The Horrific Experience of Countercultural Initiation, or:

Sex Might be Monstrous, but Monsters are not always Sexual

Horror is a feeling, not a philosophy; and monster tales are more than narratives of adolescent male sexuality, nuclear paranoia, or distrust of science— these narratives express what we feel in the face of the monstrous "Other."

I agree with the oft-advanced thesis that the creation and resurrection of monsters in literature and film is indicative of personal and cultural anxieties. But I would add to this that, through the devious ingenuity of telling stories with monsters, authors and filmmakers alike have complicated them beyond easy labels of adolescent sexuality, nuclear paranoia, or distrust of science. Horror, after all, is a feeling, not an object. It is what we, the audience, experience. Therefore it's the horror stories themselves, the ones that lead us through our relationship to the feeling of terror at any given historical moment, that make the best monsters. An archetypal cliché of the genre, the spending-a-night-in-the-haunted-house motif, mirrors our own descent into the work of terror, be it gothic romance or splatter movie.

These stories, with their intricacies of genre cliché and sudden surprise, link the hands of fear and deliverance, servitude and freedom, repression and decadence, science and superstition, in a dance macabre of light and shadow, dawn and dusk, moonlight and blood. And, while the oh-so-adult critics censor and bemoan horror as a sick and twisted expression of male adolescent sexuality (a trend which begins with Dr. Fredric Wertham's attack on the EC horror comics of the 50's, which coincides with and effectively apes the more adult McCarthyism), I believe that the two major steppers in terror's hoe-down—in the minds of its many fans—are really knowledge and ignorance: knowledge obtained by identifying with something that is totally outside oneself yet strangely familiar as well. To experience the child-like joy of being scared by a work of art is to feel oneself steeped in the knowledge of the adept against the blindness of the uninitiated, in that alien adult world of patriotism and careering that pre-adolescents experience in the numbing form of school- (read: state-) sanctioned conformity.

Take me and my obsession with horror, for example. Before I had the sexual awakening that made me adore and fear the objects of my desire, I craved the intensity of being both frightened and reassured by horror movies, gothic romances and Victorian chillers. Before I had punk rock to allure and frighten me, I shared my transgressive horror obsession with friends during a Saturday night ritual known as Bob Wilkins' Creature Features. Before my friends and I bought drugs and alcohol to thrill and lull us, we collected horror movie magazines, posters and books. Of all of these voluptuous transgressions, the one my parents feared most were the monsters.

Why? I can only surmise that it was part of what I call the doppelganger effect. Freud's etymological theory that terror is "that-which-is-not-found-around-the-house" might explain why our parents were so worried that things from another world had come to roost in their suburban bunkers. Or, at least, that their children were identifying with such. (This might explain why the book and film Invasion of the Body Snatchers is so popular in counter-cultural circles that have no fear of the "commies" supposedly represented by the invading aliens who double as friends and neighbors.) And of course American culture is so antiseptic and afraid of death that turning our bedrooms into mausoleums was unhealthy at best, morbid and downright un-American at worst, in the minds of average parents.

What I want to examine here are the positive counter-cultural aspects of the negative doppelganger. It is possible that non-conformity, individuality and even empathy begin when we identify with something despised, feared, even dead—something wholly other, something monstrous. Be it Dr. John Polidori and Lord Byron's mirrored traveling companions in The Vampyre, be it friend and fiend, vampire and victim, Dr. Frankenstein creating his own better and worse half, or Stevenson's oft filmed Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, we seem both to seek and to differentiate ourselves in and with others, finding our own image in those others both comforting and monstrous by turns.

This process of identification is key in most subcultures, wherein individuals seek to escape conformity to culture at large by conforming to a mini, mirror culture of transgression. And it is not only counter- or sub-cultures that operate according to this paradoxical paradigm but spiritual movements as well—before they become full-fledged state religions, legitimized and sanctioned in an unholy union of the material and the spiritual. Paradox and illogic, like their Dionysian literary offspring satire and nonsense, are more serious and constructive than they are ever given credit for. Or, as Thoreau points out in On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, the best servant of the state is he who resists it and thus, to round off the paradox: "He who gives himself entirely to his fellow-men appears to them useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist." Uniqueness is monstrous, and yet everyone is unique. My adolescent friends and I identified with monsters not because we were spotty-faced, horny and awkward, but because we knew that we too were dangerously unique, and many of us felt that we must also rebel, blow up the doctor's laboratory, stomp through consumerist Tokyo's high-rises, and corrupt annoyingly proper young ladies with a bite on the neck.

It's no wonder that we took monsters as our anti-role-models. We didn't have to go to Africa, only to the mall, to see what Kurtz was talking about when he whispered, "The horror. The horror." For who rebels against the purest expressions of repression better than a monster that the military cannot destroy? …or a vampire that corrupts the living with sly propaganda regarding immortality, a risen corpse demanding extralegal justice, the misunderstood creation of a mad scientist crucified by angry villagers, a ghost that stirs a killer's conscience, a sideshow freak who parades difference in his or her variation of the icons of absolute conformity, bodily norm of the supermodel and athlete? Whose non-conformity (freedom) attracts and whose alienation (freedom) repels better than a monster's? Who asks us to question our own conscience, complicity in the status quo, and the very nature of our spiritual and physical existence more than a ghostly spirit, the Frankenstein monster, or a vampire? Monsters break down the seemingly impenetrable barriers of the child's family home, bursting through walls or slipping, as mist, under the window sill.

Reading about and watching monsters, feeling the horror or existential angst of radical individuality that powers our strongest myths, is the first step in a kind of initiation. At Eluesis, in ancient Greece, adepts listened to mythic stories of journeys into the underworld as preparation for rituals of initiation. These journeys into the beyond, like the night spent in the haunted house, Jonathan Harker's trip to Dracula's castle in the land beyond the dark wood, or Dr. Frankenstein's reclusive castle, are retreats, exploratory descents into the self. For me, the horror film and gothic romance mark the beginning of my own inward journey via literature and philosophy. So, as well as presenting a pair of textual parents for me here, a dark alternative family unit, I'm going to tell you how I see myself both reflected and refracted in the images of David J. Skal, successful horror historian, and Nina Auerbach, academic purveyor of the postmodern macabre.

Both Auerbach and Skal spin their critiques from the axis that begins this text, but each, with tools as protean as the monsters of whom they speak, manages to mirror the monster in the culture whence it springs—and then turn the gaze back again. Thus, while David Skal, in his wonderful study of American horror culture The Monster Show, is right to note the role of adolescence in the formation of most monsters ("...hair-sprouting werewolves, rotting faces and uncontrollable impulses...") and their importance to the rituals of pubescent initiation, he (and so many others), I think, is wrong to infer that human sexuality is the only thing at work in the period of puberty. (Twice he brings up initiation rituals and both times associates them with puberty, exploring their sexual aspect only, and both times calling these issues especially male.) And he is wrong again to exclude women from the need for initiatory transformation. After all, he brings up this topic most convincingly in a discussion of Steven King's Carrie, a story of feminine initiation gone wrong. Still he claims that, culturally speaking, "In its ritual offerings of quasi-initiatory encounters, horror fantasy clearly fills an anthropological vacuum, especially among young males."

Long before the sexual aspects of our bodies change in puberty and our desires turn explicitly libidinous, we begin a greater process aptly called individuation. This need to begin to construct ourselves as individuals separate from our families and the society around us, and the resulting fear of exclusion by virtue of our uniqueness is, to me, the very core of Percey Shelley's "tempestuous loveliness of terror." This is the element of the gothic romance that the English romantics so cherished and brought into the literary world on those rainy laudanum-soaked days in the Villa Diodati—in the form of Polidori's The Vampyre and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the two inseparable and ubiquitous monsters that David Skal calls "the dark twins." These dark twins haunt America most of all. What other tale does the Villa Diodati experience tell us than that of the youthful rebellion of one of the greatest intellectual subcultures the English-speaking world has ever known? (They were sniffing heroin in the form of laudanum and, according to English tourists across the lake with spy glasses, having group sex!) Also: the tale of the tension of the class differences between Lord Byron and Dr. John Polidori, and that of the literary initiation of Mary Shelley.

Since woman are apt to be forgotten in horror show circles, let's remind ourselves that one of those dark twins was created by a woman in a daring raid on the literary boy's club of her father, her husband and their best friend George (Gordon, Lord Byron). Her novel's theme of reproduction beyond the biological is not only more of a female than male concern, it might also be read as a radical critique of male posturing over the act of creation in art, literature and science. And certainly there is a parallel to this kind of rebellion in the fact that Polidori, the outsider (via social class), creates the other dark twin in response to Byron's pompous lording it over the whole company, including his jilted ex-lover (Mary's half-sister "Claire" Clairmont) and their illegitimate child. Nor should we forget that the gothic romances so admired by Mary's male acquaintances were mostly written and read by women. And, while the first literary vampire—Lord Ruthven—and the greatest one—Count Dracula—were men, LeFanu's Carmilla and her literary spawn, as well as Dracula's transformed victims, are distinctly feminine creatures of the night, as apt to appeal to the rebellious female reader as to the male. They certainly do appeal to my other textual parent or doppelganger, Nina Auerbach.

Auerbach, with her academic status and literary expertise actually mirrors my own experience with literature and my approach to writing more clearly than does Skal. Although she's a purebred boomer, she shares my Gen X nostalgia for the 70's, and reads the Reagan years as America's most intense experience of cultural vampirism. (Although David Skal also notes that the only thing that "trickled down" in the 80's was the blood from Freddie Kruger's razor-tipped fingers. Tax cuts?) But most importantly Nina Auerbach has released me from the fear I had that I was the vicious stereotype of the horror fan—a drooling sexually repressed adolescent male conventioneer going ga-ga over Vampirella's low-cut shroud—perpetrated by the uninitiated bastions of cultural authority. Her project, in Our Vampires, Ourselves, of reclaiming the gothic genre and especially the figure of the vampire for women—while pursuing the cultural politics that such a task entails—inspired me to produce this text, to reclaim monsters as the subversive icons of a culture's conscience, and as manifestations of a pre-pubescent need to identify with a kind of absolute otherness in order to individuate. These are the founding myths of an imaginary subculture that functions as an abstract spiritual community in an age in which politics and religion represent conformity rather than dissent and transcendence.

It was Nina Auerbach and her experiences with horror as transgression and non-conformity who helped me, aptly enough, just after the recent re-release of The Exorcist, to exorcise a demon of my own, the chasing of which marks the origin and now the end of this text. Some years ago I attempted to share my then repressed youthful love of the merchants of menace with an ex-beloved. During a visit to my parents' home I opened the Pandora's trunk that housed my dusty collection of monster movie posters. My impatient damsel was as prejudiced as my parents had been in my youth and, after a few annoyed glances at the "various scenes of horror, chaos and disaffection" (Mark Eitzel's description of his "old collection of punk rock posters" which he displays to Johnny Mathis before asking him how to live, in the song "Johnny Mathis' Feet"), she declared "these are all about male teenage sexuality," and, embarrassed, stalked out of the garage as if she'd caught me masturbating.

But it was teenage sexuality that eventually forced my horror obsession into the closet. It was the need to conform to an 80's America that abhorred horror, in my relentless twenty-something search for love (or at least sex), that made me put my monster icons aside and pretend not to be that unique—in order to survive emotionally. Also I found a more pointedly political, cool, and sexy post-pubescent subculture in punk rock. And I do remember feeling the same attraction and repulsion, surely Shelley's "tempestuous loveliness of terror," when buying Never Mind the Bullocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. I was honestly afraid of what listening to that album might do to me, yet I desperately wanted it to do it.

My most recent experience of such a feeling came whilst poking around some interesting ruins in a place called Baia, in the Flegrian Fields just north of Naples. In the middle of the fragmentary ruins of an emperor's beach house, now an archeological park overlooking the bay, lies a mysteriously unconnected man-made tunnel that one amateur archeologist believes to be an ancient Greek or even Phoenician cult site, in which mystery initiations were carried out. He also believes that Virgil himself was initiated here, for the underground passages bear a resemblance to the description of the underworld in the sixth book of the Aeneid, and the site is only a stone's throw away from Lake Avernus, the spot whence Aeneas descends into Hades. Enchanted by the mystery of the spot and its literary connections, my current partner, Elisabetta, and I, hands firmly locked, spelunked the tepid passageway, which eventually led to an underground river fed by a fetid, sulfurous hot spring, perhaps the model for the Acheron, first of the infernal rivers.

The tunnel was long and dark enough to scare the living daylights out of us trepidatious tourists and our meager flashlight, but we were also curiously thrilled to be descending into what could only be described as a reasonable facsimile of Hades, if not the real thing. Finally a fluttering bat turned us back from the banks of the Acheron and, afraid that a swarm of them might exit if unduly disturbed, we bolted to the by then distant exit. The 500-foot descending, narrow passage was quite womb-like and the experience was certainly, as ancient initiation rituals were meant to be, one of death and rebirth, coming back to the light of day with new knowledge of oneself and the universe. Still, the thrill was mental, or spiritual if you will, infantile or adult by turns, but neither adolescent nor sexy. Unlike Orpheus, we didn't look back, and we came out, laughing at our irrational fears of imaginary monsters, together—and this is just the kind of happy ending you would expect from one of Mrs. Radcliffe's splendid gothic romances. •

Special thanks to Mike Tyler for Historic-philosophical paradigms I can't seem to shake, and to Edoardo James Foust, my two-and-a-half year old Godzilla fan, whose monstrous tastes also helped. —Lee Foust