’t know.*

My simmering anger has come to define me. It’s familiar, even if it’s not welcome. A steady hum vibrating my bones. Never quite gone because it’s a foundation of who I am.

What I can’t make myself say is that I’m not sure what I’ll do without anger. It’s a long time companion, this rage I have for my father. It used to smother and overwhelm me, but over the years, I sharpened my anger like a sword. It was defense against him. It made me determined. It made me strong. It helped me let him go. I learned to tamp it down and pretend it wasn’t there.

Who would I be without my anger? I don’t know.

I don’t know how to tell her. I keep trying to bring it up but can’t voice the words. Maybe, I’m afraid she’ll convince me to let it go. Maybe, I know she’s right. Maybe, I don’t need it anymore. Maybe, I can move on.

***

Read the rest of my latest TinyLetter on anger and learning to let go here.

Or sign up to receive my TinyLetter, Cold Takes, via email each month here.

The Problem With Nice

*Nice pretends to be a virtue, but kindness actually is.*

“I was just trying to be nice.”

“I just wanted to be nice.”

“Not nice,” I say to the toddler after he bludgeons his sister with a random toy, “NOT NICE.”

I find myself thinking about “nice” a lot lately, often before recounting a story of something gone terribly awry. Exasperation lingers in my tone. Frustration coats my words. I was just trying to be nice, but things go sideways. They tend to when I start with nice.

I’m not sure why this happens. Maybe, my attempts at niceness appear as sign of a polite weakness. Maybe, nice renders me a pushover, a people-pleaser, who will go out of her way to remain pleasant. Initial friendliness suggests the desire to be agreeable at all costs, even when other people become increasingly unpleasant. Being nice shows that I can be dismissed without much effort or time. Being nice makes me easy to overlook, ignore, and disparage. (more…)