When my friend and I rushed out of that small West Virginia theater squealing about pitless wells and cursed viral video tapes making their way into our homes, the sun was still shining. I was ten. The Ring Two was the first horror movie I ever saw, the first horror movie I caught on full screen. My mother trailed behind us: our ticket in to PG-13 territory and ride home. We caught the matinee showing—a cheap and responsible choice on my mother’s part. If we’d gone at night, the soundtrack she’d hear driving us girls back, navigating our potholed backroads, would’ve been a harmony of pre-teen screeching and slammed brakes. My friend and I bent our necks and groaned, grabbed at one another, hair spilling over our eyes. We puffed out our chests—two baby robins pretending to be brave. I’m not scared. You’re scared. But that night, shadows shifted under my door and moved into my bedroom attic. Frogs and crickets screeched their fervid songs in the woods surrounding our cabin. I blinked and a girl appeared, skin mottled tissue paper, hair slick. She drug her hand across the wall before turning to look at me, black eyes wet ponds, and my stomach dropped—a soft streambed sucking down a rainboot. She looked as I might, drowned, left underwater long enough. I skittered into my parents’ room. My mother sat up, dazed. I scream-whispered, I’m just sleeping here for tonight. I lay on the floor in front of their bed and watched the red lights on their boxy analog clock blink. I stayed there every night for a month after, aware I was the only one who could see her. That in order for her to disappear me, she’d have to get me alone.
Once, there was a little girl who lived in a cabin deep in the southern woods of West Virginia. Every day, she’d hike down her hill and visit a run that flowed beneath a rickety, low-water bridge. She’d find the biggest rock and lift it, catch soft sand between her fingers, watch for the clamor of minnows beneath the glass of calm water. But the girl had a terrible secret. Every night, her body shrunk, twisted into three shelled segments. She grew purple scales across her back and chest. Her fingers hardened and congealed into sharp claws. She sprouted a tail that clicked against the floor as she writhed. It hurt, unbecoming. Her parents called this nightly ritual her disappearing act.
I’m twenty-three, a first-year grad student in Morgantown, West Virginia. It’s been two months since my boyfriend’s best friend raped me. My boyfriend, S, doesn’t mince his words. You asked for it. I believe him and apologize. The first week after the incident he refuses to see me and I discover: the nights are the hardest to get through alone. S and I can’t seem to agree about anything, let alone our feelings for one another. We break up and get back together every week. He rails bars and blacks out, cheats. I slam shots and black out, cheat. My body is one I’ve always had a hard time trusting. Now, one hand on a bottle of whiskey, I tell myself, Go crazy. I ask myself, How much worse could it get? I plan to find out.
The exterior panels of my house bear a long, pale tongue of bile-stripped paint outside my window from mornings I spend throwing up. The pounds fly off; I comfortably wedge both hands between my ribs and high-waisted pants and squeal proudly—a feat I haven’t been able to pull since high school. I screech at hapless girls from second-story balcony parties as they trek down gentrified mountain streets in glittery clubwear. I’m sloppy and mean. I’m exhausted. But when I watch Justine fuck her roommate on screen in my blue-hued room, it feels like I’m resurfacing from the bottom of a pool. Outside, a truck backfires in the parking lot of a pawn shop. Justine’s thrashed movements are primal, hungry. She’s a walking reaction. She feeds all her impulses. For the first time in months, I slide my hand down the white elastic mouth of my sweats. I watch Justine dance, tongue her own reflection. I struggle to name this new feeling—this curled, warm urgency between my legs, this hummed static building between my wing blades. Sirens wail in the hills. Justine bites through the meat of her wrist, climaxes, and my stomach pulses. The knife I’d tucked beneath my pillow inches down my mattress as I squirm. I imagine wrapping my hair around my wrist and pulling, imagine gripping my thighs until my fingertips leave behind a blanched half-moon. Imagine biting my lip until it purples and splits, tasting blood I spilled for myself and cry out, starry-eyed and in pain.
Recipe for Trauma Bond
Mix two lonely artists desperately needing therapy in a West Virginia college town* with one valid 21-year old license. Throw in walkable distance to liquor stores.** Add weed dealer on speed dial.***
*P’s real father left him soon after his birth. His mother remarried a Coast Guard man, and together, as a family, they’d move across the country no less than eight times. He never stayed in one city for more than a couple years, never long enough to make lasting connections. He tells you this is why he has a hard time committing. He never tells you who touched him as a child, but tells you he was assaulted. You bond over this. You, too, have been touched without consent. You know how it feels to feel powerless. You can’t relate to moving that much; you’ve never lived anywhere but West Virginia. But your mother was hot and cold with you, smacked you for talking back, made you feel wicked because you, unlike the daughters of the women in her Sunday School group, argued with her. Because, in lieu of her attention, you slipped out of the house, drank, lusted after men, desperate to be called beautiful, baby. You learned: controlling someone can feel like a form of intimacy. You learn: you and P, together, couldn’t have turned out any other way.
**You and P start dating when you are 25. He’s 20. He can’t buy alcohol, but you can and do. For the both of you, but mostly, for yourself. While drunk, you cry over girls he looks at too long, become unrecognizable in your oscillating grief and rage. You can’t trust him. Won’t. He refuses to post anything that would announce your relationship online and, like your mother, runs hot and cold with you. You break up briefly and often. Have explosive fights your friends grow tired of hearing about. Some days, he’s smitten with you, kisses you with a kind of ferocity that you misconstrue as need. Some days, he asks you when he could propose to you and you’d accept, what the two of you will name your children. Where the two of you will buy a summer home once you get your PhD and he earns a white-collar job as a supply-chain manager. Some days, he screams at you, tells you how crazy you are for expecting anything from him, leaves your house without promising to come back. You write him love poems. He writes you love songs. You buy him pajama sets, rare punk tapes, a cassette, expensive chocolates, handmade horror movie stickers he pastes on his guitar case. You buy him things as a way of apologizing because your love language, you both know, is gift giving. You buy him things to say Here, here is evidence. I’m not going anywhere, things you wish he would say to you and mean. You buy him things to avoid actually changing your behavior.
*** He drinks with you, yes, but his drug of choice is weed. He thinks this lifestyle choice makes him immune to bad behavior. He thinks it levels him out, is normal, unlike your dependency on alcohol. He thinks it levels him out until you’re at his parent’s house, watching him twitch at the dining room table, shout at his father over small misunderstandings, less than twenty-four hours after his last hit. You think it levels him out until you come home after work to him, crouched over your coffee table, scraping brown gunk from the inside of his bowl and scraping it gently onto foil to smoke as if smoothing the hair of an infant, freshly asleep. But you have good times, too. Together, you listen to and argue about The Descendants, Young Thug, The Beatles, Leon Bridges, Rise Against. You cut and dye each other’s hair, make homemade beet pasta and tiramisu. You play Battleship and Super Mario Odyssey and peel off one another’s charcoal face masks. You have the best sex of your life, bent over the counter, ripping into the thick of each other’s hips, moan into each other’s mouths as if symphonizing. You build forts from lumpy pillows and musty sheets. You slow dance in your kitchen and whisper sincerely, I see you. I’ll take care of you. Together, we make a good team. Together, high and drunk, you watch horror flicks, legs intertwined. Together, you feel alive, real. Together, you finally feel at home.
Mad Libs: Horror Edition!
Once, I went to an Oklahoma bar with my _______ (noun). We drank ______ (noun/s) and played __________ (noun). We had a _______ (adj.) time. Three years had passed since I was ____________ (verb), since I’d gotten a _________________ (noun) kit done and not pressed police _______________ (noun). I thought I’d moved _______ (preposition). And besides, I loved my new ______________ (verb) more than __________ (noun). Around ten pm, my ____________ (noun) decided to _______________ (verb) and called me _______________ (adj.). When he left, I ___________ (verb) him. I was afraid of __________ (verb) ____________ (adj.). I’d made so many mistakes with him, like ____________ (verb), _____________ (verb), and ______________ (verb) him. So when he _____________ (verb) the ________________ (noun) in my kitchen, I thought I _________________ (verb) it. He almost ______________ (verb). When his mother told me I was also ________________ (adj.) for what’d happened, I __________________ (verb). When I saw him at the hospital, ________ (noun) stitched, the nurse telling me he wasn’t ________ (preposition) of the _____________ (noun) yet, I ___________ (verb). A month later, he decided to _____________ (verb) me. Over the weekend, he _____________ (verb) me, __________________ (verb) me, and __________________ (verb) in the morning—right after I told him I was afraid _______________ (adjective) would _____________ (verb). For almost a year, he’d told me he would never _____________ (verb). That he wanted to ______________ (verb) me and build a _______________ (noun) together. What did I think I was doing? ______________________________ (pronoun, verb, adjective, noun).
Her parents wanted to help. They built a room, floor to ceiling with pink and green tiles, a white tub sunk into the center, silver faucets at every wall. They kept the water the temperature of a warm July dusk and glued plastic dollhouses to the floor for her to play and sleep in, depending on her mood. Some days, she rather loved her disappearing act. It made her feel rare. Safe. But more often than not, she lamented her lost limbs, wept at the bottom of her tub, wails cracking the surface in small bubbles.
Two months after P punched my kitchen window, a new horror series debuted. I was twenty-six and in my second year of a PhD program. I pedaled on my stationary bike, watching a quaint family move into a Cape Cod home. Outside, cicadas screamed the coda of an Oklahoma summer. The southeastern heat had limbs; I watched it rap on locked doors, climb black walnut trees. The show’s main character is a failed writer looking to finish his screenplay. He takes a pill that turns him into a vampire in exchange for untapped creativity—trapped thoughts freed, ideas let loose. I knew what I signed up for. Death, violence, some blood: necessary footholds into the genre. So when the father hungrily sliced the artery of an addict, I was surprised to feel a lump rise in my throat, to feel the pressure of restrained tears behind my eyes. It’s not real, I told myself. I kept watching but found myself lightheaded during moments when blood would seep from open wounds. I remembered how two months ago I’d watched EMTs cart P’s limp body into an ambulance, two liters of his blood glimmering across my kitchen tiles like new laminate. How I curled into a fetal position on my stained kitchen rug, muttering, This isn’t real. How after helping him recover, he told me my emotions were too much to handle. That I was unstable, misinterpreting our relationship, that I left him no choice. He was done with us but hoped we could be friends. I remembered how my assaulter served me spaghetti the morning after he raped me—the way the watery sauce pooled on the plate. How he responded when I asked him what’d happened. Wow. Be real. This is what you wanted. In both moments, I watched myself disappear. Each story they told me about who I was and what I hoped for—smooth brook rocks. I buried myself beneath them. Drowning can be peaceful, I learn, once you stop struggling.
The girl doesn’t have any friends. Her parents forbid her from slumber parties. The girl couldn’t be trusted to take care of herself. After all, it was she who stayed in that river long after her parents had called her home. It was she who kept walking deeper into the thick of the forest, who swam into that glowing blue hole, determined to reach the bottom, and came back monstered, teeth-dug cuffs around both wrists. What happened down there? her parents asked. The girl shook her head. She didn’t know how to explain. Sometimes, knowing is more horrifying than not.
My family wasn’t always religious. According to my mother, I’m to blame for our conversion to Christianity. That when she walked in my eight-year-old bedroom and found me curled in child’s pose, stuffed animals fanned around me, unlit candles and shiny household tokens arranged as if in offering, she was called. She asked me what I was doing. I replied solemnly, I’m praying. Now, at twenty-seven, I can hear her shy smile through the phone as she tells me this story. She knows I don’t believe in her God anymore. But I can tell she hopes I’ll make my way back to the church, that I’ll be saved and she won’t have to worry about me so much. I left the church in spirit around eighth grade. I was terrified of high school, of being seen as ugly, of being friendless and alone. So I stopped eating, started stealing soda from the church pantry to make throwing up easier. As the oak leaves circling my house caramelized and fell, the slack strings of my young body tightened. I was re-tuning myself, hollowing out. If you don’t stop, my mother told me, you’re going to die. My body was the only thing I thought I had control over until I found myself powerless to my own compulsions. I prayed, traced the shallow pool between my hips—a quiet ritual. Help me. Nobody did. Now, in my twenties, I watch Dawn shift from puritan to vigilante and mourn the girl version of myself who believed in God’s grace. Dawn puts on makeup, saunters into her sexually abusive stepbrother’s bedroom, and I think back to all the evenings I wasted imagining the dull thud of a steel bat kissing my rapist’s temple. Dawn’s stepbrother climbs on top of her. She says nothing. We’ve always known it would play out this way, he whispers. I consider all the people I’ve fucked in the hopes of feeling wanted and am ashamed. Dawn looks at the camera and smiles as her vagina dentata close around him. If I could go back in time and warn myself of what would happen, I don’t know if I would listen.
Famous Last Words
Horror movies demand to be replayed. Did that actually just happen? Run that scene back. They shock into memory. They haunt. And besides, fear is very quotable. Here’s Johnny! Do you like scary movies? It’s alive! We’re gonna need a bigger boat. They’re here! A boy’s best friend is his mother. Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep. I see dead people. Do you want to play a game? Sometimes, dead is better. The everyday lives of women are full of them, too. Did you ask for it? Had you been drinking? Were you wearing a skirt? Were you flirting with him? You shouldn’t have been alone with him. Are you sure you’re remembering correctly? No. Yes. No, a dress. Yes, but I tried to run. No, okay? This is what haunts me.
Bitten, Jennifer’s Body
Jennifer teaches me a lesson. Sinning can be very cool—if you’re pretty enough to get away with it. I’m thirteen and thinking about things like BMIs, scouring the library for CDs I can download to my dad’s iPod, and toeing the line between wanting to be tongued and fearing eternal damnation. I can’t tell if I want to be her or her victim. I tremble as Jennifer, covered in blood and black brier-filled bile, returns to her best friend Needy’s house. She walks up to Needy and leans into her neck, teeth bared, breath warm in that dark pocket of screen, and doesn’t bite her. I imagine being held by the throat, a mouth searching its cherry-stem arch. I wish for someone to notice the pink glow of my pinna, to wonder if they might bottle that color, paint their kitchen in it. I fantasize about Jennifer placing her hand on my collarbone when I laugh. She wants to feel how my body shakes loose joy. When I close my eyes, I imagine myself, arms stretched across a pink satin comforter, and wonder if there’s such a thing as sexy crucifixion. Strung globe lights warm my daydream bedroom, the moon a silvery O outside my window. Posters of thin, beautiful women hang above my bed and soft rock plays from my stereo. I’m alone, save for Jennifer. She walks towards me, and I watch the way she navigates space as if cutting through water: fluid, purposeful. Her mouth is bloody and wet. My empty stomach feels as if it’s being pulled towards my spine. This kind of fear feels like a lifting, an out. Discovery. She tugs at the edge of my shirt, traces the pale curve of my side. In the mirror of my white vanity, the two of our bodies morph into something muscled and delicate, like the blacksnake who made a home for herself in the thick tree stump behind our house before my father took an axe to her. Jennifer wants to show me the best angle at which to disembowel a goth boy. She wants to take me to prom. She wants to watch me eat.
As the years passed, the girl grew lonelier and lonelier. She loved her parents but wanted a companion. She’d come to terms with her disappearing act, really. She just wanted someone to see both of her selves and still choose her. So one evening, like all those years before, she visited the river and kept walking. She walked until all she could hear were whippoorwills and rushing water. She grimaced as she transformed, as she sunk into the rocks and dirt. When she came upon that blue hole glimmering in the moonlight, she paused. She squinted her many eyes. In the deep, she could swear she saw the hazy figure of a girl, swimming towards the surface. She blinked and the girl was gone. She looked so familiar.
Once, P asked me to read a CNF essay he’d written for class. It was about sleep paralysis, horror, believability. He referenced The Entity, a movie I asked him to watch with me. In it, the main character, a woman, escapes her abusive husband but continues to be haunted by an invisible force. The force beats her. Rapes her. She wails, legs spread. While watching her, I felt as if my shoulders were being pinned to my headpost, blood-red thumbtacks across a map, reminders of where a crime has been committed. I turned it off. P finished it. Loved it. P believes in ghosts, which is fine. P believes he is one of the few people who can see ghosts, which is less fine. When I tried to tell him his essay lacked the capacity to question why he so badly wants to believe he sees ghosts, why he needs this “ability” to make himself feel special, he brushed me off. He didn’t want to hear. In workshop, P’s professor brought up the fact that his therapist believes that he sees ghosts. Rare, she told him, would a woman find herself in your position. If I were to claim I saw ghosts, people would probably think I was lying. He was happy with his workshop. I congratulated him on his feedback and bit my tongue. Why, I wanted to ask, will you listen to anyone about yourself but me? I didn’t ask myself why I let him alone decide my worth. I made a me problem a him problem, projected my fears onto a man who couldn’t and wouldn’t save me if his life depended on it.
I made the rules in my relationships. I asked for what I got. Like all the women I root for in my beloved horror movies, I heard the muffled screams of a girl rise from below and still went into the basement. I saw the cut phone line and didn’t run. When the lights went out, I flipped the switch twice for good measure. I didn’t proceed with caution. Instead, I called into the dark, asked, Who’s there? It’s always only been me.
Elms creaked around the girl—a series of opening doors—and she slipped under. She knew what she saw. She wouldn’t leave without her.
The water was cold. She felt as if she was swimming against a current. She felt as if she had been doing this her entire life. Then—a flash. A tear. She stretched, ripped, her legs like soft candy being worked over metal. She gasped and touched her lips, now pink and fleshy. She reached for her temples and her long hair sifted through her fingers. She looked up and saw hundreds of gleaming black eyes looking at her, for her, with her—a series of stars leading out.
Bitten, Ginger Snaps
We make autumn inside, play coven. It’s dusk, October cool, elm leaves not yet red enough to fall. We turn off the light and take matches to tea candles lined along the open bannisters, fan candy out across the coffee table. There are four of us girls, each in our second year as creative writing graduate students in Oklahoma, each of us in our second year surviving a worldwide shutdown. Think tetrameter, heart chambers. Think of sacred stability. We found each other out of necessity, proximity. Now, I can’t go a day without being in touch with them—within touching distance. We exchange stories about bitter breakups, reassure one another during hypochondriac episodes over headaches and smelly vaginas, ask questions about each other’s writing in the hopes of prompting growth. We slam dance across wood floors to The Talking Heads, teach one another how to shotgun a beer, screech gentle insults at one another during board games. Time and time over, I tell them about P and my rape. I sob incessantly, make a mess of myself in public, run away from them and dramatically apologize for existing. They offer me cheese, put their hands on my back, tell me what I need to hear: Get over yourself.
Some days, I still can’t believe they love me.
I imagine my child self, ankle-deep in West Virginia woods, my dandelion-blown wishes cartwheeling in the wind. I can’t help but think I dreamed them up then: a group of girls I could brave the unknown with.
Every Thursday, we watch a scary movie. Today, I choose. Ginger Snaps. None of us have watched it. I want us to discover something new together. While sitting with them, I think of the starry purple cloak my mother sewed me for my tenth Halloween, how I wore it year-round, mixing cinnamon and thyme with a pestle for spellcasting. What had I wanted? The same things I want now, I think: to be seen, wanted. To go on a fantastic adventure I can survive.
In the movie, Ginger is attacked by a werewolf. She’s dragged into the thick of a forest, screaming and bloody. She’s bitten so many times I lose count. She should be a goner. But it’s too early in the movie for that kind of ending. Her sister saves her, or rather, what’s left of who Ginger once was. It’s too early, I tell myself, for the kind of ending I told myself I deserved. My friends’ faces flicker and glow in the dark. I can’t tell if they’re having a good time. This worries me. When faced with a neutral, I always assume the worst waits beneath it. We can change it, I start. They’re up in arms immediately, sweatpants and loose beer shuffling. Quit that, they harmonize. We’re seeing this one through.
Outside, comfortable quiet. I tuck my face in a blanket, laugh. Okay, okay, I tell my friends. For the first time in forever, I feel I must remember this night. Not for fear of being misunderstood, but for fear of simply forgetting. I tuck my hair behind my ears, look down and smile. The television, paused, glows like the moon over rocks in a riverbed.