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.

 

 

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.

 

The Continuing Horror of Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary’s Baby is one of those old classics in the supernatural horror genre. I saw the movie several years ago and scooped up the book when I found it at a library sale. I decided to give the print version a spin this Halloween.

As I’ve written about before, one of my reasons for loving horror is due to the rich symbolism. It’s not enough to just have the surface plot. The best horror movies, for me, are the ones that manage to portray the horrors of real life as monsters and ghosts.

And for Rosemary’s Baby, the horror was all in the subtext. The plot point about sex with Satan and birthing the anti-Christ wasn’t particularly scary to me, but the terror of having those you trust gaslight and manipulate you is always terrifying.

Early on in the book, Rosemary is drugged and raped. She is partially conscious throughout it, conscious enough to know that something happened the next morning, but when she confronts her husband, she has her feelings of violation dismissed. He didn’t want to “miss” the window of opportunity for impregnation.

Since she wants a baby so much…and since she thinks it was her husband who raped her, she convinces herself that her feelings are silly, that she’s making a big deal out of nothing–even that she is partially to blame.

Later, when she finds out she’s pregnant, the circumstances surrounding how she became pregnant become even further buried as everyone around her celebrates her “good fortune.”

Immediately, the reader begins to see how Rosemary’s desires and concerns are overridden by others, beginning with being pushed into going to a doctor who ignores her concerns about her pregnancy complications and scares her away from talking to her friends, telling her that the only information she needs will come from him.

When she does want to get a second opinion from a different doctor, her husband shames her for being disloyal to the doctor she currently has. Protecting his ego as doctor takes precedence over her comfort as the patient.

As things progress, she becomes more and more suspicious of the motives of her husband and neighbors. When she finally figures out that they have been manipulating her for their Satanic rituals, she flees, seeking protection and help from another doctor.

Bur rather than believing her, he assumes that she is psychotic. After all, her doctor and her husband are both well-respected men.Rosemary is even aware that the way she tells her story will affect whether she is believed and takes every precaution to seem calm in order to avoid being accused of hysterics, but to no avail.

In a move familiar to every woman who has ever been disbelieved about sexual assault or domestic violence, the reputation of the men she is accusing of conspiracy undermines the believability of her fear.

After she has been handed back over to her captives, who now make no pretense of hiding the fact that they are drugging her to keep her docile, she goes into labor and delivers her baby. It is quickly whisked away, and she is told that it died.

The gaslighting continues when she hears a baby crying and feels her body responding to its hunger but is told that she is imagining it…then that it is the upstairs neighbor’s child.

Rosemary fights to hold onto her sense of reality and succeeds to an extent, but at the expense of her will. Once she is brought face to face with the horror of her rape baby and the truth surrounding the conspiracy to use her body for their own ends, she finds herself succumbing to the pressure to accept the situation. Surrounded by so many people who have completely disregarded her own boundaries, she finally submits to her role.

The demonic aspect of her pregnancy and birth are almost secondary to the horror of how she is consistently used and abused and then convinced that she is the one over-reacting when she is upset about it.

And perhaps the scariest part is that women in this day and age don’t have much more guarantee of being believed when they come forward to accuse men in power. They’re still convinced to overlook increasing violations against their autonomy and duped into thinking that they want what others are forcing them into.

Ultimately, Rosemary’s Baby isn’t a horror story about religion. It’s a horror story about patriarchy.

 

Stereotypes, Identity, Spirituality, and Halloween–e.g. word vomit

At the beginning of October, I did a post on creating meaningful costumes. One of my suggestions was to dress up as a stereotype or caricature of yourself.

Apparently I’m not the only person who thinks this is a good idea. It seems to be a theme among other witches as well. Huffington Post has a wonderful article going into depth about how this particular costume idea can be used in a powerfully beautiful way, creating opportunities for self-exploration as well as conversations with others about what the stereotype means and how it fails to capture the complexity of true identity.

Identity is a funny thing. That’s one of the first thoughts that came to mind when I started trying to write out a biography for myself when I began this blog. There are certain labels that are very important to me, and I wear them loudly and proudly.

Yet there are times when I really struggle with identity.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m a gemini or because of the trauma of coming from a cult, but I never feel like I entirely fit anywhere…nor do I want to.

Labels come in handy in trying to express something. They give a quick snapshot of a personality characteristic (like manic pixie dream girl), a belief (like witch), or group belonging (bisexual, feminist, woman).

But as soon as a label starts to feel stifling–when trying to adopt that label erases me more than it helps me be seen, then I start to chafe.

In the beginning of my spiritual journey away from the IFB, Christian wasn’t a bad word to me. I wanted to be a “Christian.” I wanted to reclaim that label for myself the way I had claimed bisexual and feminist. I spent a good three years trying to find a way to fit into Christianity on some level or another. I knew conservative Christianity would never accept me, but I had hope for a more liberal strain of Christianity.

But Christians had other ideas. Everywhere I turned, I found myself confronted with demands of what I needed to believe and do in order to be a Christian. There was nowhere that I could go within the church to work through my own beliefs and figure out my own brand of Christianity. There was nowhere I was given the space to be me.

I still mourn the loss of my religion. It was a big part of my identity, both given and chosen (or at least I tried to choose it). I walked away ultimately not because I didn’t want to believe anymore but because I couldn’t find a way to keep the label and be free at the same time.

In hindsight, I think it was good. I’ve discovered a spirituality that feels like what I was born to be, with a label that lets me define what it means for myself, not for everyone else. In fact, it’s such a perfect fit that I haven’t really even thought about my former religion with much emotion for at least six months, maybe even a year.

But as I use Halloween as a spiritual exploration of my darkness, my demons, my hell, and my identity, I’ve discovered that there is still a very deep, bitter grief surrounding Christianity for me.

My theme this year is blasphemy. Although it was meant to be and will still be incredibly fun, I am discovering that it’s more of a final destruction and burial of my former religion. This is the saddest Halloween I’ve celebrated thus far as I prepare to put on a stereotype of the only identity I ever found consistently applied to me within Christianity–sacrilegious abomination.

 

Four Ways to Add Depth and Meaning to your Halloween Costume

It’s October, which for me means that the month-long celebration of one of my favorite holidays has officially begun. Time to pull out the scary movies, sinister decorations, and fake blood. Also time to start planning a costume…which can be a somewhat daunting task.

I’m already seeing articles popping up about racism, sexism, slut-shaming, cultural insensitivity or fat-shaming in costumes, and I find myself bracing just a little bit for the onslaught of negativity. They’re not necessarily wrong—ugly elements of society tend to find their way into our celebrations in a number of ways, especially when it involves costumes. It’s important to be able to recognize the unsavory elements and talk about what they reveal about society.

But when that’s all there is, after a while it just starts to make Halloween feel absolutely hopeless.

So, I want to take a positive approach to the Halloween costume conundrum. Rather than putting out yet another opinion of what people shouldn’t wear, I want to present some ideas of what to wear. I’ve come up with four ways to make a Halloween costume that is both fun and meaningful.

Dress as someone you admire:

Do you have a favorite figure in history or a fictional character who has been particularly important? Turn your costume into a tribute by dressing up as someone whose life has been an inspiration. Obviously it’s incredible whenever someone creates a detailed, historically accurate replica of a famous person, but even if you don’t feel like you have the time, money, or talent to create Susan B. Anthony or Thomas Edison look-a-likes, you can still create an abstract or symbolic costume of the people you admire.

Queen Christina from Take Back Halloween, an awesome site that gives you tips on how to create your own costumes!

Queen Christina from Take Back Halloween, an awesome site that gives you tips on how to create your own costumes!

Dress as your totem:

If you want to go in the direction of the animal kingdom, consider inhabiting the form of your totem animal for an evening. This is a great opportunity to connect with your spiritual or primal side during Halloween and can even become a kind of mental pilgrimage if you use your preparation time to research information about your animal. The best thing about this costume is that if you don’t like to do much of the costume creation yourself, you can usually find simple animal costumes at Halloween costume shops. Some face paint, ears, and a tale—you’re ready to go! Extra points if you dress as your shadow totem.

Black Cat Mask project from Martha Stewart

Black Cat Mask project from Martha Stewart

Dress as your own fears:

In a post I did on Halloween in 2012, I talked about the value of “dark” holidays in giving us permission to approach our fears and reduce them to conquerable representations. What better way to face your fear than to create a costume of it? This is one idea that could have multiple layers. Literal representations of things like spiders or rats may initially come to mind, but I encourage you to think a little deeper. Often our fear of something mirrors an area within ourselves with which we feel uncomfortable. A fear of spiders may actually be connected with a fear of losing control or a fear of showing your creativity to the world. Finding a way to symbolize more abstract fears can add a depth to your costume. The very act of creating the costume then becomes a therapeutic act in itself.

Pennywise, the clown from Stephen King's "It" (1990). Why is a bit of face paint to create a false expression such a scary idea to us?

Pennywise, the clown from Stephen King’s “It” (1990). What is it about clowns that is so terrifying? Perhaps it has something to do with a false identity?

Dress as yourself:

But not literally as yourself because that would be boring.

Dress as a stereotype or exaggeration of yourself.

Want to bring your activism into your celebrations? Use this time of year to push the boundaries of how society perceives stereotypes. This is the time of year when some of the more hurtful stereotypes make a grand appearance, garnering outrage from any number of groups. On the one hand, we could cry foul, recoil in horror, and allow the negative energy of thoughtless people to hurt, or we could use Halloween as a time to fight back.

A few years ago, I chose to go as a witch—a stereotype of my own spirituality. I chose to do so because I feel that I have more power over how that stereotype is used if I embrace it and turn it into an empowerment rather than feeling miffed and horrified at the way others choose to use that stereotype. By dressing as a stereotype of an aspect of myself, I opened doors for interesting conversations about why I chose my costume and what my identity means to me.

Wicked Witch of the West from "The Wizard of Oz" (1939)

Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)

Dressing as yourself could also involve things that don’t fall into larger identity categories. For instance, you could create a costume that portrays minor flaws or personality quirks. Explore what they mean to you. Or go as a two-sided concept like your greatest strength and greatest weakness (which often seem to be the same thing, e.g. perfectionism/attention to detail). Your friends might get a chuckle in seeing you take a jab at yourself, but more importantly, they’ll see you taking ownership of who you are, which is a pretty fucking powerful message, whether that’s followed up with a desire to change or a desire to keep on going as you are.

~~~~~~

I would love to hear about or see pictures of what you choose to do for Halloween. I hope these suggestions give you something exciting to work towards to offset all of the messages that tell you what to avoid. This is one of those holidays that I see as holding tremendous power, and I would love to see mainstream society take a more mindful approach to how we celebrate—which, as I’ve experienced, doesn’t mean it ceases to be fantastically fun!

Horror Jingle Bells: A Holiday Special

Guess what! It’s almost Halloween! And after that–It’s Christmas! This is the time of year with the best holidays. I love them both so much, and I honestly can’t decide which I like better.

However, I do not like to mix them . . . much.

This Chuck and Beans cartoon from Shoebox Blog is too funny!

But one thing Christmas has going for it is music. There is some awesome Halloween music, but none of it really the kind you sing while trick-or-treating or partying. The two lines in Chuck and Bean’s Halloween jingle bells inspired me to write a full version . After all, why should Christmas be the only holiday with group songs?

So, for your pleasure, I give you Horror Jingle Bells:

For true chilling effect, the song should be sung with the voices of the children from Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas

For true chilling effect, the song should be sung with the voices of the children from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas

Verse 1:
Dashing through the woods
With monsters on my heels,
Or hiding in my bed
From unseen hands I feel.
Chilling laughter rings
Across the darkest night;
Neglected toys and dollies spring
Into vengeful life.

Chorus:
Oh! Jingle bells, open hell,
Demons come to play!
Run and hide from chainsaw guys,
But don’t go in that place!
Hey!
Jingle bells, midnight knell,
Vampires roam the street.
Eye of you in witch’s brew.
It’s Halloween this week!

Verse 2:
A day or two ago,
I thought I’d take a ride,
But soon a phantom guest
Was seated by my side.
The horse was mean and gaunt;
Its eyes were red and crazed.
It rushed into a haunted mine
And vanished in the haze.

Chorus

Verse 3:
A day or two ago,
Confession I must make,
I visited a long-lost friend
And raised him from his grave.
The voodoo spell had worked,
But now I pay the price.
He is not what he used to be;
I’ve raised a demon wight!

Chorus

Verse 4:
The night is dark and young.
Enjoy it while you can.
No trick has yet been sprung,
And treats are in your hand.
But take my kind advice–
Don’t tempt your fate too much.
Don’t drink, have sex, or stay alone
Until the season’s done!

Chorus