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Holly Erskine

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

I don't enjoy horror as a story-telling genre. Now, if you do, I don't think there is anything wrong with you. You are in good company, and I might even envy your fortitude. So I ask myself every year, why do I LOVE Halloween?


Teaching Anatomy and Physiology can be horrifying.


I'm a science fiction fan and fantasy fan, mostly. I don't know if I am alone in this, but when I see bookstores merge Science Fiction with Horror I am disturbed, left with the sense that someone out there has a sloppy understanding of each.


Science fiction–at least the good old-fashioned kind I grew up on–takes the tenets of natural science and asks What if? Science fiction should blend with Philosophy, not stories about monsters. What if your genome determined your occupation? (Gattaca) What if conservative religious extremists took over our government? (The Handmaid's Tale) What if entropy ran backwards on another planet? (The Practice Effect) and so on. Lovers of Star Trek know that every episode was actually a morality play, and any monsters were incidental.


I don't like stories about monsters. I am afraid of refined flour. In fact, I find most processed foods horrifying. Our world is filled too many wondrous things for me to deliberately waste time focusing on the creepy.


I see beautiful animals and plants and wise and kind people, and I love being alive. I want to live as long as I can. One of my most heartfelt goals is to live so healthily that I might acquire the rare title of centenarian. I am deeply ambivalent about travel, which everyone is supposed to love, based on how it it is offered as an actual gift on game shows and sweepstakes. I am a great, big coward. And yet, Halloween is my favorite holiday. Every year I am left scratching my head over this. Why? Why do I adore this silly holiday so much? I love Halloween!


One of my first Halloweens, with my big brother and big sister.


A small aspect of it is that there is often something almost intrinsically and paradoxically humorous about horror. I think it has to do with both fear and laughter triggering involuntary nervous responses. When I walk through a charity-run "haunted house"–which I actually love forcing myself to do once a year–I am usually reduced to fits of hysterical laughter mixed amid the screams and uncensored profanity. I worry for any children in hearing range.  


Another part of why I love Halloween is that it makes no pretense about celebrating anything nice. It's a relief. Every other holiday is so obsessively nice. Nice, nice nice. The Christmas and Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day and Easter and 4th of July admonitions to give presents and love and be thankful and patriotic and to enjoy time with your family appear to strain everyone's nerves.


But the most important reason is that there is something to be said about dancing in the dark and making fun of the dark. Even better, we want to learn from the dark. People die, there are freak accidents that should have never happened to incredible people, willful ignorance and the undeserved pain of innocents in all corners of the world. Everyone suffers, it is what unites every sentient being. If we ignore our common suffering, we disconnect.


One of my favorite meditations is dialoguing with monsters. This is quite powerful. I don't do it often, only when I feel the need, and the need is infrequent. I dialogue with an inner boogeyman who has arisen in my life. Or boogeywoman. Boogeysomething.


Dialoguing is a technique my grandmother taught. She gave workshops called Intensive Journaling around the country and I somehow picked up some of her tools, I think, without trying, including Dialoguing. Neva either dialogued in her imagination, or she would write in her journal, an imaginary conversation with someone, until she felt she achieved some resolution. I have some of her old journals, which are precious private things, and I see imaginary conversations she mapped out with family members who didn't understand her. It is quite touching.


Sometimes my monsters are real. I might be anticipating an encounter with a person who has trouble with impulse control and behaves in a way that hurts themselves, soothing themselves with food and alcohol, and I find it hard to watch them behave so unconsciously. I might be anticipating a visit from a person who just can't help but be malicious to someone I love, who seems to want to provoke an argument about anything at all, just to cause excitement. This is also hard for me to stomach.


Either way, it helps for me to sit, relax, set a timer, and ask myself, why is this person so negative? Why do they tweak me so? Picture the person in as much detail as possible in your relaxed state. Ask this person, in your imagination, what are you afraid of? What do you really want? What do you have to teach me? You can think of your own questions. Sometimes it helps simply to imagine being with someone you are uncomfortable with, and imagine holding their hand in a loving way.


My personal least favorite kind of monster is the Angry Person. I remind myself that people who are angry are generally afraid of something. It helps to ask them gently, what they are afraid of? They may not be afraid of anything rational, but it helps to understand the root of their fear. This brings understanding.


What I usually come away with is that there is some aspect of something I don't like about myself that this person is reminding me of. The person who is unconsciously gobbling up food in front of me reminds me of some part of me that is needy or out of control. If I could love that part of myself, would I get along with this person better? The person who lashes out reflexively, provoking arguments, reminds me of the angry parts inside of me that want attention. Can I love that ugly part of myself too?


Perhaps my boogeyperson is selfish in some way, or arrogant, or apathetic, or lazy, or willfully stupid. I can be all those things, and I don't like it. This person is teaching me about myself, I think. If I could love myself better, see my own flaws, forgive myself my flaws, perhaps I could come to terms with this person, too.


Sometimes my monsters are not real. I dream vividly. Some nights bring a dream character so horrible that the bad taste of them sits with me throughout the next day. They park themselves in the living room of my mind, smoking their stinky cigars, using graphic images to tease me about death and disaster. I know I should pay attention when they keep reappearing in my dreams night after night. When a monster enters my dream world, I like use my daytime meditation period to ask this character what they really want.


I sit, set a timer, and determine to exercise my mental focus muscles by picturing this dream character in as much detail as possible. Why not? It's a brain exercise. Try it as an experiment. What color are their eyes? What are all the details of their face? How old are they? What are they wearing? Do they have a name? When I am comfortable picturing them, I ask,


What do you really want? What you really trying to teach me?


I wait and wait and wait for them to explain themselves. Sometimes I don't get a thing out of them and they just get up and leave with no explanation. They will typically start off stubbornly silent. The fun part happens when they release an exasperated reply which can actually be unexpectedly funny.


A dream house burglar might sigh, explaining that they are just trying to teach me to not hold on to my possessions so tightly. The vicious supermodel in my dream trying to steal away my husband explains she is just trying to remind me to be thankful that Tim is so steadfastly loyal to me. Or to not be so bothered about my aging appearance. It is surprising how often this dialogue is accompanied with an Ah Hah! feeling. I feel the clutch of the boogeyman's grasp dissipate into mist, and I feel wiser.


Director Tim Erskine is a wizard, I'm the fairy princess, and niece Kelly Grassel (who did a cameo in Base Camp as the young diner) looks on as we ham it up for her. "I'm the most powerful wizard of all time!" Tim was shouting. "Oh shut up," I said, whacking him with my wand. "Yes dear," he said meekly. Kelly asked us to repeat this dialogue over and over.