Claire G. Coleman, writer and poet from Western Australia, writes on the monster.
Ngan djanak; I am a demon; I am a devil; I am a monster. I am what cis, straight white men (and cis, straight white women) fear when they fear the darkness. If I live in the darkness I am an owl, ghostly, silent and big-eyed; I belong in the darkness and there I hunt. I am descended from the women of the long-ago and of the white devil men who impregnated them. I am blak, I am a woman and all blak women are monsters; we know most monsters are women of colour (for all white women/white men are eternally the innocent victims). That is, at least, that is how the white men see us. I am blak, I am woman, I am queer.
I am what you fear.
(When you are more far dangerous to me
Than I could ever be to you)
I am monster, hear me roar.
For you won’t just let me live.
You won’t let me just sleep.
I am trapped with my night terrors; with my nightmares, with the mare, the mara, that paralysing woman demon crushing my chest. No, I am the monster, the dark demonic ape-like thing perched on the white woman’s chest in The nightmare by Henry Fuseli, for I cannot be the clean pure-white victim. I am the mare, which is both a monster that gives you bad dreams and a female horse; either way I am not human.
What we need to consider is the abject; is abjection, the power, the reaction, by which we reject what is not us.
In Kristeva’s theory of the abject, it is what we must cast away to project ourselves as object or subject.1 Everything we fear, everything we cast aside, reject; define as not us, everything the default white man defines as ‘other’ is abject. In what we call society, it is blak women who are the most abjected: the most unwelcome; unwholesome; darkest.
Everything that men objectify is also abject; men objectify beautiful women while somehow simultaneously fearing them.
The world is full of beautiful women, demons and monsters, who suddenly become ugly castrating killers.
It is what you (whiteness, cisness, maleness) reject/abject (blackness, transness, femaleness) that you fear. You are attracted to the abject at the same time as you reject it. Maybe that’s why people watch scary movies. According to Kristeva, when you are attracted to the abjected, you end up abjecting yourself.
When I/we speak, you fear me/us. When we breathe, you fear us; when we do not, when our breath is stolen by knife, stake or gun – by hands around our throats; when our skin rots off our bones; when the soul you cannot quite believe we possess leaves, you fear us, for we are always, we are blak; we are the skeletons in your closets; we know where the other bodies are buried. We are the monster within and the monster without; like all monsters we cannot truly die, for the monstrous I will always return.
The monster always returns.
We are abjected – cast out.
When you take our breath we still
Live within your fear;
You fear us more when you cannot see us.
Hear us roar back to life.
I am monster.
Monsters are the abject, they are black, they are women, they are queer. They/we are pushed away and feared. The monstrous is the foundation of abjection and all monsters are abject.
I am the monster.
The mad woman in the attic, the outsider woman on the other side of a door – making noises you cannot quite place above your head, between you and god – is one of the oldest monster tropes in modern literature; those uncontrolled, uncontrollable women; wild women who have broken their conditioning; who will not obey, who know who they are and live their own story. That woman locked up; not for her own good but to protect her family from shame; she is not the outsider monster we fear, she is the doppelganger, the dark double of the clean pure-white protagonist. The prototypical mad woman in the attic was Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre and she was creole from the Caribbean, she was African, she was Carib, she was a sista. The ‘weakness in her blood’ was nought but blackness.
Monsters are women, are Blak, are us.
She/I is Medusa; gorgon borne from some distant place, some dark place, Africa, or a distant island, perhaps near Turkey; some place unknown but some place far from ‘civilisation’, where the people are not as white. Medusa, serpent-haired, is us, turned so ugly, so abject that any man who sees her is petrified, turned to stone, cast so dead that they are no longer even made of the stuff of life. She is a mask that shows who we really are, how we are seen; she is decapitated, and her head, her visage still contains that power.
One sight of the gorgon and the man becomes stone, abjected, terrifying to look at. Her face, that mask, contains her power even after she dies. Even dead she cannot escape being the monster. In the end she was decapitated; to Freud decapitation in legend is castration; even destroyed like that she maintained her power.
According to legend she was a priestess raped by a god in Athena’s temple and her goddess punished her for it. Beautiful, she was given instead a horrific (or perhaps horrifically beautiful) visage that none could look upon and live. This is perhaps not far from how victims of rape are treated now. ‘She is me’,2 said the ghosts of victims of a serial killer on The X-Files, and the mad woman casts her abjection, her uncanniness onto the foolish viewer, through her victims, and casts them into unlife, not death; they become something that cannot even carry life; turns people into stone or ash. The mad woman tries to kill herself in others but cannot, must always return to her position of killer; taker of life.
And I am she.
Is there a connection between the darkness children fear and the blackness white-cis-males reject as other? My grandfather’s skin and the colour you use to define evil share a word.
Zombies, the walking dead in films and in nightmares, were once the product of Blak magic, of appropriation of Haitian legends of dark magic from the Caribbean. They were dark, from sinister magic; from the mixed-race blackness, from the same people from whom that whitefella woman said Bertha Mason arose; or from so near enough the frightened whitefella, the white rabbit men, could not tell the difference.
The monster must burn but you cannot burn the monster; she is in you; she is me. She is dead/undead.
In 1969, in Night of the living dead, George Romero made the zombie fertile, no longer reliant on dark magic to rise from the grave, but able to birth more of their kind through agency of their infected bite. He made every zombie a mother of more of her kind. One bite and the zombie becomes your mother, you die and a zombie is born in your corpse. Since 1969 every zombie has been female, for every zombie can birth more zombies from the bodies of what once were people.
The modern zombie has much in common with the vampire; a tendency towards anthropophagy, an infectious transmission of self. It was I am legend that made them so; Richard Matheson wrote of viral vampires; of an apocalyptic rise of undead and infected living. Romero cited I am legend as an influence on his seminal film.
Vampires are us.
The first modern vampire was perhaps Carmilla, who became the prototype for countless lesbian vampires in film and pulp novels and who inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula.
Dracula, a charming man who can make more of his kind with his bite, his mouth, his loving kiss was to male homosexuality what Carmilla was to lesbianism, an attempt to cast out; to abject; to be free from. Bram Stoker, a closeted gay man was perhaps attempting to destroy the homophilia in himself.
You cannot truly cast out your self.
The vampire’s aim is to possess their victim eternally.
Not all victims are prone to resisting possession.
The vampire, now, is not overtly feminine, but in the modern vampire stories it is not the vampire that men fear; it is the sexuality of the monster, the overt or latent homosexuality of every vampire since Stoker, the sensual eroticism of every vampire since Bela Lugosi (who had a perverse, dark handsomeness). Men fear the penetration by fangs; the perceived risk of homosexualisation, of feminisation; of othering. That is the reason why story vampirism is viral – cis-gendered straight men fear they might become homosexual; might leave their masculine sense of identity.
They fear the vampire within.
The vampires of the chronicles by Anne Rice were more overtly homoerotic, the corruption into vampirism a metaphor for that fear of burgeoning homosexual identities. That fear (‘he might make me gay’) is so strong that only recently has the ‘gay panic defence’ stopped being usable in court in most places in Australia (in South Australia such a defence is still admissible).
Carmilla, attacked as a big black cat, a panther perhaps; a creature from Africa or Asia: to the people of Europe who feared the vampire both those continents are the exotic, alien other.
No matter what her skin colour; she was exoticised as a black foreign other.
Dracula was a great black dog.
Carmilla even had an unnamed ugly, animalistic black servant in her carriage, who is mentioned once and then exits the story; it’s strange to imagine her purpose beyond the creation of unexpected fear; the use of blackness as a surrogate for evil. The readers then; the readers now fear blak women. That woman there, she makes Carmilla more evil just by association.
Vampires are black, are woman, are queer.
Vampires are abject, are reject, are us.
Undead, the dead made living are more horrific than the lifeless brought to life; Frankenstein’s creature – built from dead flesh; zombies, corpses brought to life; vampires buried but neither living nor dead. All are monstrous because they represent the fear of what has been ejected returning; fear that outsiders can enter the inside.
I will not perform the monster for Wadjela. Blak woman is the core of whom I am, yet it is performative; for you I perform it but I can’t help but live it. Monster is monster – to you it is me.
And the monster is forever; there will always be more monsters.
We fear the outsider, the abject, the alien.
We fear the alien is us.
From 1979 until forever, Ripley has fought the Alien, the xenomorph (literally ‘foreign shape’ or ‘alien form’); it never dies, it cannot die; blow it out the goddamn airlock and Aliens still appear in the next film, and the next. They are the hive, they are bees and ants, they are not a conglomeration of individual organisms but rather each Alien is a cell of the whole. The xenomorph does not need a male of her own species to reproduce, creating new life by penetrating victims through the mouth by agency of spider-like carriers. Like a bee, all the alien hive mates must be female as they are reproduced without a male, from the pure genetic material of their mother, and the mother is female.
Alternatively, half the genetic material comes from the host, from the human or other, into whom the egg is inserted: ‘Whatever it impregnated; it could have been a dog and you would have had a dog version of Alien; impregnated with a man you get a man version of Alien’, said director Ridley Scott.3 (People don’t seem to get that, although if you watch the movies it makes perfect sense.)
That makes the host a male as well as being a host or mother (for they give birth to the monster); male as well as female. The male host of the first xenomorph we see is impregnated by the face-hugger, gives birth to the chest-burster and becomes mother and father of the monster that kills them and all their friends. The monster abjects the host, the host becomes the alien at the moment of death.
Dan O’Bannon said it: the movie is about ‘alien, interspecies rape, that’s it, that’s scary’,4 a man is orally raped by an Alien, is implanted with an embryo and gives birth: his ‘child’, it bursts forth violently from his sternum. It is this rape and the result that is most terrifying to the male viewer; this scenario, the rape and the infant tearing its way out is a frightened child’s idea of how babies are made.
The monster impregnates her father/mother.
The monster kills her own mother/father.
The father/mother dies as she/he births the daughter.
Maybe it’s the feminised man that men really fear; it is Norman Bates from Psycho – a man, a killer, whose identity has been subsumed within that of his own mother. His mother has become the classic Freudian castrator; emasculating Norman Bates so severely that after her death he seeks to become her, transitioning wildly back and forth between his emasculated, weakened self and a stronger ‘mother’ in a perverted form of dissociative disorder, until in the end he becomes her completely. Men don’t fear being stabbed in the shower by Norman Bates (perhaps they see him as weak), they fear they may become him, that deep down they are him.
Norman becomes the mother monster who consumes him; the dominating mother he feared and yet killed.
If there’s one thing men fear more than a strong woman it’s a castrator. ‘I wanted to make all the men in the audience cross their legs. I didn’t want to allow them that comfortable spot where they could sit there and leer at the abuse of a good looking woman on the screen’, said Dan O’Bannon, the producer of Alien in the documentary Alien evolution.
If nothing else, the xenomorph’s ability to terrify the man, to make the men ‘cross their legs’, defined the entire species as only females. The male monster would not make a man fear so.
Perhaps the most pathetic moment in Psycho is the most terrifying: when Norman’s self is finally assimilated and he becomes his mother.
When it’s not the monstrous woman men fear, it is the woman inside themselves.
The man becomes the mother.
The mother makes more of her self.
The xenomorph, like a zombie, like a vampire, makes more of its kind from its victims. Like a wasp it lays its eggs in its victims.
‘Foreign shape’, alien, exotic, unwelcome, the very embodiment of xenophobia, the fear of outsiders. What can be more outsider than an alien whose very biology is unfathomable. The eternal white woman, Ellen Ripley with the multiple lives, many hairdos and only one face will always be there to ‘throw it out the goddam airlock’; for it cannot be killed, only – literally – cast out.
The xenomorph is the twentieth-century monster, a modern woman; it is society at its darkest, a eusocial species. The queen is the biggest, the baddest; fear her if you harm her young.
The xenomorph is literally black; to make it more frightening, its carapace is carbon-fibre black, spray-paint black, bruise black – dead black.
She has always come back. She will always come back.
She will always come Blak.
In Jurassic Park the ‘scientists’ thought they could control the dinosaurs they were creating by making them all female. Judging by the fact that it was a horror movie you can imagine how well that went. The girls broke out through their fences, ate some people, broke shit, trashed the joint and still found a way to make babies. That is arguably the moral of the story, the female are not the weak. We are women, we find a way.
We will inherit the earth.
They are I ...
What does it mean to be always the monster? It means if I ever get as angry as you, you are afraid of me, it means Blak women are always the aggressor and never the victim. It means aggressive white women can use tears to escape accountability, to turn black women into monsters;5 when a white woman cries it doesn’t matter what she did to hurt blak and brown women; she is the innocent. I’m sick of Blakfellas and of Blak sistas always making concessions, always forgiving, always saying ‘it’s not you it’s us’; always taking the blame; owning the monster.
I’m sick and I’m angry and tired, angry scared and it’s making you fear me, making me frightening; you fear me when I have been the one in danger since 1788. It was not us, the first people here, who performed the massacres and the rapes.
My great-grandmother Country, the Country in my bones, her mouth is open screaming. When I cry, when I wail along; when I am angry at what has been done to my Boodja; I am the monster.
For white men cannot be abject, cannot be the monster even when what they do is monstrous.
We are the witches who were killed in trials in Europe, in Salem in Massachusetts. Nowhere in the holy books does it say that witches are mostly or all women, yet it is mostly women who were accused; it was mostly women who were killed. Think of a witch and you will imagine an old woman, a hag. It was herbalists and midwives who were killed during the witch trials.
It was us/I.
Witches were burned, black cats, I have heard, were thrown into the fire, bodies carbonised, turned black; witches condemned to ashes and coals, ending in blackness even if they lived in whiteness. Witches were darkness, they were I.
‘Strigoi’ is a type of vampire or witch in Romanian, which some linguists identify as being derived from striga in Latin, which means owl, which is called lilit6 in Hebrew, which is also a female demon; closely related to Lilith; in legend the first wife of the prototypical man Adam. Predating Eve she becomes a female demon. The other type of vampire is a moroi, which is a small dark hairy demon, which is also related to the mara, or mare, a small dark creature that sits on you while you sleep to steal your breath and give you fear in return; which is where the ‘nightmares’ comes from.
Perhaps in the end, all monsters, all demons in our modern post-Abrahamic, essentially Christianised, world are Lilith; Adam’s wife who refused to submit to him and was cursed for it; who takes her revenge on new-born infants. All monsters are rebel women, disobedient women, the mad woman in the attic, the mad woman escaped; the woman freed. Lilith is related to lamias, snake-bodied demons, because that was how the medieval Bibles translated the word, lamias – to witches and vampires – because to the medieval Christians these were interchangeable; all these demons represent man’s fear of uncontrolled, disobedient, powerful women.
Lilith is mostly drawn or imagined as white.
Being the first woman alive she would have been black.
Being from Hebrew legend she would have been brown.
The source of all evil is a brown woman; and perhaps, as there is so much confusion with words, owls are involved.
Viktor Frankenstein was never the innocent victim of his story; that role belongs to his creation, his creature; that poor pitiful abjected thing who wanted nothing but love. That digger, that exhumer of corpses, that ghoulish man who created a sapient being and rejected them, he is the real monster. His creation, his creature was an innocent sapient being until rejected; until mistreated.
Viktor Frankenstein was the mother and the lightning is the father, the breath of god on the clay/flesh Viktor formed into a being. His creature, abjected and hated, cast out of society, is a blak woman, no matter how sweet-voiced, how educated they are, they will be cast out as not-person; they are abject.
You have made me a monster, you have stripped away my culture and Country and left me lonely; you have declared me and all mine abject. I am the creation, the creature; and they are I.
That makes you, coloniser,
That makes you, cis-white-man,
The real monster.
But I am the monster you fear.
And the monster always returns.
The airlock is open.
Cast me out, I dare you.
1 Julia Kristeva, Powers of horror: an essay on abjection, Columbia University Press, New York, 1984.
2 ‘Elegy’, The X Files, Fox, 1997.
3 Alien evolution (DVD), 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Inc., 2001.
4 Alien evolution (DVD), 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Inc., 2001.
5 Ruby Hamad, White tears brown scars, Melbourne University Press, 2019.
Claire G. Coleman is a writer and poet from Western Australia who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people. She wrote Terra Nullius, her award winning first book while travelling around Australia in a caravan. Terra Nullius was published by Hachette Australia and was awarded the 2016 black&write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship and was shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize and for Best Sci-Fi Novel in the 2017 Aurealis Awards. Her second novel, The Old Lie was published in September 2019.