I grew up in a small, rural town where riding bikes until sunset was no big deal. We took ourselves trick-or-treating once we were old enough to tell time, running from house to house in a pack, sugar-high and free. I started babysitting other neighborhood kids at eleven. I was responsible, careful, and always gave a full report to the parents when they got back. I also charged three dollars an hour, and so I was pretty popular, often walking myself the few blocks home in the dark, alone and unphased.
Until I reached the last streetlight. It was at the top of my block, near the corner, and my house was all the way on the other end of the block, on a cul de sac that backed up to a meadow. After that last streetlight, I navigated by the neighbor’s ambient light, the moon, and my mindmap of the block. The streetlight itself was yellow, bright, hung high on the electric pole near the top of the treeline. Walking toward it I always felt vulnerable, lit up for the world to see, my aloneness highlighted by the yellow pool. Walking out of that light was just as bad—plunging myself into darkness, my vision fuzzy while my eyes adjusted. That was when she’d come for me.
At first, I tried to push the thought of her away. There are no witches, I’d tell myself. There is no such thing as magic. But a few feet out of the streetlight, my terror would overtake my rational mind. I could feel her behind me. If I turned around to face her, I was certain the worst would happen. My only defense, my only chance, was to run.
What sent me screaming through the dark, sneakers pounding pavement as I ran, breathless, to my front door, which I yanked open and slammed shut every time? My fear of an imaginary woman. An older, powerful, potent woman who lived in the liminal space between the wilderness and home. I never thought about what she wanted from me, or what would happen if I didn’t run. It was pure instinct that sent me fleeing in the dark. There were only feelings. There was only fear.
I read over two hundred submitted essays on the theme of monsters. Some were harrowing, and some were funny. Some of them broke my heart, while others healed places in me that I hadn’t tended on my own. Writers wrote about their internal monsters: shame, anxiety, eating disorders, depression. They wrote about external, real-life monsters: rapists, abusers, and a horrifying number of men with guns. They wrote about cultural monsters: Godzilla, Bloody Mary, Freddie Krueger.
How we view monsters, who we make into monsters, what we fear tells a lot about where we come from, who we are, what we need. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein creature was abandoned, unparented, heartbroken, and desperate to be loved. Shelley’s own mother died when she was eleven days old. Medusa, that ancient and snake-haired monster whose face turned men to stone, was raped in a culture that didn’t want to look at, think about, or deal with a victim’s psychological and physical pain. So, she was made a monster, while the goddess Athena—who cursed Medusa instead of her rapist—later used Medusa’s severed head as a shield. Meaty with metaphor, our monsters reveal much about ourselves.
I was a little girl who ran with the boys, but not a tomboy. I wasn’t athletic; I loved twirly dresses and matching separates; my signature colors were glitter and purple. The only girl in my elementary school class for years, my best friends, playmates, and academic competition were all boys until I was in my tweens. I had brothers. I wanted my father’s attention more than anything. I was a girl angled toward masculinity; I yearned for it, needy, desperate, voracious. Then, I would have told you I was afraid of witches. What I see now, looking back, is my terror at the femininity within me. For some of us, the monster is our own shadow, projected back at us—but that doesn’t make the monster less real or less terrifying.
This month, take a deep dive into The Rumpus’s psyche. There will be birth curses, basketball players, beauty standards, and online relationships. Ghosts, vampires, and gods. Transmisogyny, Islamophobia, and racism. So much patriarchy smashing. If you’re like me, you’ll read these pieces with your hand over your heart. We hope you will follow along throughout the month, and share these pieces on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #monsters2019.
It may be dark in the shadow, but we’re also vulnerable in the light. Whatever scares you, whatever chases you home when your imagination runs wild, here is my incantation: I see you, I hear you, I adore you.
Rumpus original art by Lizz Ehrenpreis.