Years ago, I found myself binge-watching Scream Queens (2015–2016), a comedy that satirized all of those slasher films I mainlined in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It brought back to a time when horror was something I couldn’t get enough of.
For much of my young life, I was a horror buff.
I watched Michael Meyers and Freddie Krueger. I watched random serial killers target mostly white women. I watched evil children creep out of the corn. I kept my eyes on the monsters lurking in the shadows and those that stalk during the light of day. Monsters weren’t always the creatures that went bump in the night; they were human too.
I watched Scream (1996), waiting for that exact moment that Sid realizes that those who want her dead are much closer to her than she could ever imagine. I watched the sequel too. Sid had already survived once. I had to watch her survive again. I watched the young women of The Craft (1996) proudly declare, “We are the weirdos, mister,” come into their power, and then lose had control. I watched The Lost Boys (1987), one of my favorites, with its callous, teenage vampires. Carousels still make me flinch. A little.
Monsters weren’t always the creatures that went bump in the night; they were human too.
Not only did I watch any film I could, I mastered in Stephen King’s novels, which I started reading in middle school. His ability to make me care about his characters and then viciously destroy them was as fascinating as it was disturbing.
Horror showed me, taught me really, how our bodies could be unmade. How bodies were maimed, cut, shot, tortured, and killed. How a body’s hurts could be physical and starkly visible. How blood splattered on the floors and walls was a sign that things had come undone. Horror documented the consequences of violence, physical and psychic. Horror was a warning of how terribly wrong our lives can go.
I was a horror buff until I wasn’t. Maybe, I moved past horror. Maybe, horror moved on without me. It is hard to say. Or it isn’t, and I won’t.
I can pinpoint the exact moment I drifted away from most horror movies. I made the mistake of watching The Ring (2002) in a dark, movie theater. There was a moment that I could walked out of the theater into the overly bright lobby, and I would have been okay. I could have taken what I thought was the end of the film and moved along. But, I didn’t leave. I stayed until the credits rolled, and then, I didn’t sleep for days.
Horror was a warning of how terribly wrong our lives can go.
I became convinced that a scary little girl might climb out of my television too. I knew she would hunt me down like all those others who had the misfortune to watch a video. This was not realistic horror but supernatural. I knew that. I did. Really.
And yet, The Ring unsettled me. A child comes back from revenge because of how she was treated. This supernatural vengeance was not comforting because it hit too close to home. It was a story that I could almost imagine myself in, so I locked myself in my bedroom of a barely two-room condo with the dog and the cat to create a sense of distance between me and our TV. To pretend that safety was as easy as locking a flimsy door. To pretend that I would have been a victim to a ghost child’s rage. To pretend that I wouldn’t have actually been that child set on vengeance, even as I knew who I would have been in the story. Not the hunted, but the hunter.
So, Scream Queens pulled me back into horror. It evoked something familiar, comforting even. A storyline I could follow about the horror of the world. But, it had a new twist, the sorority girls of Kappa Kappa Tau fought back against the Red Devil who’s hunting and killing some of them. I started watching Scream Queens, but couldn’t keep up with the show each week. I wanted to see how it ended. I needed to.
But, life got in the way. I fell behind. I left the girls behind. Until I didn’t.
I started watching Scream Queens again as my dog, who dutifully hid with me in a condo, was dying. I could do nothing but bear witness to her slow, painful decline. My partner was out of town. The kids were at school and preschool. I felt helpless and alone as I checked on my old dog throughout the day and night.
I turned to Scream Queens, a story far, far away from my real life. I was never in a sorority. I was never a rich kid, just a working class one who held down two or three jobs at a time to cover all the bills that scholarships didn’t. I refused to pledge because I feared the expenses that came along with membership. I was never a mean girl like Chanel (Emma Roberts) with her obvious disdain for other people, her preferred cruelty, and her casual racism.
I watched Scream Queens to chase mortality and loss from my waking thoughts. It was a weird choice to watch a show that dwelled in gruesome spectacles of death and the numerous ways bodies can be unmade while I was waiting for my dog to die. I was watching tragedy while hoping that I could avoid one. I couldn’t. Our beloved dog passed away with us beside her. I couldn’t stop her from dying, but I could make her passing as peaceful and painless as possible. There would be no gruesome spectacle here.
And I kept watching Scream Queens.
A particular episode caught my attention and held it. In episode 8, Dean Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis) warns Kappa pledge, Grace (Skyler Samuels), about investigating a past tragedy that happened at the sorority house. Munsch, in her typically abrupt way, explains:
Do you know why I never went into therapy? Because the less we know about ourselves, the better. Rummaging around in your life, it’s like digging through a landfill. Sure, you may happen upon something interesting, but you’re gonna get filthy.
I paused the episode and replayed the scene. Not once, not twice, but three times. I eventually finished the episode and moved onto the next, but Munsch’s lines stuck with me. They got wedged in my brain, and I couldn’t get them to leave me alone.
Rummaging, digging, rummaging, digging, rummaging, digging…getting filthy.
Munsch was talking about therapy, but I realized how quickly I could replace “therapy” with “writing a memoir.” Memoirists, after all, rummage around in our lives to uncover material. We excavate events, reconstruct them, and write them.
In Art of Memoir (2015), Mary Karr describes the psychological toll of memoir: suffering is requisite, not optional. “Writing a memoir,” she notes, “is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right.” Memoir appears as “a major-league shit-eating contest.” This genre, at least for Karr, requires writers to battle with ourselves and challenge the narratives we create for ourselves. Easy stories emerge as too easy. Tidy narratives as too clean. We must dig beyond the stories we tell ourselves to find truth and bring it to the light. Karr continues, “No matter how self-aware you are, memoir wrenches at your insides.”
Writing a memoir is hard, and you get filthy.
I have now written two memoirs, though they aren’t quite memoirs. They are memoirs in essays, not a story from beginning to end, but fragments that piece together stories that aren’t quite whole. I prefer essays — their shorter form, contained and compact. A close-up rather than a chronology. My memoirs in essays never seek to master what has happened. They are my attempts to make sense of what has happened and how that feels.
Writing about feelings feels easier than talking directly about them. I have spent much of my life suffering in silence and working it out on the page. (A few years of therapy means I don’t keep my suffering silent, but I do still work things out through writing.)
Years after hearing them, Munsch’s words still hang around, “Rummaging around in your life, it’s like digging through a landfill.”
Writing a memoir is hard, and you get filthy. Your hurts becomes visible with every word. Your suffering manifests line by line.
That’s the burden of the memoirist. Our material is our selves. We’re closer than close to what happens to us. We often don’t have the luxury of distance or feigned objectivity to make the work of writing our lives easier. We share same skin as the subject. We know when something or someone shattered us. We were the ones picking up the pieces.
When I try to conjure images of what writing a memoir is like, I tend to come back to vivisection, the process of performing operations on live animals for research. (Yeah, it’s gruesome. I know.)
That’s the burden of the memoirist. Our material is our selves.
Except that, in memoir, I’m both the experiment and experimenter. My skin cut back. My organs on display. My body opened up, so you, the reader, can see what goes on in intimate detail. There’s a fleshy vulnerability of being on display; all the soft bits exposed and unprotected. As I write, I pull back layer after layer. I can excavate truths about myself. I rummage around in the landfill and then try to make meaning out of what I find or don’t. And all the while, I know that I have to let the reader into see.
There’s a stark honesty in putting one’s life on display for others to read. There’s courage in telling our stories. (At least, I hope so.) There’s audacity in documenting what and how we manage to survive. There’s a tenacious hope in showing how we can be unmade but also how we remake ourselves.
Writing memoirs helps us understand both the horror and hope in our own lives. Yes, we are fragile. Yes, the lives we create for ourselves are fragile.
It’s the mundane that can actually destroy us.
Memoirs show that the worst can and does happen. That life can be capricious and cruel. That our lives ends as surely as they begin. That suffering is not optional, but requisite. That we can’t quite help what we’ve inherited, but we can survive it. That terrible things happen no matter what type of person you are. That reasons are never as clear as we need them to be. That making sense is sometimes the best we can do as we sit among the ruins of what we hoped our lives would be. That loss is a loss, no matter what heartbreaking form it takes. That life moves on with no attention to our suffering.
Maybe I stopped watching horror when I realized that the spectacular isn’t the most horrifying. It’s the mundane that can actually destroy us.
But alongside the horror is the hope that while we can shatter into tiny, sharp fragments, we can also meld them unevenly back together again. What is unmade can sometimes be remade into something stronger. Yes, terrible things do happen but so do joyous, beautiful ones that make us stop and pay attention to the possibility and potential that lay in front of us. In the ruins, we can learn to build again.
I’m still here; a memoir is my evidence.
While writing memoir often leaves me little banged up and bruised for my efforts, I leave my essays feeling much freer and sometimes even hopeful. Munsch, then, is wrong about therapy. You might dig through the landfill and come up filthy, but you also can dust yourself off. Sometimes, we leave the landfill and come out knowing more about ourselves than we did before.
When I put my suffering, those horrors that linger, on the page, something happens. I’ve confronted events that hurt me. The confrontation might suck. It might take years to face head on. I might be filthy and worn down, but I leave with what I survived. That is why I write essays about my life that become memoirs. There’s suffering and survival. Our stories are always a combination of both.
I’m still here; a memoir is my evidence. And in that, there’s hope.
Kelly’s new book, Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness, will be out 11.3.2020. Yes, it’s a memoir.