Horror: Human versus Monster

I had a dream last night about many things, most of which are slipping through the cracks in my memory even as I write this not ten minutes after waking up. The main thing that I dreamed about though, was a woman who illustrated children’s horror stories, and the people who were touched by and drawn to those stories–a shop teacher with multiple injuries and casts on his hands, who could barely speak or write English to tell me what tools he needed me to find; a librarian who knew him and knew what he needed, but seemed afraid of the book he had asked for (though not so afraid that she wouldn’t help me find it); a feral child who was raised by a weak and timid forest spirit, and who had multiple homes so he always had somewhere to hide if one of them was compromised.

The stories were painted with dark colors that blended into one another, but had sharp edges. The characters were surreal and their forms strange, as one might expect from the genre. One story was about a shapeshifter, and the other, much older, was about some kind of crow monster. The author of these stories was morose–but not as much as me, and she was surprised when I spoke frankly with her about suicide and other dark thoughts. I told her that I also wrote horror stories, which, far from building a rapport with her, seemed to repulse and frighten her. Evidently the thing which we had in common was also a thing she hated and feared about herself.

When I woke up, the idea of myself as a horror writer was still very much on my mind, and specifically I questioned why I generally write horror rather than drawing it. Images are powerful and moving in ways that words fall short of. But the thing is, that people who draw horror are usually drawing monsters–beings that are physically twisted, disproportional, and dangerous. I don’t write horror about monsters.

Monsters can be strange and deformed and broken and ugly, but these are not things that frighten me. They can be sick or injured in ways that evoke body horror, and while I find that difficult to look at, it is because I feel pain when I see the pain of others, and not because they frighten me. I empathize with monsters; they are what I feel that I am, or could be, or should be. I love monsters; they are beautiful, strong, honest, and unafraid to pursue the things they want, whether that is food or escape or vengeance. They are an aspect of me that I deeply desire to express, but cannot. Monsters don’t scare me. But people scare me.

People are not like monsters. They are secretive about their motives and desires, which makes them hard to predict. They are capable of tremendous evil, and may be convinced that that evil is actually good or righteous. They are capable of such profound greed and selfishness that they might utterly destroy themselves in their pursuit of more. They lie to themselves and to others, and come to believe those lies, so that they know longer see their true selves but rather an image of themselves they have constructed. They manipulate each other, and some are so good at it that they can make others doubt reality and their own memories.

I am not a cynic or misanthrope. These are things which I believe can be overcome, not an inherent and inescapable aspect of human nature. After all, humans are just animals when it comes down to it, and animals don’t do these things. Humans invented ways to be terrible to each other and the world, just like they invented so many other things (gender, race, money, indoor toilets).

I don’t write horror about monsters. I write horror about people. And the horror that is in people isn’t something that can be seen from the outside. It’s in the ways that people, as society and as individuals, think. That isn’t something that I can easily get across with pictures, but it is something I can describe with words.

I feel that I should clarify that I am not talking about mental illness. Writing horror where the entire source of horror is “this person has Disassociative Identity Disorder” or “this person is a sociopath” or “wooOOOooooOOOOooo, it’s an insAAAaaaAAAaaannnne asyyyYYYyyyluuuUUUuuum!” is unethical and unoriginal. As someone who is mentally ill I am extremely uncomfortable with these kinds of stories, because they contribute to the popular stereotype of mentally ill people as violent and dangerous. Sure, some are. But the kind of people who shoot up schools or torture animals or intentionally spread disease and poison are usually suffering from societal illnesses, not individual ones. You don’t have to be mentally ill to be a murderer, an abuser, a rapist. Sane people created racism, colonization, eugenics, and genocide. Sane people attributed moral superiority to the rich, educated, able-bodied, and able-minded, and laziness and worthlessness to the poor, uneducated, and disabled. Sane people gave men power over women, and forced the entire human race to play one of those two roles. Sane people created the inquisition, slavery, nuclear weapons. Sane people let people die if they can’t afford life-saving medicine or surgery, raise cattle and chickens and dogs in horrific conditions, buy sources of clean water and sell it back to the people who depend on it at marked up prices, mutilate trans women for defying the role society forced on them in order to live as themselves, blow up mosques and burn synagogues, launch drone attacks against elementary schools, tell people who speak out against all of these things to kill themselves.

Too often I see horror as an expression of ableism, whether it be directed at physical traits (“deformed/misshapen”, sick, injured, most body horror) or mental ones (multiple personalities, hypoempathy, compulsion, obsession, addiction, delusion, etc.). There is also a huge prevalence of racism in horror (voodoo, Egyptian or Native American or “gypsy” curses, Lovecraft, zombies as a stand-in for immigrants or specific races “taking over”, black and darkness symbolizing evil while white and lightness symbolize good) and for queer-coded monsters/villains. A lot of it is pretty much just fantasizing about violence against women (who are the main targets of sexualized violence and really extreme graphic violence in horror) or about being able to murder anyone you see as a threat or as baggage with no consequences (zombies and other “your neighbors are the enemy” scenarios). I want to write horror that breaks out of these harmful tropes and brings to light the destructive and evil traits that are created and sustained by our messed up society.

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Snow

The quiet is what tells me. It’s the first thing I notice, before I even open my eyes, the silence that is full and dense and complete. It wraps around my mind like a warm blanket, peaceful, urging me to sleep a little longer. That silence is the sound of falling snow.

I can’t help peeking out through the blinds when I wake. The world is transformed, and I need to see it. Maybe there are fat flakes still falling like dandruff from Ymir’s scalp, or down from Mother Hulda’s pillow. Maybe it coats the branches of nearby conifers like a layer of fluffy white fur. Maybe the birds and deer have left trails of delicate footprints.

The snow this year is powdery and yet sticks together well, perfect snowball snow. I want to take the kitten out to play in it; to experience this with someone who is seeing it for the first time. It always feels like the first time, to me, when it snows. I become a child staring at an unfamiliar landscape, feeling cold little butterflies land on my face and tongue, the whole world a fresh piece of clay waiting for hands to shape it.

The crunch of snow under my feet only adds to the silence rather than breaking it. My steamy breath and the slow creaking of trees are the only other noises in the early moments of the day, though slowly other sounds begin to join them: the laughter of humans and dogs playing in it, the bone-chilling scrape of people de-icing their windshields, the rough grating of shovels clearing the walkways. The birds are mostly huddled in their nests, keeping warm, but they can be heard from time to time.

The transformation isn’t finished. Over the next few days the snow will rise or fall, it will turn from powder to slush, and mounds of dirt and ice will form along the roadsides where the plows come through. Snowmen and other figures will appear to populate the empty spaces, their lives brief but born of spontaneous joy. The snow is fragile, fleeting; a beckoning from this moment in time to stop hurrying to the next one. It says, not life can wait, but rather, life is here and now.

Things Children See

A lot of what I saw and did as a child, I suppressed as a teenager to avoid my parents thinking I was crazy. I have always had stories in my head, that never quite go away no matter what else I am doing. My characters do what they’re going to do, and I don’t really have any power to change it–it feels wrong if I try to alter the story. When I was younger, before I started to suppress things, I used to actually see my stories like a second reality, one both connected to and separate from this one. Usually, that’s all they are–vivid fantasies that I see through the eyes of one of the characters, living their life. But sometimes they are a little bit closer to home, and I’m not the only one “inhabiting” a character. Sometimes I get visitors.

The earliest memory like this was when I was three years old. I woke up in the middle of the night, and saw a person in my room. Since most of my stories at that age involved characters from movies rather than ones from my own imagination, the person took the form of Laverne from Hunchback of Notre Dame (the female gargoyle). However, this was not the character of Laverne–it was someone else, someone I immediately trusted and regarded as an “adult” (i.e. a mentor or teacher). And it was definitely a real being, a visitor. I’m not sure how to explain the difference but there absolutely is one and it’s very clear in person (as an adult I’m a lot more skeptical of such things and would probably find some way to test it, though). The being spoke to me for a while (a conversation I really wish I remember!), then took me by the hand, and we left the house through the window and went flying over the city. After some time we returned and I went back to bed.

Speedpaint of my memory of the visitor.

I also encountered a ghost at around the same age–specifically, my great-grandmother came to visit my sister and I about 3 days after she died. She came into our bedroom at night, and stood over my bed for a while, then sat on my sister’s bed and talked to her (my sister was 2 years old). At this point I didn’t really have a concept of what a ghost was. I also had never seen my great-grandmother walk or speak before, since she had a stroke when I was a baby, and my only memories of her when she was alive were of her in a wheelchair, silent. Needless to say my parents were startled when my sister and I told them what had happened (although seeing ghosts is not too unusual in our family, especially the ghosts of female ancestors).

Basically, it seems like I connected with magic, and specifically with magical beings, much more easily when I was a kid. Communication with anything is extremely difficult for me now, something which I find very frustrating. I think in order to access that ability again, I have to unbind the parts of myself that I bound in order to hide them from my parents–but I have no idea how to go about doing that.

 

Mask-Making

CW: Self-harm, hunger/food

One of my current classes is focused on exploring and building one’s self-identity, and using it as an instrument of social change (it’s pretty much exactly as wooy-wooy as it sounds, but like any class you get out of it what you put into it). We’ve talked a lot about (metaphorical) masks and how and why people make them. During the last couple sessions we made a different kind of mask–a physical mask to symbolize our authentic selves.

A mask made with thermoplastic mesh, plaster, and acrylic paint.

I wanted my mask to have a rough and kind of old feel to it, partially covering my mouth but leaving large spaces for my eyes. Blue is a color I strongly associate with myself, with depression and grief, and with emotions in general.

Lightning partially represents my anxiety and panic attacks–like a storm that begins with a wall of dark clouds looming in the distance, a sudden stillness and weight in the air causing me to dissociate, static buzzing on my skin. It rages with incredible destructive power, striking randomly and uncontrollably. It is also a symbol of Loki, and real lightning is an exhilarating experience driving me to dance in the wind and rain and let the thunder rumble through my whole body. Thunderstorms pretty much drive me temporarily out of my mind, and were one of the first things to inspire me to create.

The yellow lines around the mouth are a stylized representation of teeth. Hunger and biting are both important parts of my identity–the former because I have never been in a stable enough situation to eat well or be confident that food will be there when I need it, and the latter because I bite myself to redirect the self-destructive impulses that would otherwise lead to greater harm. Both things are symbolic of my will to survive.

To be honest, I don’t think I succeeded in representing my authentic self. This mask represents things about the trauma I have experienced and how I have coped with it, but it doesn’t really say anything about who I am or why I make the choices I do. Perhaps sometime in the future I will try again.

A Theory About Jotnar

So, one of the very basic premises of Norse paganism is the mutual enmity of the Jotnar and the Aesir. I say basic, partly because it’s extremely well known even outside of the heathen community (thanks in part to the surge in popularity of “vikings” and Norse mythology in media), and partly because the situation is actually a lot more complicated than that. Many of the Aesir are either married to or descended from Jotnar (or both), and a couple of them (Loki and Skaði) are straight-up full-blooded Jotnar. Thor, who is widely revered as enemy of the Jotnar and defender of humanity, is at least 3/4 Jotunn himself (since his mother is a Jotunn, and his father, Odin, also has a Jotunn mother).

With so much intermarriage going on between the Jotnar and the Aesir, it seems very strange that so many people treat Jotnar as an entirely separate species from Aesir. Rather, it makes more sense to think of them (and the Vanir) as different clans or nations of the same basic people. They have their own customs and ways of doing things, which includes some magics that are specific to one group or another, but they are basically the same thing. So why do they fight so much? And why are the Jotnar so dangerous to humans that they are lumped in with trolls, dragons, and other monsters? If there is no physical separation between the Jotnar and the Aesir, there must be something else that is keeping them apart (and often, at odds).

I don’t have any evidence to back this up (in other words, UPG warning!), but I believe that “something” is probably Ymir.

One of the prominent things about the ancient Norse is their reverence for ancestors, and the importance of loyalty to one’s kin. Long and bloody feuds were fought where each death lead to another retaliatory murder, leading to the implementation of weregild (blood price) as a way to settle things peacefully.

In Norse mythology, the very first murder that we know of is the murder of Ymir, the first Jotunn (and indeed, the first living thing, period). Odin, Vili, and Vé killed Ymir more-or-less unprovoked (in versions that give an explanation their motive is basically that he is ugly and monstrous in nature), and nearly all of the early Jotnar drowned in his blood and died, with only a handful managing to survive and repopulate their race. The three gods then used Ymir’s corpse to fashion the world.

Is it any wonder then, that the Jotnar would come to hate Odin and his brothers, or the world and people they created by desecrating their ancestor’s corpse? Is it any wonder that they would make war on the Aesir, seeking retribution for the murder of their kinsman and the forefather of their entire race? At no point did Odin or any other god even acknowledge the crime as such, let alone make any sort of reparations for it (and what reparations would be adequate for an act that was essentially genocide, almost causing the extinction of the Jotnar?) It makes so much sense in the context of Norse culture that the first murder would also result in the first feud.

Now, to be fair, not all Jotnar hate the Aesir. Perhaps time healed the wound enough, or they got tired enough of fighting. Perhaps some of them saw what the Aesir were doing in this world of theirs and respected it, maybe even supported it. Jotnar, like any people, are individuals with their own motives.

But without any weregild being paid or some kind of peace treaty being made (like the one between the Aesir and the Vanir), the feud/war would continue until one side wiped out the other or both got too sick of fighting to keep doing it anymore.

There are some other things the Aesir do that could be seen as justification for further violence/enmity–trying to cheat the Jotunn who built the wall around Asgard out of his payment, for example, or Thor trying multiple times to kill a Jotunn in his sleep who had been entirely hospitable to them at that point.

Basically what I’m getting at is, the Jotnar are not an “evil” race, and the Aesir are not the “good guys” who go beat them up because it’s the right thing to do. The Jotnar are one side of a war in which both sides have committed all manner of atrocities–and the Aesir started it.

Music In the Woods

There’s a forest near where I live. It’s fairly acclimated to people, being next to a college campus and veined with paths made by humans and other creatures. It is damp and green, with towering conifers and mossy vine maples, ferns and mushrooms growing from decaying logs. Animals are heard more than seen, here–mice and shrews creeping out with timid squeaks, startled deer rattling the brush as they leap away, hundreds and hundreds of birds competing to be heard in the cacophony of songs. It also is alive with all kinds of magic, some intentional and some wild.

There are little shrines in the woods: a tiny Buddha tucked away beneath a root; a tree with shells hung in its branches, and coins left as offerings in the crook.

There are bridges over the creek–mostly fallen trees, but one is a proper bridge made of wooden planks, and covered with painted designs and graffiti. The very center of that bridge is marked with a sigil, which buzzes with energy.

There are stranger things. Near one path is house made of sticks, where odd lights can be seen at night. There is a tree studded with nails. On a cliff overlooking the beach is a perfectly circular rut in the dirt, deep enough to be visible by moonlight.

Some parts of the woods are decidedly unfriendly. The meadow that marks one of the major forks in the path, full of tall, whispering grass and the smell of ripe thimbleberries, sends a jolt of paranoia through me whenever I pass through it. Once I found an iron rebar half-buried in the podzol, and got a very powerful feeling that its presence there was unwanted (that rebar has since been thoroughly cleansed and has a place on my altar). One path had a magical shield set up across it so strong it felt like walking into a wall. And then there are the small paths.

Every major path has them: deer trails, mostly, or footpaths marked by many walkers. They are narrow, often muddy, always crowded on either side by the dense undergrowth. Some of them are neutral, and feel like a part of the forest in general. But some turn your head to look, and turn your feet too if you’re not paying attention. Some carry strains of distant music or laughter, words you can’t quite make out. The logical assumption is that there are humans over there–other students, most likely. But this is not a place to make that kind of assumption. When my mind is caught by one of these paths, I turn my face away and hurry past. Maybe someday. Not yet.

Blood

CW: Blood (obviously), consensual kink, vampirism, violent imagery

One of my partners is a vampire. I’m not talking about literal walking dead from a cheesy B horror movie (although we watch a lot of those for fun). He is a vampire in the sense that he gains energy from feeding, and needs to do so every so often in order to be healthy and happy. Most of the time this is simply drawing out magical energy through a bite (something I am very happy to participate in), or eating a bit of bloody meat, but sometimes he literally drinks blood. Just a small amount from a little cut, nothing dangerous. On the contrary, I feel safer with him than with any other man I’ve ever met. And while I’m not a vampire myself, I also have a darker, bestial side that yearns to be free. There is something about blood.

There is a part of me that wants to hunt, wants to chase, smell my prey, see the fear in their eyes. I want to grip them in my teeth and shake with all my strength until their body is torn open, crack their ribs to get at the organs underneath. I want to bury my face in them, feel their heat as it fades, gorge myself on death. I imagine these things vividly and often, usually as part of the constant stream of stories that is always present in the back of my mind.

I want to be a wolf, a jaguar, a snake, a troll, a monster. That desire surges when my heartbeat quickens, when I run, when I feel hunger. I feel that monster in the way the earth welcomes my bare feet, in the satisfaction of chewing and tearing, the way my cats stir something primal in me with their playing and fighting, the way I forget sometimes that I don’t have a tail. And I feel it in the sight and scent and taste of blood.

It’s kind of contradictory that I have these feelings, considering the kind of person I am. I am a frazzled, twisted, tangled and knotted mess of anxiety and fear. I am the kind of person who would have “victim” written all over them, if I hadn’t already had that experience enough times to cut and run before it happens. Certainly I don’t want to actually enact these feelings–I spend most of my energy trying to prevent harm to myself and the people around me. Maybe I just want to feel powerful, for once in my life not helpless and vulnerable. Maybe I want to conquer my fears by being scarier than the things I’m afraid of. Mostly though, I just want to be free to MOVE, to live life vibrantly and without holding any part of myself back.

Lately these kind of thoughts have been making me think of Fenris-wolf. Of all Loki’s children he is one that I am most nervous about approaching, and it’s something I want to plan out beforehand. I feel that he probably understands these feelings, and might be able to help me find ways to express them or at least connect with them in a healthy way.

…anyway, that’s probably why I write so much horror. ^^;