ENOUGH: Screaming at Ghosts
ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women, trans, and nonbinary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
The series runs weekly, most often on Tuesday afternoons. Each week, we will highlight different voices and stories.
Screaming at Ghosts
I had incredible trouble falling asleep at night. The best word I can use is dread—it weighed my body down and filled my chest with panic. I’d repeat a short prayer to myself that Maw-Maw taught me: “I rebuke the Devil, in Jesus’s name.” Or maybe it was more of a direct address than a proclamation: “I rebuke you, Satan, in Jesus’s name.” If this spell couldn’t put me to sleep I would cross the hall to Maw-Maw’s room and climb into her giant bed, tolerating the loud snores for safety. But to get there, I had to pass the forest of mystery novel and Harlequin romance dust jackets between my room and hers—skulls, oozing blood, heavy knives, rippling muscles, swooning women, torn gowns.
A particularly upsetting viewing of The Blair Witch Project at around twelve years old put the nail in the coffin of my potential as a horror fan, but as a younger kid my favorite library book was a slim, easy-to-read hardcover with plentiful pictures that told the stories of famous movie monsters—Dracula, The Thing, Gremlins—and broke down what they represented. I especially loved the chapter on Frankenstein. Boris Karloff’s monster has a haunting sadness in his face that is relatable even without the book’s handy explanation—he represented the fear of loneliness and isolation. The book explained the criminal brain, the fear of fire, Igor’s bullying, the monster’s escape. The picture of Karloff and Little Maria particularly captivated me: A young girl shows the monster how to throw flower petals into the lake. They kneel together on the bank, smiling, the monster gentle, the girl trusting, grass stuck to her long black socks. He then tosses her into the lake, assuming she will float like the petals. I suspect with the help of this book I began to understand that evil was more complicated than heaven and hell, and that sometimes monsters are victims, too. Maybe this helped me develop an inclination towards compassion even in the face of danger—I have spent most of my life assuming the best before the worst, looking for the redeeming heart inside the monster.
When I met him, I was makeup-free and wearing white. Sometimes I imagine myself a virgin sacrifice to a hungry god, though this makes it sound grander than it was. When I met him, his laugh was dissonant and his body looked hard and compact. Did I invite him back to my room, across the threshold, or did he make the choice for me? He massaged my shoulders and I kissed his tears. I’d been waiting for something interesting to happen. When he moved between my legs it was without warning—there is no single word in the English language for “getting the wind knocked out of you,” but it can temporarily paralyze the diaphragm. His mouth was between my legs as if he’d already planted a flag. Later, when his fingers became painful I asked him to stop, and he did, eventually, but only after he kept going, just for a moment, as if to test a line—or to say he was stopping because he wanted to.
When Mom would send me down the street to Maw-Maw’s house I usually ran, especially at night. I’m not sure when it started, but I began to imagine that every car driving by could be a threat and I flew down the sidewalk as if my safety depended on it. When I was eight years old, Mom explained to me that my best friend Allison had been molested by her grandfather, what “molested” meant, and that he would be going to prison. She wanted me to understand that Allison was dealing with something difficult and needed extra love and care. I don’t remember how much I really understood, but in the aftermath, I felt a new apprehension that someone would hurt me next. I would lie in bed at night across the hall from my mom and stepdad, the faint glow of my stepdad’s TV slipping into my room and mingling with the blue electric glow of the black light I used as a nightlight. I listened to the reliable clicking of his Xbox controller, which began to feel more ominous than relaxing. If a grandfather could molest his granddaughter, anyone could harm a child in this way. My stepdad would never hurt anyone, but he was a man awake in the house and I understood my vulnerability in a new way.
Laying together one afternoon on his bed, my head resting against his armpit, my monster confessed that sometimes he was plagued by thoughts that scared him. He told me he imagined the chaos that would happen in the school cafeteria if he picked up one of the dingy metal forks and started stabbing people. I comforted him with what I felt was appropriate softness, but was mostly quiet. He showed me the rope he kept in his closet. The heavy hammer, the butterfly knife he’d take from his pocket and spin around his fingers. I joked once to a friend that if I went missing, they’d know where to look. Where did my fear go? If the entire body is padded in fear, what does it feel?
A curious and dissatisfied girl is a tale as old as time. Watching Beauty & the Beast on repeat as a kid showed me how to suffer in the hope of taming and healing an angry, broken man. At the end of Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester is not only emotionally housebroken but dependent on Jane in his blindness. If I could only exert the right amount of effort, maybe my beast would not only change for me, but need me, and I would be worthy of love. “You’re the light to my dark,” he wrote once, a letter inside the cover of a gimmicky book called The Vampire Hunter’s Guide. “You’re the only one with the power to destroy me.”
He thought he was a vampire. In theory, a vampire is everything I wanted back then: gorgeous, powerful, compelling, sensitive, dashing. As for my own vampire, he had very few of these qualities, but I tried to be content with a shadow who sometimes wore a top hat. I wanted to be emptied and filled with someone else. To turn them undead, as Anne Rice’s vampires drain their victims who must drink back. I was never drained enough to die, never filled enough to become something else. My vampire never drank my blood. Well—once on the couch, his toenail sliced my skin and he pressed his lips against the cut for a taste, and said it was like apricot.
I became used to seeing romance and danger living as close together as within those paperbacks on Maw-Maw’s shelves. When I read Twilight my freshman year of high school, I found the vampire Edward Cullen as alluring as Stephanie Myer intended. He is handsome, tortured, speaks in elevated diction, and is dangerously drawn to teenage Bella Swan and the call of her blood. At first he is cruel to her to try and create distance between them, but eventually his love grows too strong. This courtship dynamic is similar to that of Pride and Prejudice, though presumably Mr. Darcy never watched Lizzie Bennett while she slept, and didn’t have to pull away from her eager lips so he could calm his bloodlust. I learned that great romance is predicated on the drama of a suitor who has to exert great effort not to murder his beloved. I believed in the romance of this, and in the erotic appeal of Edward Cullen as well as Anne Rice’s less-restrained vampires. In scenes when fangs pierced neck I almost quivered. Twilight led me to Jane Eyre, and I read Mr. Rochester’s violent outbursts as part a passionate, brooding nature. I too wanted to be powerful enough to save a wounded man—for a man to love me so much it wounded him. I yearned for someone to stalk the moors and scream at my ghost. My own ghosts never went hungry. I re-read Twilight until I had to tape up the binding.
Girls are conditioned with the contradicting messages that men are violent and imposing but also represent the heart’s greatest dream. They complete us, though we should not be alone with them in the dark. I craved attention and approval so dearly that any risk felt justifiable. Sometimes I think back on my naïve desire to trust attractive strangers and marvel that I’m still alive, when so many others aren’t. I’m afraid of most things—snakes, spiders, roller coasters, car crashes, being alone, not being alone enough, failure, death, devil-children, malevolent houses, home invasion, the dark, rape—but still find myself drawn to the queasy glow of what horrifies me. It’s reassuring to know my worst fears are justified, to feel at least a little prepared for whenever the alley decides to open its mouth.
In college, I experienced a clichéd fascination with Ted Bundy. It’s all too common—in fact, he’s having a moment, including a Netflix original film where he’s portrayed by the affable, blandly attractive Zac Efron. It’s the unassuming handsome whiteness that terrifies, the way it lulled women into feeling safe enough to help Ted carry something to his car. After murdering his victims, Bundy would return to where he’d hidden them in the woods. He’d dress them in fresh clothes clean of bloodstains and mud. He’d smooth their hair and lie beside them on the ground for hours, a grotesque vigil, a morbid tenderness. When I first learned this, I was surprised to find myself moved by Bundy’s treatment of the women he’d violently made into corpses.
Love is compared to falling, though in my case I think it’s akin to dust gathering until, finally, every surface is covered with a fine layer of dead skin. The first time we showered together my dorm bathroom’s florescent light was clinical and unflattering, and I crossed goosebump-covered arms over breasts he would later call perfect. He washed himself first, and attentively, under the stream of water. When he finished, he lathered up my loofa and washed my body in circles while I held myself still. When he crouched down to carefully lift each foot in turn I was struck by the tenderness, and how beautiful his shoulder blades were with the water streaming between them. I felt worshipped in this quiet gesture.
Once he bought me anti-frizz serum as a gift, explaining the ways I could take better care of my hair, and smoothed oil into my damp curls. He would kneel in front of my humid crotch and use his electric clippers to shape my pubic hair, which seemed to me like the pinnacle of intimacy. He’d shape and buff my nails with a seven-sided file, the friction burning, my toes bleeding a little after he’d carved out an ingrown nail. He painted my nails in with black polish and starry blue glitter. I was tended to, like something inanimate culled from ceramic or formaldehyde.
When he picked up the dead rabbit from the side of the road, I decided his interest in taking this roadkill apart was evidence of a curious, scientific mind. He sent me pictures from his parents’ garage in Colorado of the pelt laid flat and symmetrical, the rabbit’s heart in his hand, captioned with a romantic quip. He planned to preserve its skin to make a mask and a lucky foot, though like most of his plans he never saw it through, content instead to play Call of Duty and fuck other women. He had a number of dedicated friends who he thought of as acolytes and believed he kept alive, even musing once that he would’ve made a great cult leader. They gave him permission to keep their skulls after their deaths, and, for him, this was tenderness.
I am tired of having to justify, or apologize for, my fear of and hatred for cis men—as a group, as a construct. Women are not blameless, we too murder and rape and are violent and complicit in oppression. But statistically speaking, the most dangerous thing to women—to anyone—is cis men. Why shouldn’t I hate what’s most likely to harm me?
I thought it would be difficult to unpack the reasons so many women not only buy into these dark antiheroes as romantic ideal, but come to crave them—think Fifty Shades of Grey and its phenomenal success—but an answer came to me as if I’d been scrying without knowing it, and I’m content to accept this analysis. I suspect the dark and dangerous romantic antihero not only articulates the difficulty of being a woman who loves men and knows they are the deadliest thing she will encounter, but that eroticizing that danger makes it palatable.
Sometimes I find myself disappointed by my trauma’s underwhelming banality, the lack of glamour or drama—no moors or secret attic wives or glimpses of immortality on the other side of a glinting fang. There’s an incongruity between the immense trouble the trauma has caused me and what caused it, though a part of me can’t help but admire my younger self for straining the limits of possibility and trying, desperately, to suspend my disbelief and trust. I forgive her now, though I didn’t for a long time. I used to watch in disdain as she slunk suspiciously through her brain’s dark halls, listening at door cracks, clutching any lie that would make her feel sane and wanted.
Once, during a psilocybin trip, we became archetypes. I held an apple in my hands and he perched on the periphery, face terrifying. I should’ve heeded this mystic revelation. One night during our first month of dating, he did a tarot reading for me with his vampire deck. The cards warned of a charismatic but untrustworthy figure. I guess, in his own way, he told me everything I needed to know, though I was too busy gasping for whatever bled toward my mouth to take notice.
I have learned to rebuke the mundane devils and sharpen my stake into a fine, smooth point. I wish my resolution could be remarkable, but recovery is the slow resetting of bones, the decades Lestat spent surviving on rats. I am still Belle sometimes, singing in Bluebeard’s castle, and sometimes I am Little Maria making a show of plucking petals. Mostly, I am a sleepy child, tiptoeing her way toward safety, just barely averting her eyes from the dark.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women, trans, and nonbinary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
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