I loved monster movies when I was a kid, and sometimes I still do. The old corny ones more than the new ones: Frankenstein, Wolfman, Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon. The little boys I ran around with (most girls didn't like monster movies) and I loved, especially, Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff. We even loved saying their names.
I remember how the Creature from that Black Lagoon had that weird fish mouth, like he was always trying to say something but couldn't, or trying to breathe or suck but couldn't do that either. His eyes were too high on his head and wide-open like he was frightened. Of us? Of himself? Of what he might do with his creepy flesh? Or just surprised like, Why me? Why me? Is this really me?
He looked like any minute he could drown, even though he lived in water. He also couldn't be out of water for long. There wasn't any place where he could always be. Something had happened to make him wrong, and things weren't right with him. Some of us partly knew some of this, but also there were other things we didn't know and didn't want to. He had finny hands and scaly legs and bony, webby feet and a big wide gaping-open toothless wanting mouth. He looked pathetic.
For a while, there was a girl in class who had skin between her toes. As soon as we heard she did, we made her show us. It looked like webs. Another girl screamed and made a face when she saw her feet. The girl wasn't in school very long with us; I think her family moved around a lot. Likewise, I remember Frankenstein's creature, how he lurched around and cried like someone who lived in our neighborhood but whom we never saw. I only knew about this neighbor because sometimes I heard him crying. It was a sad, wide whine, not crying like tears but crying like moaning. Like sounds from someone who couldn't say what he needed to. It sounded like a child except it sounded like a man and then, when I saw the movie, like Frankenstein's creature.
Dr. Frankenstein's creature lifted his hands toward the light. His sleeves were too short, so you could see his skinny, bony wrists. His hands were shaky and pasty white. He looked pathetic, too.
In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I learned when I finally read it in my 20s, the creature is initially described as, partly, beautiful: "His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God!... His hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness" (Volume 1, Chapter IV). The doctor made the creature from the best parts of a bunch of different bodies. (What happened to the other parts the doctor didn't choose? What happened to those bad dismembered bits? What is it to be less than Frankenstein's creature?)
At first, the creature wants to love and be loved by his "father." But when his "father" sees what he's created, he is repulsed. He runs away "to avoid the wretch." Abandoning what he brought forth from pride. Why bring to life a thing you will reject? Why make a thing, belt it, then run out on it? Why make a thing that hates itself? A thing that wishes it was not alive? Who is flawed in this scenario? Whose awful fault is what?
The Wolfman turned into something he couldn't change back. He had to be another thing he was ashamed of. Would he have been all right if he'd been able to live in the woods? I mean without other human beings. I remember him writhing, frothing at the mouth, his legs and stomach clutching, and him returning to looking normal as he died.
The Mummy was someone dead who was trying to stay that way, at peace. Sometimes you'd rather be dead than stay alive. But other people wanted to steal his gold and jewels and secret ancient stuff. They were told they shouldn't—there was a curse—but they did it anyway. I remember the creak of the painted sarcophagus opening (I loved it when I learned that word), the giant, shifting shadows on the wall, the weird music. I remember the clutch and the lurch and the fall, the body's hurt as it becomes undead. I remember it slowly unwrapping itself, unwinding the limp white cloth that had protected it. It fell away like a tired dress at the end of the day from a girl who doesn't want to do what she's about to do; it falls to the floor. No wonder the Mummy turns on them, no wonder the girl shuts down and lashes out with all the stuff wound up inside of her.
Mummies were embalmed; they'd had their innards taken out, and sometimes they were buried with their cats, which, selfish as it was to kill your pet, at least it meant you would not be dead alone.
The girls who did like monsters liked Dracula. I didn't as much. Dracula was rich and had everything. He lived in his family's castle, and I could tell beneath his soft, calm voice was something that was neither soft nor calm. What I did like about Dracula was that normal people couldn't see him in a mirror. Sometimes, people won't see you even when they think they look. There was also the lady with snakes in her hair. I didn't see her in the movies, but in my dreams. I dreamed about her all the time for years. I remember half waking up terrified, trying to get myself fully awake so I could get out of my bed and out of my room and go find my mother to comfort me. At some point, she told me that there was a lady in ancient stories named Medusa who had snakes for hair. Had I heard a story about her somewhere, my mother wanted to know. I must have. Where? Was there something I wanted to tell my mother? She worried. Medusa was, for many years, my in-my-own-head-nightmare-dreaming movie. Was she a monster or something else? Had she been in me forever or just arrived? Was she in me to protect me or to teach me something? Was she warning me? It has been years, now, since I dreamed of her. But I do not forget.
I don't remember if I was actually frightened by monster movies or if I just liked that they indicated that someone else knew the world was, in addition to the way it was supposed to be, a weird and creepy place. Sometimes the monsters weren't really monsters but only people that something had happened to or who got lost from the faraway place where they were meant to live. A lot of times, if you thought about it, the monsters would have been nice.
I remember an episode of The Twilight Zone that was about a sort of monster. I think I even remember the title of it. Which I could look up but I'm not going to because half—maybe more than half—of what's important about what you remember is the way you remember it even if it's not exactly right. The title I remember is "The Eye of the Beholder," and it was about a girl who was really, really ugly, so ugly and deformed—she was repulsive—people couldn't stand to look at her. So these people were going to give her an operation so she could look normal and they wouldn't have to look at her horrible repulsive face anymore. The way everyone reacted to her made you think that if you looked at her, you would throw up, but that, because they felt sorry for her, they were nice.
There were a lot of doctors in the episode, along with a lot of hushed, earnest talking about the ugly deformed gross hideous girl's repulsiveness. The episode built up to the operation. Then, after the operation, when the result of their attempt to fix the girl is going to be revealed, there was a huge tension as the nice people unwrapped the bandages. This part is shot from the point of view of the girl, so you can see the bandages coming off layer by layer. They're gauzy and freeing and loose—it was kind of almost beautiful to see.
From the outside, I imagined the bandages looked like the bandages that came unwrapped in The Mummy and The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb. In her case, though, you see it only from the inside, from in her, all waiting and hopeful and terrified.
Everything else before this had been shot from behind or above; you've never seen the doctors' or nurses' faces. Then, when at last the mummy bandages are unwrapped, the doctors and nurses see the girl and... they gasp in horror. She is still completely ugly; she is repulsive. As ugly and gross and hideous and repulsive as she was before. You get nervous they're going to show you her horrible face and you might vomit. But then, when the camera shows her—she's beautiful! Gorgeous! Prettier than any girl in my class and even all of the pretty, popular girls who were my older sister's friends. She is soooooo pretty! Then the camera moves back and you see, for the first time, the doctors' and nurses' faces, and they are ugly. Their lips are fat and twisted, and they have huge flaps over their eyes, and everything on their faces is bulbous or in a slightly wrong place.
How did you not notice, while it was happening, that the camera never showed you how the "normal" people looked?
You cover your eyes.
Girls around me were squealing and laughing. I felt hot and stupid and something else and ran from the room.
That night, my older sister—she was in high school—was having a slumber party. A lot of her popular, pretty friends were over, and they were watching TV and rolling their hair and practicing cheers and talking about boys. Because they thought I was funny and sweet, and because I was young enough they could act like grown-ups with me (which I kind of thought they were), they let me hang around with them.
I ran from the room where the TV was and into the bedroom my sister and I shared. But one of my sister's friends was in there changing into her pajamas and didn't have any clothes on, which when I saw I stopped and gawped at then turned around and ran away again, but there was nowhere else to go. Where could I hide?
I was too young to talk about boys, but I wouldn't have anyway.
I didn't know that then. Did they? Would they have known the thing I was if they had looked at me?
Rebecca Brown has published 12 books and won a Stranger Genius Award in 2005. This essay will appear in Gay City 5: Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam, edited by Evan J. Peterson and Vincent Kovar, due in July. There’s a prerelease fundraiser June 7 at 7 pm at Gay City Health Project.