So, I am finally getting around to posting (here) the final version of what started as Pheromones all those months ago. I am happy to announce this was recently posted on creepypasta.com. It ended up with a new name, a slightly different slant on the story, and what I feel is a lot more direct storyline. I’ve had the benefit of seeing two or three additional iterations of this particular piece, and so to me it seems like it has been quite the journey. The final idea is one I am really happy with, but one that seems to have evolved quite a bit from the seed of an idea that started it all. In fact, this whole story started from the line “There was something predatory in the way she walked.”
Since this is my blog and I can blather about whatever I like, I am going to talk about how this story developed, specifically how I felt about the blend of gender, sex, and horror. To skip that and read the final version of the story, click here and it will jump you down the page to the beginning.If you are interested in my rambling thoughts, read on!
One of the things that really bothered me after I got the idea for Pheromones (which will forever be it’s title in my mind, even if Dionaea Muscipula is a much better one) was how to handle the sexuality and danger I was interested in without playing into harmful gender stereotypes that plague horror. In short, women who engage in sexual activity are either innocent victims or sex-hungry monsters. Knowing that I was writing a story about a seductive monster, I feared tripping into these. If the monster was female, then it was playing into the same stereotypes that vilifies any sexual desire from a woman as indicative of a drive out of control. However, making the victim female meant I would yet again punish a female character for seeking a sexual interaction, reinforcing stereotypes that plague the genre. I mean, I watch plenty of horror movies. Once the chick decides to hook up with someone, you can almost be guaranteed they will die soon. Sex is dangerous for women, is the implicit message. Or, conversely, women who like sex are risky and untrustworthy. So I felt I was in a pickle.
Originally, I decided to make the “monster” more or less human, somewhat vampiric, and ultimately female. For where I am, the ability to show a woman empowered enough to seek out sex was better than the weak victim, I knew my story arc, and I tried to choose the lesser of two evils. But I was certainly never happy with it. In my mind, Annalise was powerful, dangerous, and independent. I mean, while it was beneficial for me to write such a woman, it also sounded like propaganda that someone would have spread in the 20s to prevent women’s suffrage. “Give them the vote, they’ll be all out on their own. They’ll destroy us all!” That’s exaggerated and silly, and I doubt anyone gives my writing that much thought, but that’s how it felt. On the one hand, it was a victory for me, but it also fed other, harmful lies that I disagree with as well.
As I said, lesser of two evils, however. I’d rather have a fiercely independent female monster than a deceived victim punished for her weak female will. I know both of these are exaggerations and probably more involved than they should be, but part of my desire in writing this was to explore sexuality in my writing, within the context of horror, and do it effectively. So these were the underlying thoughts that primarily concerned me.
I toyed with changing the genders. I thought about making it a same-sex attraction. That one felt like I was skirting the issue, and I also believe that, being a straight white female, it’s something I would need to practice in writing first. I practiced writing in the male voice for a long time, and still have to be very intentional about it. (I also really enjoy writing “female/male sounding” things and then having the character be the opposite gender, just to challenge my own gender norms).
Ultimately, I wrote the original version of Pheromones and flt okay about it. I loved the idea, but the ending and dynamics never felt right. It was too vampy, a little to cliche, and not what I wanted. I rewrote the ending dozens of times and was never quite happy with it.
Then, I thought up this new ending in the shower one morning, and it felt right. It took the conversation away from the strict gender roles, made it more fluid, and enhanced the predatory aspects of “Annalise” that I wanted. It also fit better with the fly trap idea, a flower which blooms and wilts, only to bloom again. It kept the strong woman, but also demonstrated that brutality was not a gender characteristic, but a part of the monster. What I had realized was that her goal was never sex, but hunger. My attempts to tie hunger into gender in an effective way was the problem, since hunger is not male or female. It is animal, crossing gender boundaries. And so the ending similarly crossed those boundaries. It did not end up being an in depth exploration of gender and sexuality, because this is not the best way to explore such complex topics. But it did present the ideas and help present a male-female dyad in horror that manages not to fall into (too many, at least) gender stereotypes. It is not perfect, and I know Martin’s character is probably unfair, but for me it was an important opportunity to deal with these themes.
Okay, so that is a lot of rambling, but I wanted to share some part of my creative process. I try to be thoughtful about what I put out there, so sometimes it is nice to share the thought that went into something. If you’ve read all this, thank you, nad I hope it was moderately interesting. Without further ado, Dionaea Muscipula.
Martin looked somberly into the murky gold of his lukewarm scotch. He hated these kinds of functions. Not only was he not particularly good at large crowds, dancing, loud music, and general social interaction, but it only became all the more painful when you combined a room full of people with his same weaknesses and demanded that they play the roles. It was a professional conference, he bemoaned, but he was the only person with the seeming self-awareness to feel abject discomfort at the whole evening’s proceedings. He slumped glumly in the stiff reception chair, his body depending on the unsteady table to keep him upright and appearing engaged. The white table, stained with leftover dinner crumbs and a spilt half glass of red wine, had been empty for what felt like an eternity as his dinner companions—strangers in nice suits and dresses who prattled on as if they were 25 again—had given themselves over to the open bar and dance floor.
He glanced at his watch. Surely after two hours of such nonsense his dues were paid well enough to warrant sneaking back to his room for some sleep and relaxation. Others might jest that he was a stick in the mud for retiring so early, but he would not make a fool of himself as his colleagues were so wont to do.
Gathering his tired dinner jacket and room key, Martin froze. From across the room, he spotted a gorgeous woman slicing through the crowd. There was something predatory in the way she walked. An utter lack of self-consciousness as she strode through the flailing bodies in the crowd. There was a look in her eyes, evident from half a room away, which showed she knew she stood on a level above all those around her. She had the look of a sated wolf prowling amongst unguarded sheep, utterly disinterested in their bleating. Her hair flowed in sheets of shining black as deep as the moonless sky, waving with disdain as she cut her own path through the writhing masses around her. Almost instinctively, the way parted for her, bringing her directly to Martin’s table.
With indelible grace, she swept a glass of red wine from a passing waiter, holding the delicate glass in her soft fingers. She smiled, pearly white teeth flashing between plump red lips. Her eyes were brilliant green, reflecting Martin’s dumbfounded gaze right back at him. The lovely scent of flowers encapsulated him as it rolled off her body. It was far more intoxicating than the mild drinks he had been nursing all night. Martin felt as if he were being drawn into her web, but he had no will to fight it.
“Annalise,” she breathed. For a moment, Martin was unsure what to do. All he knew were that those syllables were the most heavenly sounds he had ever heard. He would endure pain, torture, war, strife, poverty, illness, and any worldly ill if only those three syllables would replay again and again. To have those lips speak such beauty!
She smiled again and his mouth snapped shut from its gape. “M-Martin,” he stammered as he collected himself, shamed by the coarseness of his own voice.
She reached out a slender hand to touch his arm. “So nice to finally meet you.” Martin felt his heart begin to thunder. She knew of him? She wanted to meet him? What crazy fever dream had he slipped into? “I won’t keep you, as it seems you are leaving, but I just couldn’t miss the chance—”
“No, no. Not leaving,” he interjected, eagerly grabbing his chair and planting himself into it. “Just was, uh, getting a better view of things, you know.” She laughed and Martin prayed his ears would ring with that delightful sound for the rest of his life. He would go deaf to the world if only to hear her laugh.
“Then may I join you?” she asked, somewhat hesitantly, betraying the assured confidence Martin had seen so clearly moments ago. He could not imagine having such an effect on a woman, especially not one like her. Martin sat up a little straighter in his seat; keeping his dignity tonight might actually pay off for once, he mused. She must like a serious, intellectual man. Well, by God, she had found her man then.
“Where are you from, Annalise?” He was so smooth, he congratulated himself. Those words flowed like butter.
“Please, I didn’t come all the way over here to talk about me, Martin! Tell me about you,” she purred, her hand falling gently on his forearm as she moved closer. As close as he was, he felt himself absolutely adrift in her marvelous scent. She smelled of sweet flowers opened brightly to the summer sun, and Martin was content to collapse into the field.
So talk he did. Martin regaled her with stories of his groundbreaking work as she eyed him with pure wonder. He shared about his glowing academic career, the awards and showcases that had chosen to honor him and his work in his brief career. He spoke in heartfelt about his calling to the field, the passion and the reward he felt from doing such work. She played her role well, smiling at the right parts, laughing at his clumsy jokes and sighing in awe of his humble victories. Martin felt his chest swell with pride as he prattled on about his meager life, finding his own ego reflected and doubled in her searching green eyes.
After a while, she smiled and squeezed him arm softly, interrupting him mid-flow. It was amazing how easy it was to talk to her. He found himself divulging so many things to her, almost as if he had known her for half of his life. It was just her soft presence, the comforting aroma of flowers, and the focused interest pouring from her eyes. It made his tongue loose in a way no person or substance-induced state ever had. He froze in silence, suddenly feeling the ache of his throat after so much talking over the din of the music.
“I’m having trouble hearing you over all of them,” she said, rolling her eyes towards the mass of drunken hooligans who would don suits tomorrow and nurse hangovers through the scheduled sessions. “Do you think we could go somewhere more private?”
Martin was flummoxed. In all his years, he had never expected to catch the eye of such a woman—of any woman, if he wanted to be honest with himself. He had even less expected to find such a beautiful groupie for his relatively dull research. And now, this surprise of all surprises revealed another layer of amazement. She was trying to seduce him! Martin smiled. Perhaps he would let her.
“My room is just down the hall from here,” he spat out quickly, his eagerness spilling over his words. She gave him a reassuring and understanding smile.
“That sounds perfect.”
Martin stood from his seat, his legs wobbling uncertainly. He could remember college years and first dates with similar weakness of the knees, only this seemed even more extreme. A goofy smile drifted over his face; he was drunk on her presence, and there was no use in denying it. Every system he generally kept so well controlled was flying by its own rules, freed by her enchanting smile and intoxicating scent. He offered her his arm, and the two floated from the room. Martin’s legs seemed to belong to someone else, carrying him confidently out of the room. The doors swung shut behind them, effectively muffling the raucous music still pouring from the banquet hall. At this rate, his colleagues would be stumbling into the first session still decked in their party finery.
The sounds of the others faded as they walked along the hallway until Martin realized he and Annalise were shrouded by a heavy covering of silence. Anyone else in the hotel had long since gone to bed, and the music down the hall had faded quickly. He supposed it only made sense that the place would have good soundproofing for such an event. The silence was surprisingly intimate. He could hear her soft breath, the air moving over the swell of her full lips. Her feet sunk lightly in the plush carpet, whispering softly in the hall. In contrast, he heard his heart racing in his chest, listened to the uncoordinated and irregular pace of his own steps dragging through the carpet. He was a love—or perhaps more accurately lust—struck mess.
He fished the little plastic card from his wallet, and the door gave its friendly beep as the light flashed green. After shoving the door open, his arm flailed about in the darkness seeking the light switch that always seemed to be two or three inches higher or lower than he remembered. With a click, the lights hummed on and bathed the room in a harsh and artificial glow. Despite the generally terrible effects of such lighting on people, Annalise still appeared radiant as she stepped into the room. She was commanding as she entered, and he felt as if perhaps they had unwittingly entered her room rather than his, given her comfort. But no, his shirt and slacks hung pressed in the closet, his battered suitcase tossed unceremoniously on the second twin bed. She simply possessed an air of belonging wherever she went.
The smell of flowers carried him along in her wake, and he stumbled into his own room behind her, coming up short as she paused in front of him. Her eyes were smiling as she turned to him. “What a wonderful evening,” her words drifted into the silence of the room as she fell softly against the crumpled bed spread, her red dress a stark contrast with the dull white sheets.
“Uh, yes, it has been—“ magical, enchanting, impossible, miraculous?“—quite the night,” he finished weakly, standing uncomfortably in the entryway to his room looking around. He felt his eyes lingering too long in hers, drawn in by their brilliant spell. The heavy presence of flowers in the air made him feel woozy, and he nearly stumbled as he broke his gaze from hers.
“Martin, what if I told you that I have been thinking about my lips on you since I first laid eyes on you?” She whispered haltingly, her eyes betraying the innocence on her lips.
Flabbergasted, Martin sat in silence. Now he knew that this must be some kind of ruse. Or perhaps someone had spiked his drink and he was hallucinating. The drink—had he had more than he thought? Would he wake up groggily to some ancient troll in his bed? Could he have fallen asleep at the table, and now this goddess was his sweetest dream?
Before he could reach a final conclusion—brain tumor?—her lips were on his, her body pressed against him. His shock had prevented him from seeing the speed with which she pounced from the bed, catching him in her arms and drawing him back to the bed. No matter what doubts he might have, he could not deny the reality of the experience happening in that moment. He swam in the warmth of her limbs around him, the taste of her soft lips, and the scent of her lithe body. In that moment, all he knew was that his lips and hers were dancing together now, their tongues meddling somewhere in between. She pushed him back on the bed, her lips following his steady descent down to the stiff hotel bed. Martin’s heart was a metronome in his chest, trying to keep pace with his flying thoughts. He pulled her close, kissing every inch of that beautifully pearly white neck and face that he could. She laughed and smiled as she playfully pinned his hands down on the bed.
“You know, Martin, there is something delicious about a body excited.” Her tongue snaked its way into his mouth, those brilliant red lips melding with his for a brief moment. “And our bodies tend to respond the same to excitement and fear,” she whispered, coming up for breath. Every word she spoke sent waves of excitement across Martin’s body, just to feel the gentle ebb and flow of her breath across his skin.
“Me, personally,” she smiled, leaning to kiss along his neck, “I prefer the taste of excitement.” She ended this with a soft nip at his earlobe. Martin felt a slight stir of discomfort at her choice of phrasing, but brushed it off. Just a turn of phrase, he reminded himself, finding himself again drowning in her green eyes and the soft scent of sunlit flowers.
Her fingers played with the silk knot at her waist, carefully untangling the ribbons so that flashes of marble skin slipped through. She turned her back to him, letting the dress slowly fall away to reveal her perfectly sculpted body. Martin’s eyes grew wide as she spun, but his pleasure gave way to terror all too quickly.
Her chest was a tangle of intertwined flesh, a traumatic knot of scars and blood. In the time it took Martin to make sense of it, the knot began to writhe, petals of flesh slowly unfolding to reveal a gaping maw of teeth where her stomach should have been. Her once bright green eyes were now dull and dead, any hint of life yanked from them with the reveal of this monstrosity. Where the aroma of flowers had so allured him, now he could only smell the sickly odor of rot. A scream, initially frozen in disbelief deep within his gut, slowly clawed its way up to his lips, breaking through the air with a brief cry before those yellowed, broken teeth closed around his head.
The room echoed with the muted crunch of bone, the moist sound of blood and flesh abandoning their respective domains and mingling in a blender of jagged teeth. It gulped, Annalise’s whole body quivering with the effort of ingesting the body of her momentary paramour. The sheets were stained with blood, matching the brilliant fabric of the discarded dress. However, it was not interested in waste. Most of the blood flooded its gullet, Annalise’s ivory skin warming and brightening with the fresh flood of still-warm liquid.
Sweet iron filled the room, its scent nearly overpowering. The now lifeless body of Annalise flopped about as the creature neglected grace in favor of speed. Her head lolled onto her chest, drifting dangerously near the still gaping teeth. A thick, coiled tongue snaked out of the mouth, slithering across the bed to gather whatever remained before it could fully soak in to the cheap hotel mattress. With a shake and an odorous sigh, the creature sat back on the bed. Slowly, Annalise’s eyes began to change, drifting from their brilliant green to a steely blue. Her hair fell out like leaves shaken by the wind, short cropped salt-and-pepper strands replacing it. Her arms and legs lengthened, then thickened. After a moment, the creature stood, a perfect copy of Martin, but imbued with a very different spirit.
It considered the new body, then reached into its mouth to retract a thick pair of black glasses. For a moment, it held them to its new face, considering the advantages of such eyewear. Ultimately, it discarded them and watched as they shattered at the base of the wall. Unlike Martin, the creature walked tall, shoulders back and eyes up high. It smiled charmingly as the skin of his face stretched with the unusual gesture. While Martin certainly did not have sculpted abs or a youthful body, there was at least minimal evidence that he had taken good care of himself, resulting in a relatively slender and strong physique. The creature turned Martin’s head side to side, looking itself up and down in the mirror across the room. It was far from perfect, but with a dash of charm and some newfound confidence, it would certainly do. “Nice to meet you, Martin,” he said, his voice starting with the lilting soprano of before and then taking on a confident baritone that filled the room.
After pilfering the clothes hanging in the closet, the creature looked at the mess it had made and smiled. Martin slipped into its new costume, and walked strongly towards the door. His hand hovered over the light switch, gaining one last glimpse at the bloody masterpiece now staining the cheap room. Then, he plunged it into darkness and made his way back to the festivities.
The night was still young.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
As a preface, I am not a licensed anything, I am not providing mental health services, and I do not suggest that this should be used as any form of psychological advice. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, I encourage you to seek out a licensed therapist in your area and schedule an appointment. There are plenty of places that provide online lookups (here is the APA’s), and many great people out there very willing to listen and provide whatever help they can.
This is a topic that has been spinning around in my head for a while. I mean, the draft has been percolating since mid April, and the idea began far before then. I owe some of my inspiration to return to the topic to the recent creepypasta.com announcement regarding the Wisconsin stabbings. It is a very well written discussion of horror, violence, and mental illness, and it touches on this cultiral war being waged against anyone with a mental illness. Now, my take is a bit different than that one, and obviously not directed at the recent events. I am instead looking at how horror as a genre has contributed to stigmatization of mental illness, but the recent events got my wheels turning back to this topic.
To get my biases out of the way, I have a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and in the midst of pursuing my doctorate. So, I have a may be a bit hypervigilant when it comes to identifying stigmatizing or discriminatory messages in the media. I suppose I’d rather be a bit oversensitive and prevent the risk of hurting someone than to laugh it off.
Also, I grew up loving horror movies. I was raised on the creepy and crawly and terrifying. I had my fair share of nightmares as well, and to be honest, I think that drove me deeper into the horror genre. Rather than running from my fears, I drowned myself in them and embraced it. I watched horror movies, TV shows, read the books, and wrote stories that tapped into those themes. I can say for certain that I read all of Stephen King’s IT at age 12, though that was one of a long line of his books that I had devoured, so my introduction into “adult” horror began pretty early. Going off to college did not dim my enthusiasm, and I found myself drawn more and more to writing darker stories as I jumped at every new scary movie in theaters. My boyfriend was kind enough to allow me this, and now as my husband he continues to consider supporting my habit with ample Netflix offerings. Yet, at some point in college, I ran out of time to read and write for fun, so part of that faded. Eventually I stumbled on the creepypasta community sometime during my first year in graduate school. Reading the stories on there was a joy, and revitalized some part of me. As this blog itself demonstrates, it even prompted me to pick up the pen (er…keyboard?) again. All of this to say that, despite my critique, horror is one of my first true loves in the realm of creativity. I just want to see it be the best genre it can be.
On to the point, now. The history of horror and mental illness goes way back. It’s almost unfair to say it, because understanding of mental illness has historically been poor, but the earliest overlap between these two concepts is likely the link between mental illness and demonic possession. I would imagine the link is undeniable throughout history, but I want to focus a little more recently as mental healthcare has made great advances which have yet to really pierce the current cultural milieu.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, released in 1919, is considered one of the first horror movies, and one of the first to include mental illness as a significant component. It is available in public domain and can be viewed here. Now, it’s an old silent film, and I doubt many readers are up for a 50 minute homework assignment prior to reading on. So, to summarize, it is the story of a man (Dr. Caligari) who controls a sleepwalker, forcing him to commit murders in a small town. While some may consider it a stretch to consider sleepwalking a mental illness, it is in the DSM, so I think we can make the stretch (however, that opens a whole discussion about the current states of diagnostics in psychology, and I don’t want to go there). But, of greater interest is that the movie is actually being told from an institution by individuals with…let’s say poor reality testing. So, in a final twist, it’s revealed that the narrator invented everything in the throes of “mania.” I do not call this out as an egregious error of marginalization, but rather to show that the desire to bring mental illness into horror goes back well into our cultural history.
And, since then, horror has actively embraced the inexplicable link between mental illness and horror–and monsters, really. I cannot count the number of movies I have seen that use schizophrenia or dissociation (wrongly, I might add, but that’s another post) to create a monster capable of killing most of the remaining cast. Or the myriad of films that rely on an abandoned mental institution as their setting because, duh, the ghosts there would be particularly cruel, vindictive, and evil. These ideas seem rather harmless until you sit across the room from a young man who states he has no aspirations for his future because he “is schizophrenia.” That his family will not take him back in because he is dangerous, despite the fact he has never demonstrated any aggression. Or until someone refuses to seek out help for depression, anxiety, mania, or psychosis because it risks being labeled a threat to others, thereby leading to years of suffering without treatment. That is a sampling of the harm these stereotypes create, and the reality is that it can be far more dangerous. Our misconceptions may even blind us to reaching out to those in desperate need of help because they do not match the often inaccurate Hollywood stereotypes of the mentally ill.
So, what prompted my long discussion here? I ran across a crappypasta.com post (which I will not link here, because I do not believe it was intentionally harmful, just buying into the cultural trope on horror) that stated that spirits of people once in the asylum were menacing and evil merely because they were institutionalized. Other spirits who were kind, caring, compassionate, etc. were deemed to not really be crazy people, but accidental souls who were locked away in the asylum for petty reasons, like sexual orientation or out of wedlock pregnancy. That stung me deeply, because I know so many kind, caring, and compassionate individuals who live in what are our current form of institutions. As I said, this was not the author’s attempt to stick it to the crazies, but rather someone who bought into the cultural myth of “dangerous” mental illness. Not to say that some people with mental illness are not dangerous, but then again some psychologically “healthy” (if there is such a thing) individuals also are very dangerous and not worth being around. It really has more to do with the person than a diagnostic label.
Do you have a point with all this rambling, Katherine? Yes, I do. I always do, it just takes me a while to get there. My point is easily misunderstood, so I will be blunt. I am NOT saying that mental illness should be taboo for horror. I think it can be terrifying, it can lead to great tragedy, and it can cause people to act in decidedly uncharacteristic ways. What I propose, however, is that we stop trying to make someone with mental illness always the bad guy. And stop with shoddy representations of mental illness. Plenty of people with a psychiatric diagnosis live healthy and productive lives. They are successful and treat their condition effectively. Do not use a dissociative cop-out or lazy mental illness tack to the end because you are too lazy to write a better ending. Stop making mental illness the butt of horror, and allow it to be an integral portion of the lives and times of characters. And for heaven’s sake, do some basic research before slapping some diagnostic label on someone. We live in the wide world of Google, so hop on over and type in “disorder XYZ diagnostic criteria” and try to get something right. I try to live up to this, and sometimes I do okay, but even as someone face to face with mental illness on a daily basis, it’s easy to buy the cultural lies.
We live in a world where nearly everyone either has a mental illness or knows someone who does. Why not write a representation of someone who lives life with this illness, who maybe is even the hero with it? I ask for people to be aware as they create media and speak with others that people reading, viewing, overhearing, and interacting with you may have personal struggles they are facing. If your mother, father, brother, sister, best friend, cousin, or next door neighbor had whatever condition you are writing about, would you be able to look them in the eye after s/her saw how you viewed people with his/her label?
Mental illness is not an easy recipe for horror. It is not a one-way ticket to the greatest twist ending or terrible evil. It is a part of everyday life for millions of people, and horror needs to find ways to respectful work with that reality. Your words count.