Finding My Ancestors at Samhain

This week, I’m shifting gears slightly from the more titillating parts of Halloween to a more somber, spiritual focus (and it’s rare for “somber” and “spiritual” to go together for me at all, so enjoy this anomoly!)

One of the traditional meanings of Samhain has been a time to honor ancestors. Not really knowing much about my ancestors and not being in a position where I can ask my family about our history has made that less appealing in the past. This is probably the first time I have my own dead to remember.

My relationship with my grandmother was complicated after I left the cult and got married; I never felt entirely accepted or loved afterwards. In fact, there was a particularly painful incident in which she opposed my father passing down an heirloom ring to me and my partner, declaring that it “stayed in the family!”

Yet with her death has come the freedom to remember our relationship in a different light. The more recent eight years of frigidity, chastising, and judgment have eroded slightly, allowing the previous 20 years to shine through more.

I can safely re-access the memories of going over to her house as a child to play. I can remember her house being a safe haven in my pre-teens where I could fall head over heals for ‘NSync.

And of course, the mortifying day I got my first period. She was there. She wasn’t the one that explained it to me, perhaps because she was embarrassed, but she arranged for a cousin to come and tell me what was happening to my body since my mother hadn’t adequately prepared me before going out of town. And she taught me how to place a pad (a hard concept for a 10 year old to figure out).

These memories return once the barriers of boundaries and pain are no longer necessary, and in some ways I feel as though our relationship is beginning to heal—that now that she’s dead, we can begin…or resume…something better than what we had in the end.

I don’t necessarily believe that all my biological relatives will be like this in the end—where their death becomes an opportunity for the relationship to heal. There are some, I’m sure, that when they die they will cease to have much tie to me at all because I’ve come to see ancestry as a somewhat separate concept from family history or biological lineage.

I’ve often found myself in strange imaginal relationships with fictional and/or dead people—mostly book characters or writers who became particularly influential in my life. After I read J. R. R. Tolkien’s biography in high school, I spent a good several months having make-believe conversations with him; the same happened with Emily Bronte, Edgar Allan Poe, and more recently Carl Jung.

Characters like Sirius Black, Edmond Dantes, and Morozko (the Russian Jack Frost, whom you can fall in love with in The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden) travel with me as unseen companions. Their stories infuse my life with wisdom and courage—and a little magic.

Often, if I am out on a walk, sitting in a waiting room, or riding in the car, I’ll be off in my own little world with a cast of fanciful spirits that I’ve collected over the years. These are the people I admire and learn from, the people I try to emulate, the ones whose lives have touched me most deeply, whether they lived 200 years ago or never literally lived at all (or only lived literarily).

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Queen Christina was part of my family’s heritage; I can still choose her as an ancestor because of how she inspires me–a rebel woman who rejected the religious and societal mores of the day in pursuit of her own sense of authenticity.

It’s not about what blood flows through my veins. Rarely has biology been the most important part of heritage (maybe when trying to figure out the strange DNA that contributes to my body’s affinity for iron). Rather, it’s about what has contributed to my character and mind.

Thus, the ancestry I choose to honor at this time of year is the connection with those who have helped create me–the ones who gave me the building blocks with which to build myself up from the limitations and challenges of my past.

 

 

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It’s Halloween! (So Let’s Talk Scary Movies) #2

On Thursday, I rewatched the first horror movie I had ever seen in a theater–actually the first movie I had ever seen in a theater, period. It was probably one of the most intentionally rebellious things I ever did as a teen. Movie theaters were “evil” places in my cult, and I was forbidden from going to them, even to watch a Disney movie.

Horror movies were also considered evil and demonic for the obvious reason that they often deal with dark topics and the cult didn’t know how to recognize a metaphor.

So, what do I do when I decide to sneak out to a theater for the first time? I go watch Silent Hill, of course.

I remember being scared shitless, but I didn’t remember much about the movie itself. Watching it this time was sort of like watching it for the first time all over again. This one quickly took a place amongst my “movies that are metaphors for the importance of darkness.”

Spoilers in case you haven’t actually seen a movie this old yet.

Silent Hill is a moody, thrilling underworld journey about abuse, revenge, and facing your dark side. Whereas IT focused on facing and conquering fears, this movie is about encountering the dark, painful parts of ourselves.

The story opens with Sharon, an adopted little girl, sleepwalking and dreaming about this place called Silent Hill. It’s implied that these types of episodes have been going on for quite some time, with no response to medication or medical attempts to manage the sleep walking. Her mother discovers that it was a town in the state in which she’d been born that had become a ghost town after coal caught fire in the mines and drove people away. Thus, Rose decides that the only answer is to take her daughter back to this burning town to see if they can figure out what is haunting Sharon.

Rose and Sharon end up separated, and the movie follows Rose’s attempts to find her daughter in a land that has become a nightmare. Her searches eventually lead her to discover a bullied little girl who had been burned by religious fanatics for being a witch. Down in the bowels of the hospital where Alessa was put on life support after her burns, Rose encounters a little girl who looks exactly like Sharon…if Sharon were a demon.

Rose learns that Sharon is “what’s left of Alesssa’s goodness.” Her look-alike is Alessa’s revenge. They had sent Sharon to Rose to be cared for, eventually calling both of them back.

Rose also learns that the religious extremists plan a similar fate for her daughter. Although Alessa’s mother, a member of the cult, had abandoned her when the group had chosen to “purify” her, Rose has an opportunity to save her daughter from the religious extremists by taking in the darkness of the other half and carrying it to the church where the extremists hold their meetings.

It’s a powerful movie with so many characters playing off each other that my Jungian heart goes crazy with the possibilities for analysis.

The movie points out that “to a child, mother is god,” highlighting both the incredible power that mothers hold over their children. Most children, even when their mothers are harming them, still see their mothers through rosy glasses, requiring the child to take on the interpretation of “if good mother is doing these things to me, it must be because I am bad.” It’s nearly impossible to consider, as a young child, that mother might not actually be good. In keeping with this theme, Alessa’s mother is never actually touched by Alessa’s revenge. Even though she’s one of the people that Alessa could easily blame, she doesn’t.

In a similar way, cults like these ones often portray God in a similar light. It takes a lot for a member to question whether the group (which represents God) is doing the right thing, whether life circumstances are indeed deserved. Alessa’s mom wasn’t a good mom because she hated her daughter. She failed Alessa because she herself was under the same spell with the group.

Rose is contrasted with Alessa’s failure. Rose is able to save Sharon the way that Alessa’s mother should have saved Alessa. In some ways, I like to think that Rose is the internal mother that can be developed to heal from religious trauma, but I think the literal interpretation of her being an adoptive mother is also legit.

In turn, Alessa is contrasted by the split girls, identical except that one is good and one is…not exactly evil, but definitely dark. The good child, Sharon, is easy to love. The one that carries Alessa’s pain and anger is harder because she’s scary and unpredictable. But Rose can’t save Sharon without accepting Sharon’s other half.

Alessa’s mom is horrified by the shadow side as she watches her take her revenge on the religious fanatics, but there’s an interesting question even in the violence. Who is the true monster? Yes, the fanatics have been hiding from this dark child, but they also were the ones who created her. They burned Alessa, blind to the evil they themselves perpetuated. We also find out that they’re dead too—that they died in the fire they started, but that they are avoiding awareness of how they have destroyed themselves until Rose forces them to confront the shadow they have created.

Right towards the end, after Rose has managed to cut Sharon down from the stake (technically a ladder more than a stake, but serving the same purpose), she’s holding her and rocking her. Suddenly, the dark duplicate appears and looks into Sharon’s face. The scene cuts away then, and Rose and Sharon wake up later and head home.

It’s unclear from the movie whether the dark one just leaves Sharon alone after she looks at her or if she and Sharon reintegrate with each other in that moment, but my guess is that they integrated because neither were whole on their own. They had been split by the horror of what happened (good metaphor for trauma), and the healing came through Rose offering the corrective experience of a mother who doesn’t abandon her child. Rose needed to love both the shadow and the light in order for the little girl to fully heal.

It’s Halloween, Bitches! (So Let’s Talk Scary Movies!!)

This is one of my favorite times of the year. The air has turned crisp and cool in prophecy of things to come. The trees have begun to turn inward, their spring and summer growth slowly becoming rattling skeletons that will light up the earth with their oranges and reds before succumbing to the final fade and fall.

While December sees my home looking vaguely like the sugar plum fairy exploded, October turns it equally as dark—skeleton candle holders, tombstones, creepy figurines, and black cloth draping and adorning nearly every surface and altar.

Halloween is as much a time of fun as it is a serious spiritual process for me. The whole world seems poised on the edge of the underworld, and I know that the playfulness of the tricks and treats and the thrills of the season hold a special power that balances out the dark that at other times of the year might feel overwhelming.

This year, I’m attempting to do something that touches on an aspect of the darkness of this season every day of the month. Since horror movies, rife with symbolism and meaning, are one of my favorite ways of encountering the underworld, I thought I might highlight some of the stories that stand out to me as particularly relevant, beginning with what I would call the scariest movie I’ve ever seen—IT (2017).

There may be spoilers in the following paragraphs.

Stephen King is, of course, a master of horror, and the recent film adaptation of his book has made an indelible mark on my psyche, as much because of its themes as because of the jumps and scares that nearly drove me out of the theater when I watched it.

IT is a brilliant exploration of fear and the myriad ways we all attempt to deal with it. Each of the children in the movie is grappling with their own version of fear, often handed down to them from their parents’ own unhealthy ways of coping. The town is riddled with a nameless terror that is destroying lives, yet the adults seem surprisingly unaware.

The adults feel the terror, but they won’t acknowledge it.

Instead, they find their own unique ways of keeping it out of consciousness— we see one using hypochondriasis bordering on Munchausen by proxy syndrome, another religion,  and another isolation. Several turn to the power surge of abusing those weaker and more vulnerable, and still others are absent (either literally gone or absent through emotional distance or substance use).

The children are left on their own to figure out how to handle their growing fears and awareness of the horrors of life…and death. Some of them take on their parents’ method of coping, a la Eddie and his somatic symptoms or Henry Bowers and bullying.

Others repel the coping mechanisms they see before them, as with Stanley Uris who seems to resent his religious indoctrination or Stuttering Bill who refuses to forget his brother the way his parents have.

Still others develop their own unique way of coping—as with Richie’s potty-mouth humor or Ben’s obsession with research and the library.

But one thing they are all aware of is that they are scared, and nobody seems ready to help them. They’re aware that they’re not meant to deal with this stuff at their age. It should be something the adults deal with. But they also know that the adults aren’t dealing; they’re avoiding. The adults are lulled into a stupor, ignoring the “Missing” posters in favor of a creepy, indoctrinating television show that gives Pennywise perfect access to their subconscious.

There are multiple times when the kids have a choice—take the path of their parents, ignore what is happening, and enjoy being a “kid,” all the while fastidiously distracting themselves with their individual brands of avoidance, or face their fears, bring them into the open, and learn how to work together to overcome them.

Obviously, some choose the former—most notably the bullies. But the Loser’s Club manages to discover, despite the horrific examples they have before them, that the only way they have hope of defeating this nameless horror is to face their own fears with the strength of friends. They learn that fear is strongest when left in secret and that a good portion of its power comes from the internal paralysis of one’s own mind.

As each of the children confronts the real-life horrors in their own lives, they develop the strength to confront the mythical horror that is terrorizing their town. Together, they become a force to be reckoned with.

Whereas It had seemed all-powerful in the beginning (when they each faced It alone), at the end, It is a powerless, confused mess of constant transformation as It scrambles to find the mental foothold that gave It Its true power.

As Stephen King is wont to do, he juxtaposes real horrors with supernatural ones—the horror of abuse, coming of age, and bullying with the horror of some inexplicable but very hungry monster. I love how scary the movie was for me, but more than that, I love how IT isn’t just an exploration of fear but a treatise on the power of connection to heal and overcome.