Intimacy with Personal Monsters & Un-Monsters

A Monstrous Tree?

Have you ever looked at a tree and seen a monster? When I was five, I was terrorized by thinking that the giant sequoia I was about to drive through would bend over to snatch me from the back seat.

Photo Credit: Mark Crawly, flickr

As an adult, in the middle of a windy night, I was awoken by a sound like a gunshot. My car was totaled when the walnut tree I’d parked under snapped. (The insurance did not cover an ‘act of God.’) A decade or so later, I cleaned-up shattered window glass after an arborist removed a cedar tree that was growing too close to the house. While I appreciate the daily benefits of breathing, I recognize the hazards trees can cause when things go wrong.

For me, the car totaling experience resolved the age-old philosophical question about the sound a tree makes (or doesn’t make) when it falls in the woods. The same debates about the nature of reality and how it relates to experience can be applied to monsters.

Are there really extra large, hair-covered, humanoids hiding in the forests of the Pacific Northwest? Does a diabetic older man enter your house each year with the intent to delight your children? (It’s OK! He’s not a stranger, he knows what they’ve been thinking.)

historic Spanish sea monster
Historic Spanish sea monster

Monsters are grown inside an electrically charged, submerged, gelatin-like structure that everyone carries inside their skull. This magnificent organ has evolved to specialize in pattern recognition. When we see or experience something that doesn’t make sense or for which we have no prior information, our brains concoct stories that seem real and make sense.

Addiction, accidents, rejection, unrealistic expectations, loss, grief and the fear of disappearing

are a few of the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that breathe life into our own personal monsters.

chaos and the sun god
Chaos and the sun god

Because we are social creatures, our monsters can spread like a virus. Screaming fire in a crowded amphitheater or a run on the market because a rumor predicted a crash are examples of monsters gone viral.

Monsters are as adaptable. as we are. Before we understood the stages of decomposition, we thought evil spirits inhabited dead bodies, causing them to move. Every time we drop our kids off at school, we hope that a gunman doesn’t lose his marbles anywhere in the neighborhood. We worry that refugees and immigrants are taking our jobs.

With easy access to a world of information and a bit of discernment, monsters can be vaporized. Yet, instead of doing the work to accomplish this, many of us cozy up to them, inviting them to tea, and letting them share our pillow at night.

Monsters are with us to stay. Many of them are portrayed as hideous and frightful, while others are beguiling. All of them signal some kind of danger and remind us to be alert.

With certainty, we know that tomorrow’s monster will be different from today’s.

Below is a variety of contemporary and classic monster representations and lists of themes they exemplify.

istoric depiction of body parts and monster assembly in Frankenstien
A historic depiction of body parts and monster assembly in Frankenstein

 

Frankenstein

contemporary portrayal of Frankenstein monster running through the woods

  • Parental rejection
  • Grief & loss from children dying (bringing the dead back to life)
  • Love outside of acceptable social norms
  • Weariness of industrial age science

 

The Shape of Water creature

  • Disenfranchised finding a voice
  • Courage to defy authority
  • Courage to fight for justice
  • Love outside social norms

 

 

Haylee and the Travelers Stone and Haylee and the Last Traveler book cover art
Haylee and the Travelers Stone and Haylee and the Last Traveler book covers

 

Haylee in the Traveler’s Stone & the Last Traveler

  • Power of sexual attraction
  • Responsibility for dependents
  • Reconciliation of love outside expectations
  • Acceptance that all wrongs can’t be repaired

 

a lightning strike causes Adeline to stop aging in Age of Adeline
A lightning strike causes Adeline to stop aging in Age of Adeline
contemporary portrayal of a vampire - exploration of immortality
Contemporary portrayal of a vampire – exploration of immortality

Age of Adeline & Vampires

  • Power of sexual attraction/ youth
  • Societal parasite
  • Fear of death
  • Immortality exploration

 

 

P.T. Barnum style poster of Phineas Gage after his TBI
P.T. Barnum style poster of Phineas Gage after his TBI

Phineas Gage

  • Physical deformity and social rejection
  • Loss of expectations for a young life (caused by a traumatic brain injury)
  • Anger from a detrimental, permanent change of circumstances
  • Family response to long-term care requirements
  • Legendary, iconic brain science/psychology touchstone

 

Chinese Railroad Workers’ Jaingshi

  • Conquering nature
  • Facing death, injury & disfigurement
  • Removed from and longing for culture and familiar
  • Racism and social ostracization
  • Fear of being lost & forgotten
graffiti in the Donner Summit train tunnels depicts contemporary monsters
Graffiti in the Donner Summit train tunnels depicts contemporary monsters

Contemporary Train Tunnel Graffiti

Colorful monsters and beasties painted on snowshed walls at Donner Summit tell their own stories.

  • Injustice
  • Disenfranchised finding a voice
  • Addiction
  • Fear of death
  • Self-expression
  • Seizing power
  • Claiming a space in place
  • Fear of being lost and forgotten

 

Un monster collage
Un-monster collage

Lisa’s Un-Monsters

The collage reflects the ugliness and beauty of struggles with self-criticism. Matching an image to feelings allows expression of concepts that seem impossible to say out loud.

  • Unconscious, underwater, unseen, unknown, unheard
  • Exposed
  • Choking with self-doubt

 

a cairn built on top of the center shaft cap for tunnel #6 at Donner Summit
A cairn built on top of the center shaft cap for tunnel #6 at Donner Summit

Like ice sculptures, sand castles, and graffiti, monster varieties come and go. They change with what we are thinking about at a particular moment in time, and they allow us to put faces on our fears.

 

Resources:

KQED – Why Don’t Murals Get Covered by Graffiti in the Mission? – “…you first need to know that there are three groups: graffiti writers, street artists and muralists.”

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Donner Summit Chinese Ghost Story & Contemporary Tunnel Hike Poem

Donner Summit Tunnel Ghost Story

A shrill scream, erupting suddenly in the darkness, sent prickles scuttling up their spines.

Bolin’s panic attack at the tunnel’s mouth made them late for their shift. Now they were alone, stumbling over rubble, feeling their way to the worksite.

According to Bolin, the ceiling was crawling with Jiang Shi (Jang-sure).

“I’ve got you,” Yáng said, gripping his arm above the elbow, squeezing like a vice.

“They’re watching!” Bolin shook his head as if he were trying to loosen clay marbles inside. Lurching forward, he broke Yáng’s hold.

It was Yáng and Foshan’s first day working in tunnel number six. Bolin had been here for a month. He was taller and more muscular than most of his countrymen. Once he started hammering a borehole, Bolin could do it in half the time as anyone else. The problem was getting him into the tunnel.

Upon arrival, a railroad gang leader informed Foshan and Yáng, “We work in teams of three.”

“Foshan is one of the best, but he’s been troubled since his brother’s death.”

“Stick with him, he’ll teach you all you need to know.”

Nitroglycerine was a new construction tool recently brought to the mountain. Blasting holes don’t have to be as deep as those for black powder. After detonation, there is less residual dust. Its downside is volatility. Slight movements or temperature shifts can set it off.

No one makes eye contact with the nitro carrier, bets are placed on how long he’ll last.

All work ceases when the nitro bearer arrives, stepping softly, holding his breath.

Bolin’s brother had been a nitro carrier. An untimely sneeze turned him into red rain.

Chinese dead must be buried with their ancestors. A soul is cursed if there are no remains.

In Chinese tradition, the dead must be buried on home soil. Systems are in place to return sojourner bones to China. When ancestors are gathered, the family grows stronger. Living relatives honor them with celebrations.

Spirits of the dead are cursed if they leave no human remains. Hun and po split. Po, the evil, foolish part lurks in the dark hunting for life force energy (qi), stealing it from the living. Once enough qi is gathered, the po can reanimate a dead body. Stiff and green with mold, they grow claw-like fingernails and fang-like teeth. Hopping, they move slowly, but they never stop. Ever.

Foshan trotted to keep up, patting Bolin’s back. “The power of legend is only as strong as your belief,” he soothed.

Bolin turned to stare with wide, torment-filled eyes. “You haven’t been here long enough to see most your friends die.” He tilted his chin toward Yáng, “or your brother.”

“True,” Foshan admitted, “but we can’t get lost in the bad. The living must inhabit our thoughts. Tell me of your children.”

Nodding, Bolin started, “I have a beautiful little girl.”

“I have a daughter too.” Foshan nudged him to walk while talking, “How old is yours?”

Approaching the rock face, Yáng hoisted a drill bar. Regarding the eight-pound sledgehammer in Foshan’s hand, he warned, “Don’t miss.”

A corner of Bolin’s mouth turned up. “Watch and learn.” Gripping high on the handle, he slid his opposite hand close to his hammer’s head.

Yáng tensed.

Bolin, swung the sledge high. The blow, ringing like a bell, sent shock waves through Yáng’s arms and shoulders.

Foshan, following Bolin’s example, raised his hammer. The heavy tool came down on Yáng’s hand.

“Idiot!” Yáng cried, holding up a broken, bloody finger. Diving at Foshan, Yáng pummeled him with his good fist.

Bolin broke them apart. It didn’t register immediately that he was frantic. “Stop!

“Jiang Shi are attracted by blood.”

It took several work crews and irate supervisors to calm the scuffle. The three were sent back to camp, ashamed.

Four months later, the brothers congratulated themselves for helping Bolin. By talking about their families, he could get in and out of the tunnel without incident. Bolin told them he could still see the Jiang Shi because his brother was one. “There are hundreds of them hanging from the ceiling. Their ears rotate, following sounds made by people below,” he confided.

Crews working at both ends of the tunnel, plus from the inside out, had broken through. The three had finished their most recent borehole. They took a break while waiting for the nitro carrier.

Yáng walked a short distance to stand behind a boulder. He was appreciating the fresh alpine breeze while creating a warm puddle near his feet.

A loud pop, a burst of air, and a wet spray pelted his back.

He knew.

 

___

Bolin was right, Yáng thought, as he entered the tunnel with his new crew. Hordes of menacing ghouls hung from the ceiling. Maniacal, green-tinged faces smiled at him revealing double rows of sharp teeth.

Two of them looked like Foshan and Bolin.

Yáng let loose a demented scream.

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Tunnel Spirit Crossings Poem

To learn more about Bonnie McKeegan, her poetry, fiction, and therapeutic writing exercises click here.
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End Notes

The origins of mythical creatures, created from fear, to explain the, as yet, unexplainable is always an intriguing subject!

When background research for Crossings EAST revealed the Jiang Shi, I was thrilled. It took a considerable amount of thinking to decide to leave the paranormal element out of that story.

This short story was written to get the ‘paranormal’ out of my system before the work of deep character development begins on Crossings EAST, a historical fiction novel about Chinese railroad workers at Donner Pass.

Click here to read more of Lisa’s short stories.

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Resources

Links to free video creation tools

Music & Sound Effects
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