Halloween: Facing Fears and Breaking Taboos Part 2

I tried desperately to write more about my personal journey last week, but I just couldn’t manage to get it out. Some things were still too deep to be articulated. But after a week of continued meditation on my Halloween crafts, I think I’m to a place where I can express some of the personal symbolism. In a sense, I created a haunted house out of internal pain, picking decorations that held personal horrors in addition to general horror.

This is where the journey began, gently bringing myself to a meditative place with symbols of death and the underworld.

There’s something haunting about abandoned places that echoes my own fear of abandonment. That sense of something having been there, now gone, can be overwhelming. What isn’t there is just as haunting as what is there. And the attempt to sterilize and cover up the abandonment makes it even worse.

Although I still play the violin, I can’t bring myself to play this violin. It’s haunted with too much from the past. As my grandfather’s violin, it comes attached with all the expectations and dreams of my family. Even though violin wasn’t what I wanted to make a career out of, it was what they expected my career to entail. It went with me to Bob Jones University, where it picked up the negative energy of my teachers as they told me I might as well quit if I didn’t enjoy playing Mozart and that I was one of those people who just didn’t have what it takes to play. I think I shed more tears over that violin than anything else during my three years in that hell. And though I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of what I was choosing, the day I told my parents that I didn’t want to study violin anymore because I wasn’t interested in clinging to a safety net, I abandoned more than just their dreams and my hopes for graduating from BJU. It began my exodus from fundamentalism, but it was also the day I stopped abandoning myself.

This next one is complex. Originally I started creating this vampire scarecrow baby simply because I find babies slightly scary. They really are the closest to actual vampires that we have, living off the bodily fluids of another—that is after they’ve lived inside someone for 9 months like some sort of alien parasite. If some women find that idea appealing, that’s great. I find it repulsive.

But I soon realized that this particular doll was so much more than just an expression of my aversion to children. The dress was made by my dad to put in my hope chest. It symbolizes yet another area where I fail to live up to my parents’ hopes as well as the expectations of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Christianity is not a nice place to women. This is essentially the extent of their “role” in so many teachings, and in that sense, I think children do more than just suck on their mothers—they suck the life away from them. Children are the chains that I as a Christian woman was taught to want, even when I didn’t want them.

Moving away from the living room, we enter the kitchen, which I transformed into a torture chamber and apothecary. The tools of the trade are all there for slicing and dicing. A shrunken head hangs drying from a hook. And closer to Halloween, the pumpkin will be receiving a lobotomy. The instruction book propped open is actually a Bible.

I can’t think of a more effective weapon within fundamentalism than brainwashing. First you scare someone shitless, then you convince them that the only way to be safe is by cutting themselves off from their thoughts and emotions. Once you have them mindlessly following you, you can shape their behavior into whatever you want. And fundamentalist Christianity is an expert at this.

Just for good measure, check out this video for how accurate the shrunken head symbol is.

Perhaps the most cathartic of all my creative enterprises was the desecration of family pictures. This is the one that felt the most taboo and the one that I wanted to hide, thus the one that I needed the most. It’s easy to acknowledge that BJU left emotional scars. It’s easy to see the loss and feel the anger towards the institutional abuse inherent in fundamentalism. What’s harder is allowing myself that much honesty with my family.

I have a feeling that desecrating my “ancestors” is taboo, even during Halloween. And I certainly didn’t start out with the idea of turning a family album into a blasphemous display. Part of me was horrified. Here I was tapping into and revealing something in me that made me uncomfortable, which really was the whole point of the underworld journey, right? Facing my shadow side, letting go of shame, letting something I was afraid of come to the surface.

The faces aren’t really blacked out in any of the physical pictures. I just prefer to keep faces off the Internet. The mouths are sewn shut because children are so completely and utterly silenced within fundamentalism, both by peer pressure and teachings.

Family pictures often look so happy, even if the family is so dysfunctional, the only time they ever stop trying to destroy each other is while the flash is going off. But underneath every happy smile, there’s always problems—problems that it’s natural for families to want to hide from the memory-making. And for some families, it probably runs deeper, with more sinister problems than others. But society tells us to pretend that families are happy, safe, blessed places. We’re not supposed to talk about or show that they’re not.

The needle I used to sew over the mouths is inserted in through the hand of this one because, sadly, no matter how good the intentions, it’s the adults who silence children.

I’ve got pretty select friends with whom I’ll discuss family problems, but for the most part, I succumb to the pressure of the photograph—the pressure to pretend that there are no problems when presenting a face to the world. I hadn’t even realized how deeply I was denying some of the anger towards my family until I began destroying pictures. There’s a lot that happened—a lot that was said—as I dug my way out of fundamentalism. There’s a lot that is left unsaid now after having come out as bi. We talk, but the conversations are about as real as the smiles. We’re so busy pretending things are okay that we can’t even get to the point of making them okay.

As with all Underworld journeys, the point isn’t to go down into the depths and stay. There’s a journey back up to the world, back to life. And I’m definitely on the upward swing. I’ve learned things about myself that I hadn’t yet realized. I’ve reminded myself of lessons it’s easy to forget about during the bloom of spring. But more than anything, I’ve discovered that life, even the painful parts (and yes even death as part of life) is beautiful and worth living.

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Halloween: Facing Fear and Breaking Taboos

Last week, I wrote about why I think horror movies resonate and appeal to people. This week, I’d like to build off of that and talk about why I think it’s important to have dark holidays like Halloween.

Halloween gives us permission to face fear, anger, sadness, death, destruction, and taboos. We shouldn’t necessarily need permission to approach these subjects, but I think we often feel like we can’t most of the time. Society has made them unmentionables. We come into contact with them only when we have to, and then because they’re so unfamiliar to us, we’re unequipped to face them. I don’t think it’s healthy or even possible to try to avoid dealing with the darker aspects of life, and because society tries to pretend they don’t exist, we need an outlet. Halloween provides that outlet.

In October, we feel that we are allowed to openly express the things that all year round we’ve been pressured to keep buried. They not only become allowed, they become expected. Few people, at least in the area where I live, do nothing for Halloween. Yards and houses are decked out in grotesque decorations. Adults and children alike design their most fearsome costumes. People host parties centered on macabre themes. Art shows pop up featuring gruesome works. There’s even a community zombie run, not to mention the ghost walks and haunted shows.

It’s the time of year when we can openly approach the disturbing and uncomfortable as a community, and as a community, break our own community rules.

But it does more than that.

It provides an outlet that turns fear, anger, sadness, death, destruction, and taboos into amusement, which is very important for a couple of reasons.

First, we need to know that fear doesn’t rule us. Taking fearful and somber topics and reducing them to comical absurdities allows us to face our fears and build the tools for overcoming them. The whole purpose of so many aspects of Halloween is to scare the shit out of people, and we do it deliberately to ourselves. There’s something exhilarating about approaching the things that disturb you and choosing to face them down. It’s empowering to take fear and turn it into a positive, fun experience. Seeking out fear in a safe environment gives us an opportunity to build tools to use in less safe environments. We learn that fear can be exciting, not just terrifying. We find ways of soothing ourselves as we head into the unknown, and we discover the tremendous high that comes when we face a fear and conquer it.

Second, it’s important for us to “blaspheme.” Taking the somber or taboo topics and turning them into a game gives us a break from their seriousness and takes away their power. Humor is an important coping mechanism, and dark humor (or satire) has a long history of helping people through difficult transitions and of enabling social action. Whether it’s someone buying a costume of a priest, which has recently taken on a more sinister quality than the mere desecration of a sacred symbol, breaking gender norms, or dressing up as a zombie Jesus, Halloween gives us a means of safely denigrating things that are normally off limits. It allows us to point out the irony of the world around us and to reduce or release the tension that is built up. Humor and ridicule bring these things back down to a form that we can handle.

On a slight tangent, I think the reason that so many girls like to dress “slutty,” as some would describe it, is because one of our biggest societal taboos is allowing women the freedom to their bodies. I’m hoping that in addition to the general disregard for modesty, women will also use this year to express the other attempts at suppression on their bodies like the invasion of their reproductive organs.

Next week, I will upload some pictures of my own Halloween preparations and discuss the personal applications of the Halloween season.

The Art of Horror: Mirroring Reality

picture from The Haunting (1999)

I love horror movies. Not the slasher, blood-and-guts-everywhere kind—the supernatural/psychological thriller kind. They fascinate me. They terrify me. I’ll even watch the cheesy 50’s movies with black-and-white zombies or bad Edgar Allen Poe retellings.

My partner doesn’t like them so much because he finds them predictable.

And yes, I can admit they’re predictable, but for some reason, that doesn’t diminish their scare value. In any other genre, predictability would be likely to annoy me. But in horror, it’s okay. I don’t think horror movies are as much about originality as they are reality.

Now I know that last statement probably left you sitting there thinking, “what kind of reality does she have if she thinks horror movies are about reality?”

No, you’re right. On the surface, they are far from realistic, but there’s always more than just what’s on the surface.

Just as fiction can sometimes represent truth more accurately than non-fiction, horror movies can represent reality better than realism. Horror movies personify our problems, fears, and relationships. And the better they are able to capture that, the better they are—even if the ending is so predictable the plot summary can make you yawn.

We all know how most horror movies end. We certainly don’t watch them for the ending any more than we watch romantic comedies for their surprising twists or action movies for their intelligent dialogue. The lingering popularity of horror movies, I think, lies in their ability to represent something deeper.

The family looking for a new start that moves into a house only to discover that they can’t make that fresh happily-ever-after ending they were seeking. The parents that refuse to listen to their child who is crying out for someone—anyone—to open his/her eyes enough to see what the child sees. The friends who discover that someone isn’t to be trusted, a discovery they make too late. The person falling in love with the not-so-nice stranger. The haunting way a dead loved one lingers around or the terrifying absence of another.

For every one of these, we can look at the characters and say, “No, don’t go in there!” “Listen to what she’s saying!” “Don’t trust him!” “Don’t run that way!”

We know what’s waiting on the other side for these people—we’ve been there. Maybe we currently are there. Not literally, but in other ways.

We know the destruction that can come to a family that hides secrets from each other. A monster may not come out and mutilate them, but then again, perhaps a monster does, they just can’t see it. They can only feel the effects.

Horror movies are predictable because they’re supposed to be—they need to be in order for us to relate to them. In fact, I think the most terrifying part of a horror movie is that the predictability is so damn realistic. So I watch them, because I want to feel the ability to scream out those warnings, knowing that in that situation, I probably would be doing the same thing.

Befriending my Shadow Totem

Spiders

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with them. I’ve always been fascinated by them…from a distance. I love pictures of spiders. I think they’re awesome in books. My heart thrills when I see them behind glass where they can’t get to me. But up until recently, if you put me in the same room with one, I made Ron Weasley look brave.

When I first moved into my apartment, the porch looked like a freaking horror movie. The ceiling was a blanket of spider webs with dozens of spiders sitting up there. I had to cross under them in order to get in my door. Then inside, they were everywhere. I would have done anything to get rid of them. And oh, did they love to drop in on me! Literally! When I wasn’t hunting down and killing the spiders in my apartment, they were descending their silky threads from the ceiling trying to land on my head.

I’m not a bug-killing person. I have a strong empathy with the little critters. I used to catch bumble bees and let them loose in my room as a pet. I’m more likely to put a hornet outside than kill it. And the one time that I decided to experiment with salt on a slug, I ended up crying and begging the poor thing to forgive me for hurting it (I’m still bitter towards the cartoons that portrayed it as anything but a traumatic event for slugs and snails). So the fact that I hated spiders enough to drown one slowly in a steady stream of Lysol bothered me.

About a year ago, I started researching spiders, seeking for some way to change how I viewed them. It didn’t take long to identify the spider as my shadow totem. I’m far from an expert on totems, but that one was pretty obvious. I’m probably more comfortable in a pit of snakes than I am with a single spider, yet I find myself inconceivably drawn to them in every aspect except physical proximity.

The key to shadow totems, as with any shadow work, is that you have to face them. They have powerful things to teach you about yourself, but you can’t learn from them as long as you’re running from them. So I forced myself to stop killing the spiders when I saw them and started trying to understand what it is about their nature that speaks to me. So far, there are three major areas:

  • Creativity
    Spiders have long been symbols of creativity. They’re artists, creating intricate and beautiful displays every night. Fittingly, there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind after meeting me that I’m a creative soul. I love creating things. I love the creative process. Oh, but I also fear it. I fear not being good enough. I fear not being able to finish. I fear it being worthless. So while I value creation as much as I regard spiders, fear often prevents me from experiencing either. But what the spider teaches me is that it’s okay to create something that will not last, something that isn’t perfect. A web, as beautiful as it is, usually doesn’t survive longer than a day. It’s not designed to. I might ask myself why bother creating something beautiful that will only be destroyed, but then I might as well ask myself, “why not?” I don’t know why spiders create webs with such beauty. Surely other methods would be equally effective. But I like to think that maybe they just get some freaking joy out of making their daily tasks beautiful. It challenges me, can I do the same?
  • Attraction
    Spiders also symbolize the power of attraction. They are such crafty little hunters because they do not hunt. Their prey comes to them. They pick a spot that they like, set up their webs, and wait patiently for what they trust will come along. Now, as I get into this, I’m not saying that I can prevent people from harming me. Those that are intent on doing harm will find a way to do it. But I have learned that there is a lot of boundary-setting that can happen with my own intentions. I can attract quite a bit of emotional bullshit to myself by simply being too scared to say no. If I don’t see myself as worth sticking up for, I’m not going to attract too many friends or acquaintances who respect me. But as I stand up for myself and see myself as someone worth standing up for, the relationships I build are going to be with people who value me as I value myself. Again, not an easy lesson because I have a really hard time saying no and setting boundaries with those that I care about. My default is to assume that their happiness is more important than my own, thus allowing my own needs to be overlooked. The fear of conflict has a tendency to make me deny my own desires in favor of “keeping the peace,” but how can I expect others to care about or even know about my needs and desires if I myself am too afraid to express it? We’ll see how that continues to develop as I learn to set boundaries.
  • Fate
    Lastly, and perhaps slightly more metaphorically, spiders teach me that I can be the weaver of my own destiny, the master of my fate. I do not have to be at the mercy of external circumstances. I’m not at the whim of some puppet master. My life is mine and no one else’s. I always have a choice. I actually do believe in fate, but like Rilke, I believe that fate comes from inside me. So long as I think it’s outside of me, I will react blindly to the cues of others. But when I recognize that it is not the external circumstances that determine my choices but my internal compass, I can break away from the Pavlovian response cycle and choose to forge a new path and, by doing so, choose a new destiny. This is probably the one aspect of spider that doesn’t scare me. It thrills me. I want to be my own fate, to write my own story. But that was not a power I could recognize immediately. It was one I could only come to by facing the shadows and befriending my shadow totem.

Lately, I find myself smiling when I see a spider and wondering how I’m going to put its lessons to use. I welcome them in my home, and have discovered the delight of them keeping me free of other pesky bugs. And while I haven’t gotten to the point of wanting to touch them, now if I see one dangling above my head, I don’t scream. I’m sure they have many more lessons to teach me, about things that I fear in myself and about powers I didn’t know I had.

Writing Be Banned! A Salute to Banned Book Week

Like many naïve, aspiring writers, I used to think that the greatest honor that I could achieve as a writer would be for my book to become a best-seller. The best-seller list, at least to my high school mind, represented coming close to writing the “great American novel.” If it was a best-seller, it had a better chance of being a classic.

Well, with things like Fifty Shades of Grey gracing the best-seller lists now, I’m no longer so convinced of the magical significance of making that list. It no longer represents the “great literature” of the day (if it ever did) and now represents more of a hodge-podge of people riding a trending wave or selling a well-known name to cover the no-name, no-talent ghost writers that took over the name years ago (Hint: if you see a big name like Robert Ludlum accompanied by “with” and another name, you can bet your mortgage that it was ghost written).

However, there is one list that consistently has books I admire, both for writing finesse and content—the banned book list. Of course, that list also shares space with things like Twilight which is only slightly less appalling than Fifty Shades and slightly more honorable as the original trash instead of the fan-fiction retelling, but I’m willing to overlook the bad writing because the reason it made the banned book list wasn’t because it was atrociously written. As nice as it might sound to ban books for bad craftsmanship, the reason they are banned is because the content ruffles the feathers of those who like to control people’s minds.

I don’t like what Stephanie Meyer has to say in her books. I don’t care for the unhealthy romantic models she presents. But I like censorship much less. Therefore, you will see her books lining my bookshelves as a matter of principle. At least, that’s what I tell myself to avoid the buyer’s remorse of having bought the entire series before finishing them. :/

But let’s not degrade banned book week with any more talk about that. On with what I was saying!

I admire the list of banned books. It ranges from picture books like Green Eggs and Ham or It’s a Book to favorite novels like The Handmaid’s Tale or The Hunger Games to informational and philosophical books like the dictionary, Darwin’s Origin of Species, and Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Some of the most socially important books of the previous decades have been on that list from the time they were published until now, and many of my new favorites find their way there at some point or another.

These are books that have social significance, some simply because they get people talking about things they are uncomfortable with (seriously people, you can’t erase the existence of sex by banning books that mention it), many others because they dare to point out social flaws and concerns.

These are books that are timeless if only because they stand as beacons in the ongoing fight to protect freedoms that are more fragile, yet stronger than any of us can fully understand until we are up against the moment of choosing to fight for them.

These are books that speak of the courage to say what you believe, even when that threatens to render you an outcast, or worse.

And if I were to write anything that got noticed, the greatest honor that I could be given outside of the honor of already having told my story to myself is to find my book on the banned book list. Then I’d know that I said something significant enough to scare those who live by the politics of fear and enduring enough to be read by future generations. But more importantly, it would mean that speaking my truth was more important to me than all the fame, praise, and fortune that society could offer—because honoring my voice is really the only worthwhile reason for writing anyway.