They’re All Going to Laugh at You: Finding Voice through Horror and Poetry by M. Brett Gaffney
Like a lot of kids in middle school, I was bullied. On a ridiculously daily basis. It was like all the girls I’d been in class with for years had suddenly got a memo that missed me entirely when we hit sixth grade. We were friends and then we weren’t. And so I was dubbed the cliché titles of nerd, crybaby, wimp. Everything about me was a target and they were nothing if not practiced marksmen.
But our seventh grade Halloween party was going to change everything. My class voted that we watch Poltergeist that year. I remember carrying home my permission slip like a golden ticket. I was going to watch a scary movie. I was going to scream and laugh with the rest of them and it was going to be glorious.
Mom said no. Dad said no. Grandparents said no. They all knew what scared me and they wanted to protect me. But when you’re picked on like a frayed thread every damn day, you use whatever armor you can to defend yourself. So I begged my parents until they reluctantly signed, sighing a few choice warnings that would later echo in my head as I tried to sleep. But I wasn’t listening then. I didn’t know how to tell them that Amanda’s braces looked like fangs in the stale light of science class. Or that Bianca’s eyes were so dark when she laughed, that I was afraid of falling into them. I needed a weapon.
I remember being so confident when the movie started, tiny bag of popcorn in my hand. And still sort of okay after Carol Anne was sucked into her closet. But then the guy peeled his face off in the mirror and the clown dragged Robbie under the bed and I quickly realized I wasn’t okay. Nothing was okay. My family was right, their I-told-you-so’s already crowding my heart. I didn’t even see the ending because I was curled up on the floor like a little pill bug, hands over my ears, eyes squeezed shut. It was the most frightening thing I’d ever seen, and nightmares plagued me for months. Now the place that was supposed to be safe— home, my room, my bed— was haunted. On the few nights a week my dad was away at the fire station, I slept with my mom, staring up at our vaulted ceiling, so eerily similar to the Freeling family’s home, imagining a portal yawning open up there, spilling all kinds of bloody terror down on me.
Bullies at my front. Ghosts at my back.
Fast forward seventeen years and I’m using horror as my weapon. Through poetry.
I discovered my love of writing poetry in tandem with embracing my fear (and subsequent fascination) of horror movies. When I finally tried to tackle poems about adolescence, about bullying and body image and consent, I found myself reaching for monster metaphors: vampires, werewolves, ghosts, demons, zombies, aliens, killer trees, killer dolls, killers, etc. These beasties became a way to talk about the terror of growing up, and most of them also became symbols of female empowerment. A woman to be simultaneously terrified for and of. Victim and monster. Neither iteration eclipsed by the other.
My mind goes to characters like Carrie and Ginger, and even more recently Jennifer (Jennifer’s Body), Eli (Let The Right One In), and Thomasin (The Witch)— Women who give into their darker impulses when pushed too far. There’s a primal power there, a transformation that seeks to vindicate the mass grave of all those sexually active camp counselors. A woman that is at times grotesque and animal. Neither nerd nor pretty girl. Monster.
Most recently, I watched The Witch, a movie about a family torn apart by a missing baby, a witch in the woods, and a rigid Christian faith. Spoilers ahead! Thomasin, the daughter blamed for her infant brother’s disappearance, suffers endless abuse at the hands of her parents and her younger siblings. She becomes the scapegoat for all the problems on the farm and is almost sold to another family as she is of age for marriage. So at the end, when Thomasin is the only one left standing, she confronts the devil goat, Black Phillip, asks him to speak with her. And so he does, in a dark whisper he asks: “Wouldst thou like the taste of butter? A pretty dress? Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” And sure, I know the devil is seductive. I was raised Catholic, I know the gambit. But I rejoiced when Thomasin said yes, when she joined her witch sisters around the fire. It was an absolute you-go-girl moment for me. It was unapologetic feminist horror. It was Carrie giving into her God-given powers and torching the senior prom. It was a vampire girl slaughtering her friend’s bullies in a public pool. It was satisfying and unsettling.
And it was me, twelve years old, still counting the seconds between lightning and thunder beneath my covers, hoping for a brighter morning. Me too, working as an actor at a haunted house, in bloody latex mask and gravel growl, bringing men to their knees with a calculated step around the corner. It was all of me, finally laughing and screaming, not for them, but for myself.
And poetry is that illuminated moment in a flash of lightning. A snapshot. Exposure. A glimpse of what’s really slinking around in the dark. It’s a form for the voiceless and overshadowed, with a long and powerful history of feminist expression. Horror too. So to continue with more modern metaphors only seems fitting. From Dickinson’s death fly to Addonizio’s “Dead Girls,” poetry is a ripe playground for gothic imagery and haunting lyricism. There’s a fluidity found in line breaks, between stanzas, that allows for a different kind of storytelling than prose.
But even beyond craft and style, all the nitty-gritty elements that make this form so powerful (and fun), poetry is our way to reclaim those voices that were at one time or another, taken away from us. And horror is one shape that lets us embrace that darkness. It gave me the strength to open up and unfurl from that protective shell I’d made for myself while the children laughed, and it gave me the power to answer all those who told me what kind of woman I should be.
It granted me the voice to answer: all of them.
M. Brett Gaffney, originally from Houston, Texas, holds an MFA in Poetry from Southern Illinois University and is the art editor for Gingerbread House. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Exit 7, Penduline, Permafrost, Devilfish Review, Still: the Journal, Fruita Pulp, museum of americana, BlazeVOX, and Zone 3 among others. Her chapbook, Feeding the Dead, is forthcoming in 2016 from Porkbelly Press. She currently works as a library associate in northern Kentucky and lives in Cincinnati with her partner and their dog, Ava.
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