by Maria Takolander,
When I was a child I feared that I was the antichrist. I used to check for the mark of the devil on my scalp. I would stand up close to the bathroom mirror, with a smaller mirror in my hand to facilitate inspection of the back of my head, searching my scalp for a tattoo of the number of the beast.
To explain: I watched horror films from an early age. We got our first video recorder when I was in primary school, and visits to the video rental store saw my father choose video cassettes with lurid and grotesque pictures behind the sticky plastic of their protective covers. They included what have come to be well-known titles such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Exorcist and A Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as lesser known titles including Blood Sucking Freaks, Rosemary’s Killer and Basket Case. We would have watched every available horror movie in the store. My father even made illegal copies of the films with an ad-hoc system involving another video recorder, which meant that we could watch the movies over and over.
I have little insight into my father’s choice of horror—a genre that combines pornography and violence—for family entertainment. Perhaps it entailed a masculine demonstration of sisu, the quality of toughness celebrated as integral to Finnish victories against the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Perhaps it resonated with a particularly ugly masculine worldview inherited from his childhood in Helsinki, where he was born before the war’s end. In societies where men need to be ready for battle, where men have fought out of necessity, there is little room for sensitive souls. Sensitivity or weakness—the antithesis of sisu—also has a name in Finland: nassuja. Julia Kristeva would argue, according to her theory of horror and abjection, that my father’s choice of films exposes a regular practice of patriarchy, involving the marking and rejection of women as monstrously unclean. Whatever the case, motivations are always multifaceted and complex. And so-called insights regarding other people are so unavoidably obscured by one’s own emotional investments as to be borderline paranoid delusional, particularly in the case of family members (although there are those rare, disembodied and startling moments when one thinks one comes close to glimpsing something true).
The Omen and its sequel Damien: Omen II, which focused on a boy spawned by the devil and adopted by human parents, were the films responsible for my childhood anxiety about being the antichrist — although The Exorcist undoubtedly also played a part. One might view such a response as unfortunate and masochistic, but I suspect that a complete identification with the parade of female victims in horror films would have been worse. In fact, my anxious identification with Satan was probably unconsciously self-serving and empowering. I have written on gothic misogyny and children’s viewing in a book called Contemporary Children’s Literature and Film, and a lot of criticism of the gothic genre does focus on its representation of women. However, Carol Clover has done important work in evaluating the complex trans-gendered identifications of viewers when it comes to the characters in horror films. Judith Halberstam’s work on female masculinities, acknowledging women’s desire for power and trans-gendered ways of performing that power, is also highly relevant.
The way I see it, the character of Damien exemplified for my childish self various fantasies around power. To begin with, he embodied the fantasy of being adopted—one common to children (as the popularity of more palatable texts such as Annie and Heidi suggest)—and of therefore being ‘self-made’ and special. I am also sure that the capacity to supernaturally harm those who would do me wrong was an element of the character’s (albeit unconscious) appeal. Vicious Dobermans, nasty ravens and spontaneous aneurysms would befall those who tried to hurt or expose me—and I was a child who was bullied at school, being a shy migrant girl growing up in working class suburbs around Melbourne in the 1970s and 80s. It was also the case that there was someone devastatingly powerful looking after Damian, who stood to inherit nothing less than the Earth. There I was, the timid daughter of Finnish migrants, harbouring fantasies of omnipotence—and terrified of them!
We encourage young girls to be as innocuous as possible, while facilitating young boys’ fantasies of power through stories about superheroes and such, but I can’t see why all female children—or, indeed, grown women—wouldn’t experience similar transgressive desires for power. It has always struck me that Sylvia Plath’s poetry expresses fantasies of diabolical supremacy. Not surprisingly, when I was introduced to her poetry in my high school literature class—I was fortunate to have some wonderful English and literature teachers who made up for my lack of a traditionally bookish home life—I was instantly mesmerised. The last lines of ‘Lady Lazarus’ are, like the images from horror films, embedded in my memory: ‘Herr God, Herr Lucifer / Beware / Beware. / Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.’ Interestingly, Plath is much more commonly represented as a victim of the villainous Hughes, their story nevertheless resoundingly implicated in the gothic genre.
I should probably explain at this point that I had been brought up in the Lutheran religion, so that the idea of a devil and of a devil’s child struck me as perfectly feasible. Indeed, the supernatural realm of the horror films and of Christianity formed a single spectrum—and it was not one that was altogether separate from my quotidian existence. Particularly in those irrational states induced by night—by the mere turning of the earth from the sun, a phenomenon still so preternaturally abominable—I believed in it all like the child that I was.
This scenario offers not only a portrait of the kinds of pathological states inflicted upon children by casually irresponsible and religious parents—and what of the children compelled to act as demons in horror films?—but also a sketch of the background to my life as a writer. The first stories I wrote at primary school were firmly in the horror genre. One called ‘Maniac’—the heading dripping with red texta—told the story of a young girl who comes home from school one day to find her mother being carved up by a serial killer in their backyard. The girl flees to the police station, and the police put the child in a hotel, conceived as a kind of safe house. That evening, the girl looks out of her hotel room window and sees her dog being decapitated by the killer, now wielding a saw in the hotel car park.
Sometime after submitting this story to my teacher for assessment, I was called out of my class to the principal’s office. I sat before the principal’s desk and listened to the imposing Mr Orr express his astonishment at my imagination. He held my English workbook in his hands, flicking through the pages of the handwritten story. He went on to praise the narrative’s realism and asked me if I had a particular hotel in mind when I came up with the plot. I was a small, uncannily blonde and morbidly introverted girl of about ten years of age. It was possible that, during the entire interview, I said absolutely nothing—but I remember smiling.
It was only years later that I came to understand that my story had raised concerns about my home life and that the interview constituted a subtle interrogation. At the time, though, I had glowed with pride. I had been marked out as special. I had, after all, been singled out by the proverbial man in charge. He had recognised my hidden powers. From that day on I knew that I was destined to be—not a diabolical agent of the devil per se—but a writer.