Oct 24 2013 9:00am

Ghosts Are Real. Monsters, Too.

I was rereading The Lord of the Rings under my desk for what was probably the fourth time that month when our teacher walked around with a jar filled with folded bits of paper. Each student put their hand into the jar and pulled out one of those bits of paper. Each bit of paper was blank until the jar got around to me. My note had a black spot in the center.

Our teacher told us to get up, to go outside. She pulled me aside, had the rest of the students stand in a line and wad up their notes into crumpled balls. I stood in front of my classmates, and they stoned me to death.

Back inside the classroom, my teacher handed us Xeroxed copies of Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” I put The Lord of the Rings aside. I never did pick it up again.

This is why I read fantasy. This is why I read horror. This is why I watch shows like Supernatural, Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. High fantasy doesn’t really do much for me anymore. I keep finding myself more and more drawn to stories where good people do bad things, where bad things happen to good people, and it changes them profoundly. I keep finding myself drawn to the dark spot in the center of the note, the heart of darkness, the shadow in every psyche.

I started watching the television show Supernatural because it has a little bit of everything I’ve ever been interested in. Road trips, family dynamics, biblical ideas of salvation and redemption. Ghosts, monsters, fairies. Crossroad deals with the devil, hoodoo and primitive magic. And, most importantly, Supernatural draws upon some good old-fashioned psychological horror.

I had spent the prior two weeks being consumed by David Lynch’s cult television show, Twin Peaks, and when I first began watching Supernatural I was haunted by the similarities between these two shows. At the very beginning of Supernatural’s pilot episode, we see Mary, pinned to the ceiling and burning alive; at the beginning of Twin Peaks the camera lingers on a ceiling fan turning slowly at the top of the stairs, and though we the viewers don’t understand why, we are disturbed.

It is only later that we realize the true horror of that ceiling fan. That is what Laura must have seen every night, when her father appeared in her bedroom and trapped her on her childhood bed. That is what she must have heard, drowning out the sounds from her bedroom as she is raped by her father.

In both shows, there is a cycle of evil that doesn’t seem to have any foreseeable end. The demon B.O.B. claims to have invaded Leland Palmer as a boy, becoming a part of him. It is this inner demon, we are told, that allows Leland to sexually abuse his daughter; it is B.O.B. that causes Leland to kill her. And Laura becomes trapped in Leland’s cycle of abuse, slowly becoming the very thing that torments her. Laura tells us that B.O.B. “wants to be me, or kill me.” Either Laura will become another aspect of B.O.B., or her life will be consumed by her trauma.

Was B.O.B. ever a real demon, or simply Leland Palmer’s shadow-self, his doppelganger? This is the question that plagues F.B.I. agent Dale Cooper.

“Maybe that’s all B.O.B is. The evil that men do. Maybe it doesn’t matter what we call it.”

Take away B.O.B., take away the Black Lodge and the Red Room, and what’s left is the story of a man who sexually abuses his daughter for years before torturing and murdering her.

Take away the demons, take away the ghosts and monsters of Supernatural, and look at what’s left. You see a family that’s been devastated, torn apart and broken. We catch glimpses of a mother filled with secrets, a father haunted by a vendetta against his a demon of his own, and the sons whose lives are filled with abuse and pain, who have been left to deal with this legacy.

In the episode “Jus in Bello,” F.B.I. agent Victor Henriksen thinks he’s got Dean and Sam figured out.

“Oh, yeah. I forgot. You fight monsters. Sorry, Dean. Truth is, your daddy brainwashed you with all that devil talk and no doubt touched you in a bad place. That’s all, that’s reality. Well, guess what. Life sucks. Get a helmet. ‘Cause everybody’s got a sob story. But not everybody becomes a killer.”

Is the subtext of Supernatural that John Winchester was abusive toward his sons? Absentee father John Winchester is the quest object of Sam and Dean throughout the first season of Supernatural, and while for the most part, he is portrayed as a father who did the best that he could for his sons, there are small details that say otherwise. Look at John’s wife Mary, walking into her infant son’s bedroom at night, seeing a monstrous figure with yellow eyes at her child’s crib and calling out her husband’s name—and then tell me that before her death, the Winchester family life was a fairy tale.

Of course it wasn’t: Dean says so himself in the episode “The Dark Side of the Moon.”

SAM: Dad always said they had the perfect marriage.

DEAN: It wasn’t perfect until after she died.

Our two heroes take a good hard look at evil in every episode, and in doing so they catch a glimpse of their own darkness, a legacy inherited from their father. Sam, with his drop of demon blood and his own tendency to turn a hunt for evil into a holy war, descending despite all his good intentions into violence and revenge. Dean, whose childhood trauma plays out all over again during the sixth season of Supernatural, when he becomes a father-figure himself, Dean, who literally and metaphorically turns into a vampire - consumed with blood-lust, he is drawn back to his picturesque home and apple-pie life, where he terrorizes his girlfriend and her son.

In the the film Fire Walk With Me, a coda to Twin Peaks, we see the details of the events that lead Leland to kill his daughter. In Laura’s death scene we see a descending angel, dressed in robes of white, a stark contrast to the blood-covered face of her father, who is killing her. The angel, this holy untainted thing, symbolizes peace, something Laura could never find in her own life. Laura did not become B.O.B.—her life is destroyed by him instead.

In the fourth season of Supernatural, Dean is brought back to life by an angel of the Lord. Dean’s angel raises him from hell, but Laura’s angel cannot. Laura’s angel is able to rescue another girl held captive by Leland, but it is unable to either save Laura or offer her the peace of heaven, and in the final episodes of Twin Peaks, we see a tormented Laura trapped in the Red Room, unable to move on.

But unlike Laura, Dean has been able, in some small ways to recover from his past trauma. Though not completely - never completely. But Dean isn’t hunted by ghosts - he hunts them. And that’s kind of a important message.

I went to a church that told me that demons were real. And that idea has haunted me ever since - the thought that demons surrounded me at every moment, that behind every closed door and with every temptation, there is something evil.

I read myself to sleep every night because I didn’t want to turn out the lights. I couldn’t open my closet doors or look under my bed. I refused to play with Ouija boards or watch The Exorcist at sleepovers with my friends; I wouldn’t say “Bloody Mary” three times in front of a mirror or play “light as a feather, stiff as a board.” I never stepped on a crack in the sidewalk; I crossed myself and chanted prayer after prayer when walking past graveyards. I had to close every window and lock every door before I could lay down to sleep at night.

I never felt safe.

I suppose psychiatrists would call all this magical thinking - but the demons and ghosts felt as real as anything else in my life. And I knew my parents couldn’t protect me, or wouldn’t; if I wanted to be safe, I had to do whatever I could to protect myself. Rocks on the windowsill, charms in my pocket, closing my eyes at every frightening thing.

I started watching Supernatural because for once, I wanted to take a look at what frightened me. And Supernatural has elements of everything I’m truly terrified of. The biblical apocalypse in Supernatural horrified me far more than the ghosts or monsters. Watching A Thief in the Night and Invisible Enemies at age eight will do that to you.

I’m not joking when I say this show scares the crap out of me.

But I’m used to it now. It’s familiar in the way that only that old familiar monster under your bed can be. I can watch a show like Supernatural, then sleep with the light off and feel safe. I can see a pentagram and not flinch. I can watch a show filled with the type of violence that at one point in my life might have left me shaking, and at the end of an episode, I’m okay. I can read The Shining for the first time after avoiding it for years and still feel sick to my stomach exactly the way I would’ve if I’d read it at sixteen - the only difference is now I know exactly why I feel the way I do. I understand it better. I can name the reasons why it scares me, and just knowing why, just being able to identify what I’m afraid of, allows me some control over that fear.

Stephen King tells us this:

“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”

Why do I watch Supernatural? Why do I read fairy tales? Because ghosts are real. Monsters, too. But they don’t always win.

Supernatural and shows and books and films like it are important because they shine a light on what frightens us. Our heroes open the door and take a good hard look at the ghost in the closet. Then they shoot those ghosts full of rock salt and burn the bones.

Jenny Moss blogs about fantasy and horror, books and television at Stone Soup Books.

Paul Keelan
1. noblehunter
Reminds of something I heard about fairy tales: kids don't need stories to tell them monsters are real; they need stories to tell them monsters can be beaten.
2. Brian_E
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

- Neil Gaiman
3. Brian_E
Looks like I misquoted - further searches suggest this should be credited to G.K. Chesterton, not Neil Gaiman.
4. a1ay
High fantasy doesn’t really do much for me anymore. I keep finding
myself more and more drawn to stories where good people do bad things, where bad things happen to good people, and it changes them profoundly.

And you certainly won't find any of that sort of thing in high fantasy!
Josh Storey
5. Soless
Further clarifying the Chesterton quote: it's a paraphrase.

The full thing goes like this:

"The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universemore mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear."
Sky Thibedeau
6. SkylarkThibedeau
All you have to do is read eye witness accounts of the Holocaust, Armenian or Rwandan Genocides, or other human caused trama to see monsters do exist inside real people. I remember reading
Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945: The Years of Extermination by Saul Friedlander which documented eye witness accounts from victims and perpetrators. One officer described in his journal the horrific things he had done to people earlier in the day then went on to describe a sedate evening with his wife. They even had ice cream as dessert.

There is a monster inside all of us. Most keep it locked up tight but you never know the circumstances that may arouse us to unlock that cage.
7. PaulR
"I never felt safe."

Same here. Growing up Fundamentalist- well, believing in it- made me terrified of The Exoricist (when I finally saw it in High School I had nightmares from which I woke screaming) because I believed demons were real. Which made my obsession with horror (literature and film) all the more delicious. What is nice is that even though I shed belief in imaginary beings, I am still scared by them. Possession still scares me, as do ghosts. Or at least the idea of it, or the fear that would come with it if it were real. However, I do not lie awake at night in terror of being possessed, or having to watch a red-eyed pig whisper sweet nothings to me from outside my window. This is a major difference between my love of horror now and as a child.

I remember watching the Twin Peaks pilot on a little fuzzy TV in high school, and being scared. It was wonderful.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
8. Lisamarie
While I do sometimes enjoy the more 'gritty' types of fantasy that really force us to explore the monsters inside us (and, yes to Skylark @6!) - I think that is a really important concept...I can't say I share your disdain for high fantasy.

I actually am not a huge fan of Chesterton (much to the shock of my other Catholic friends, hah - I like a few of his things, but he just doesn't do it for me) but I have always loved that quote, and feel it is pretty in line with what Tolkien would say. I also think LOTR is a little more nuanced than people give it credit for in terms of failure and the heroes' actions (especially in other works like the Silmarillion), although obviously nowhere near something like ASOIAF. Which is not to say you have to feel the same way - but I personally take great comfort in reading about things that show us something to strive for (perhaps why I prefer TNG over DS9 even though I enjoy them both a lot).

As for your childhood experiences, I totally relate! I was raised (and still am) Catholic, and that's not actually what scared me. Rather, I remember we went to a service at a church a family member was involved in (he's a Pentecostal minister) and I think the topic was something like demons or possession and I was TERRIFIED. I remember thinking that possession was something that could just HAPPEN, even against your will, maybe my teddy bear was even possessed, and there was no weapon against it, and I attributed an ominiscence to the devil/demons that was out of line with Catholic, or really any mainline Christian, theology (which is not to say for sure that this church was getting it wrong, but in my young mind I certainly interpreted it wrong). Eventually my parents set me straight.

A similar thing happened when I saw some 'Ancient Prophecies' show on Nostradamus - it gave me all sorts of strange beliefs and fears about the end of the world (again, might not have been the show's fault although I wouldn't be surprised if they misrepresented some things for shock value), I could barely sleep and for awhile it was a strange preoccupation with me. Eventually, again, I did re-educate myself...but...yeah.

While I do believe in the existence of evil and demons, it definitely makes me think about how I want to present such things to my children...same thing goes for non-demonic evil, which they are much more likely to encounter!
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
9. Lisamarie
BTW, thanks for the story reccomendation. I went and looked it up; it hit me hard, for various reasons, especially the way familial ties can be so easily overwhelmed by the 'group' (not that we should be stoning anybody, family or not).

Kind of had that The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas scapegoat-y/sacrifice feel to it (also kind of reminded me a tiny bit of Hunger Games - although nobody actually WANTS to participate in that situation (aside from career tributes), and even that part of Gaiman's American Gods that is a spoiler so I won't mention it but also involves a sacrifice made for the sake of a community's overall wellbeing).
10. Wizard Clip
@Brian_E: An honest mistake. Gaiman quotes this passage from Chesterton as a epigram in Coraline.
Brent Longstaff
11. Brentus
Wow, what a way to introduce The Lottery.
12. suebamboo
13. SusannahN
Excellent post! I've never, ever read something that was able to zero in on the central story in Twin Peaks like you have here. It's so easy to get caught up in the rest of its wackadoo that writers seldom get to the heart of the show. And the connections with Supernatural are really interesting. Again, it's hard to have a lot of insight into Twin Peaks because of its weirdness, but I hope the creators of Supernatural are proud of the legacy the show has carried on (with quite a bit more coherence) from Twin Peaks. Thanks!
14. Salabra
If I'd had your upbringing, Ms Moss, I'd have sued my parents and their church for child abuse!

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