Monsters as My Safe Place: On Processing Trauma by Creating Things that Go Bump in the Night
CW: sexual trauma
This is the last of my four-part series on astrology, writing, and creativity (read parts one, two, and three). To be honest, this piece turned out to be much more personal than I intended. I've thought for two days about revising it so that it lives up to the promise of the series, but I've decided against that. I've decided to let it be.
The Invisible Man (1933), Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Phantom of the Opera (1943), Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), The Blob (1958), The Day of the Triffids (1963). I could go on and on and on. Mummies, swamp creatures, any version of Dracula or Frankenstein, aliens, mutant insects, killer plants, and my absolute favorite, the werewolf––these are the heroes of my childhood. These are the characters that shaped me, soothed me, and inspired me. From my earliest childhood memories until I type this as a forty-five year old woman, monsters have been my safe place, a stable vessel through which I am able to channel the complex and often overwhelming feelings of my own traumas alongside an insatiable desire to create something everlasting. This article is an ode to the monsters who helped me survive.
I have no memory of when the sexual abuse and rape from my stepfather began. I have a clear memory of an assault when I was five, but we moved in with him when I was three and my therapist believes it probably started right away. I think so too, because I can't remember a time, as a child, when humans didn't terrify me. Men. Human men. I think my attraction to monsters is rooted in that (now healed) fear of men. Rooted right alongside a rage that feels ancient and immeasurable. I remember watching the mutant ant movie, Them (1954), and imagining what it would be like if a giant ant bit my stepfather's head off right in front of me. I was probably seven at the time. Two more years would pass before I finally told my mother just a fraction of what was happening to me.
Monsters were my space of fantasy, because they could hold both the rage and the desire for power, the urge to wreak havoc, to break free, to emerge victorious with your opponent's bloodied body dangling from your jaws. And they were powerful, forces to fear and, in my case, envy. Monsters brought humans to their knees, and they made no apologies for doing so. I remember playing out various monster narratives with my Strawberry Shortcake dolls. The Purple Pie Man was always after Strawberry Shortcake, and some monster––flying dragon, alien, giant spider––saved her time and time again. Some girls long for Prince Charming; I longed for Godzilla.
Fast forward over thirty years to an adult who can finally no longer run from her past, an adult whose body demands that she tend to its wounds on all levels. Now make her a writer. Give her weird dreams and an effortless imagination. Plop a protagonist in her psyche and watch her scramble for her childhood heroes. When I started writing Marjorie Flack, I never thought I'd finish because I couldn't hold her anger. Writing her exhausted me. Then I gave her a monster. I gave her a monster that is also a man. A monstrous man, and I clung to the wolf in him as I wrote the weaknesses of that man. As my writing evolved, I watched Marjorie shift from someone so filled with vengeance to someone so overcome with pain. And I watched the man evolve from villain to victim to human. I did so as I drew pictures of the wolf, as I dreamt about his size and stature, the power he held, and the terror he inflicted. I sought refuge in him as my subconscious worked the emotions of a terrified toddler into the writings of a survivor, and in the process, I made peace with both.
Literary theorists, film critics, social science researchers, and others have written a lot about our human love of monsters. Some say it represents our fears of the natural world, of science, of human psychology itself. Some say it's our fascination with power and domination (because the monsters often lose in the movies). Most agree it originates in a childhood love of fairy tales, but I don't ever remember being read a fairy tale...or anything for that matter. For some people, monsters are nothing but a damn good time, a thrill, and that's fine too. For others, monsters represent the darkest parts of human nature, but maybe it works different when you yourself already know the darkest parts––when you've met them, first-hand, in a darkened bedroom with your mother sleeping just across the hall. Maybe then the roles get reversed. The things that go bump in the night become your archangels; the monsters under your bed your fairy godmother; the characters you create a roadmap to your recovery.
Here's to monsters in whatever form we dream them, and to the writers, artists, and actors who bring them to life. Five-year old me is forever in your debt.