“The kind of Horror I like drags things into the daylight and says, ‘Right. Let's have a really good look. Does it still scare you? Does it maybe do something different to you now that you can see it more plainly – something that isn't quite like being scared?”
- Clive Barker
By now you've no doubt heard the story about the three-year-old girl who was turned away from a KFC fast food restaurant because her facial scars were disturbing and frightening the other customers. The little girl from Jackson , Mississippi had been mauled by her grandfather's pit bulls and still requires surgery to reconstruct her features, although to my eyes she appears a delightful, charming girl with an adorable, undimmed smile.
The reports of the callous treatment by the fast food chain was disseminated through the media on television and the Internet, and the outcry was strong and immediate, condemning KFC (which immediately apologized, began an internal investigation and pledged $30,000 to the child's medical expenses. (You can find more details online.)
At this time it now appears that the incident may have been a hoax. Although the little girl's injuries and their history are genuine, there is doubt about the veracity of the KFC story, and new evidence suggests it didn't happen. If indeed it turns out to be false, that will be a shameful exercise in exploiting the suffering of the youngster and the good nature of the community at large.
But when the story was first reported, most people, including myself, had no difficulty believing that the story might have indeed happened. The heart of the story – that some individuals may have found the girl's disfigurement offensive or uncomfortable and asked her to be removed from their presence – all too plausible. I found it so, in no small part because of an incident that I experienced in May.
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Despite the opinions of some of my acquaintances and critics, I am not naïve about reactions to my appearance. I know that I present a striking figure; tall, white robe with black sash and skeletal features. I know that when I walk into a typical event location, unless it is specifically geared to the October Season or the Dark Fantastic, I'm going to attract attention and comment.
I've seen expressions of doubt, fear, amazement and wonder from both youngsters and more mature individuals. I've had normally rational adults run or shrink away in abject terror. Conversely I've had small children through their arms around me and hang on tightly, wanting to be close to someone magical, no matter how fearsome he might appear to others. Fear, after all, is a learned emotion, and children aren't born with an innate horror regarding spectres or skeletons.
So I made plans to attend a recent storytelling event, I knew full well that I'd create a bit of a stir. (No, I won't name the event; that wouldn't be fair to them as they aren't present to defend themselves or their actions.) Still, I didn't expect anything out of the ordinary, or certainly nothing more than I'd encountered at other events such as medieval faires, where some were amused at my presence while others were aghast. It's all part and parcel of being a wandering spirit in the material world.
My reasons for attending the event were threefold. First, I wanted to tell a story or two, to put my name and persona before this particular storytelling community for possible future venues and performance considerations. Second, I was representing the North Coast Storytellers, stirring interest in this year's Storytelling By The Sea Festival, handing out flyers and brochures for the event and acting as the group's official representative. Third, I was looking forward to hearing some wonderful storytelling from other professionals; in this I was delighted and successful.
Those were my reasons for being there, in precisely that order of importance. I confess completely that it was primarily for personal reasons and less for wanting to be a passive audience member. Still, I intended, as I try at all such events, to not draw too much undue attention to myself. I sit towards the rear of the performing space, try to come and go unobserved, and keep as much in the background as I'm able. Of course I draw attention, but I also try to deflect and divert attention back to where the focus should be, on the performance at hand, and if I'm too much of a distraction, I make myself scarce.
I arrived Saturday morning, and was pleased that there wasn't a great deal of fuss made about my initial appearance; my attire and visage seemed at first to be taken for granted as a simple personal artistic expression, or at the very least a harmless eccentricity. I looked forward to a full and enjoyable weekend.
But not long after I'd arrived, after I heard the first performer (a wonderful Asian woman named Motoko whom I recommend wholeheartedly and unreservedly; you can find her personal website by clicking HERE), I was approached by one of the members of the event's committee who wanted to speak to me. I will concede completely that he was respectful, polite and apologetic; nevertheless his message was that some attendees, both members of the community and audience members, found my appearance uncomfortable and disturbing. He wanted to know how we should handle this.
(Unspoken was the suggestion that perhaps I should remove myself from the event, but to be completely fair it was never phrased to me in exactly those words or suggestions. Not at that time, in any case.)
I told him that he could assure those concerned of three things. One, that I would never intentionally frighten anyone of any age; that was not why I was there. I wouldn't approach anyone unless they first approached me, and if I made them uncomfortable they could avoid me throughout the day and I wouldn't come near them. Second, as I stated above, I would do my best not to draw too much attention to myself and if my presence became a distraction I would remove myself from that session. (Incidentally, that never happened, not once during the entire event. All the featured performers took my appearance in stride with affection, enthusiasm and good humor.)
Third, I made what I thought was a perfectly valid argument: I said that if these individuals were made uncomfortable by someone who was black or Asian or Hispanic, or Jewish, or homosexual, or disfigured or handicapped or with Down's Syndrome, those individuals would simply have to swallow their discomfort and allow that person to remain, both out of moral and legal rights. Life is not guaranteed to be without some small discomfort, and I thought these people could learn some thing about themselves and their fears by going on with the day despite their reactions to me.
The gentleman thought those were all valid points, and after consulting with the head of the event's committee, word came that I was quite welcome to remain and enjoy the day. I thanked him and returned to the event.
I listened to some fine storytellers, told a tale myself to open the Open Stage event (I told “The Appointment”, which you can find in my VIDEO Room.) I met several people who were aware of both myself and the Storytelling By The Sea Festival, having attended in the past, and all were excited to see me there and hear about this year's event. I met several valuable contacts in the community, including one young lady who was preparing to open a new venue dedicated to storytelling and spoken word performances. (I hoped to plan a Halloween event with her for October.)
In all, I had a very good day, and didn't give a great deal of thought to what had occurred earlier. It was in the back of my mind; I don't like causing distress, even when I'm clearly in the right, and was saddened that people were content to remain fearful without opening themselves to the possibility that learning more about me and talking to me might not only alleviate their uncertainties but open them to experiencing the Dark fantastic in a new light. Still, it was just a slight shadow on the day, which was far more pleasurable in my experiences and encounters.
But the following day was a different story.
I arrived, expecting more or less the same day as before. But when I entered the building I was told that I wouldn't be able to attend the day's events. The lady at the ticket table told me there had been more complaints and concerns with my appearance, and that I would be refused admittance. She said I didn't bother her personally (usually a certain sign that I did bother her) but they had to be sensitive to others' concerns. Because I wasn't a featured guest, my attire was unusual (and when I mentioned that I had performed the day before, it was dismissed with, “Oh, but that was just the Open Stage.” I'm sure that the woman didn't mean to be insulting, but that was exactly how she came off, and harshly) and as it was a holiday such as Dia De Los Muertos or Halloween, I simply didn't fit in with their family friendly and safe atmosphere.
I tried as tactfully as I could to reiterate my arguments from the day before, but they fell on deaf ears. (Unspoken by me, at that point, was my assertion that they actually had no right to refuse me admittance by law – I wanted to be persuasive and save that rather strong-armed by I believe absolutely correct tactic as a last resort. After all, there were individuals in dakishis and other native dress, so if I wasn't allowed inside, why were they? There were no guidelines forbidding any type of attire.)
Finally I asked to speak to the gentleman who'd I'd encountered the day before, and I gently demanded an official stance of the committee: if they were indeed going to refuse me admittance, I wanted it to be official policy that would have to stand up to scrutiny and criticism. I told them if indeed it was official that I could not attend, I would leave – after my admission for the day was refunded to me. The gentleman agreed, and he went off to talk to various committee members. I waited, as I had the day before, but much longer this time, and I freely admit my patience was beginning to wear thin.
Finally I was approached again by the gentleman. No, the committee would not officially refuse me entrance; I was welcome to attend. I thanked him, but in truth my gratitude was rather strained. This incident completely colored the rest of the day, as well as the entire event. It had stopped being enjoyable, and although I was determined to hear some more stories from those I missed the previous day, my heart wasn't really in it. As it was, I ended up leaving earlier than I'd planned to return home to my crypt.
There were some bright spots during the day; once again the professional tellers and guests at the event didn't seem to have any problems with my being there, and welcomed me as one of their own. (The granddaughter of one of the performers even asked for my autograph, which I gave with pleasure.) And not everyone was nervous about my being in attendance; indeed, some were eager to have me about and thought I added to the festivities.
But there were two other incidents that sealed the day for me and made me determined not to return to the festival any time in the future. First, there was a Children's Stage where young people were invited to tell stories, much like the Youth Stage at the Storytelling By The Sea Festival in Trinidad last year that I hosted. One young lady named Illiyana enjoyed my company and wanted me to attend the telling of her tale; I promised I would be there for her.
After the events of the morning, the same gentleman approached me and said that they didn't want me attending the Children's Stage performance. The person in charge of the event was concerned that I'd frighten the youngsters and would cause too much of a distraction. I reluctantly agreed, on the condition that the gentleman gave my regrets to Ms. Illiyana and explain that it was not my decision that I not attend. He promised to do so.
I was bothered greatly by this. First, because I hate breaking my word to anyone, especially my young human companions, with every fiber of my being, and hate disappointing people. Second, I was bothered that it was predetermined that I would cause a disruption without seeing what exactly would happen; certainly I am self-aware enough that if I was a huge distraction I would excuse myself. To keep me away preemptively seemed excessive. Third, I would have preferred if the person in charge of the stage and come to me personally to voice his concerns instead of sending a representative. It struck me then, and does still, as a cowardly action.
But the final nail was a conversation I had with another teller towards the end of the event. This woman was not a featured performer but was rather a musician/storyteller on the secondary stage. She played Celtic harp, and as I am always partial to that instrument, I looked forward to her performance. We had a brief conversation about my being there, and it was clear that she sided with those who would have barred me from entering.
In vain, I tried to persuade her that I often don't cause fear among my young friends, but rather wonder; that I give them the opportunity to make up their own minds; that a little fear was perfectly OK in this world, and that I was presenting a face on the unknown that they may grow to appreciate. Each argument was met with, “Yes, but…”
Yes, but what about the ones I do frighten? (It seems in her mind that they must take precedence over those who I don't.) What about the ones who are offended? (What of the ones who aren't?) Even the slightest possibility that I might cause fear was reason enough to err on the side of caution. (But youngsters are afraid of so many things that are new to them. And my argument from the day before still held: what if a person was blind, or lame, or disfigured, and this frightened the children, as can so often happen; would they also be refused admittance?)
When it became clear than she simply wouldn't hear any of my side of the discussion, I cut it short and agreed we must disagree, and left her company quite discouraged. Shortly thereafter, after listening to her short set, I made my way home.
And not long afterwards I heard the story about the little girl being asked to leave the fast food restaurant, and had little difficulty believing the story. (And because these events are played in large headlines during their initial run but relegated to the sidelines when the story becomes older, I must emphasize again that it appears at this time that the incident was a hoax; it never happened, and KFC should not be held responsible for actions that never occurred.)
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So what should we make of all this? Is it simply a tempest in a proverbial teapot? It is just a case of my ego being bruised by being treated less than cordially. Perhaps. I confess that it was a disillusioning experience all around for me, perhaps more so because I was so looking forward to attending the festival.
But I think it's more than that, and this is what I want to discuss.
Last month when talking about various representations of Death in literature and popular myth, I spoke of putting a recognizable face on the supernatural and the Dark Fantastic. And though I try very hard not to take myself too seriously, that is precisely one of the things that I have always strived to do with my appearances and performances.
My fellow Patient Creatures and I put a physical face on the unknown and macabre; we provide personalities that are immediately recognizable and hopefully welcoming. Yes, we represent the Dark Fantastic, but the key word in that phrase to me is fantastic . As the opening lines to that classic television series THE OUTER LIMITS used to promise, “You are about to participate in a great adventure.” Some of those adventures may be frightening or disturbing, but they are indeed great, and those who are adventurous will be rewarded.
In the terrific film NIGHTBREED, directed by Clive barker and adapted from his novella “Cabal”, Rachael, the mother-figure of the Nightbreed (creatures of myth who exist in the underground world of Midian) talks to Lori, a young girl, about the appeal of so-called ‘monsters', and the dichotomy of why so many find them marvelous and literally filled with wonder, making them 'wonderful':
“To be able to fly? To be smoke, or a wolf; to know the night, and live in it forever? That's not so bad. You call us monsters. But when you dream it's of flying, and changing, and living without death.”
I know that there's very little I can say to those who've made up their minds about what I represent; I've certainly tried enough throughout my wanderings. But without attempting to sound too defensive, it is an incontrovertible fact that while some adults and youngsters see a menacing figure lurking, others see a magical sorcerer or eternal companion, certainly a step away from the mundane, and ready to reveal wonders.
Which point of view is correct? I suppose, as with everything else in this world, it depends on the intent. Certainly I can be menacing; when I'm telling a particularly macabre tale I want to be as dramatic and intimidating as possible. But I'm also known for my gentleness, particularly with those who seem especially nervous around the unknown.
As I've often stated, when a youngster first approaches me, I put myself down on their level, eye-to-eye, so that I'm less oppressive. I speak softly, and keep a safe distance. If they wish to move closer and investigate further, its entirely in their hands, and giving them this power and choice makes them much more comfortable. I let them get to know me, and if they like what they discover, most times they want to get closer and learn more.
(Compare this to well-meaning parents who take this power away from their children, who place them unhesitatingly in Santa's lap or in the arms of elderly relatives and are puzzled by the unpleasant reaction, from whimpers to full screams. What's so frightening, they wonder? This individual isn't scary. No, not to them, in their adult mindset; they've forgotten what the world looks like from a lower perspective.)
(Recently I had this experience with a young man at a campfire event. When he first laid eyes on me I heard his uncertain voice asking his mother, “A skeleton?” But after spending the evening watching and listening to me, and deciding for himself that I was a friendly acquaintance, he couldn't stop talking about his school and hobbies and adventures when he came up to me after the show. In fact, his parents finally had to carry him away back to their campsite.)
What this demonstrates, obviously, is looking past appearances to the nature of the person being approached. And this has also been a conscious part of being a Patient Creature; revealing that judging a person strictly by their appearance can be a foolish and dangerous habit. This holds true whether we're discussing a macabre and ghoulish creation, or the more commonplace criteria of skin color, religious background, sexual orientation or handicap.
Foolish, because it limits somebody's personal and social interactions to those who strictly adhere their own background and experiences, with no opportunity to expand their awareness. Dangerous, because we know from past events that true evil sometimes wears a comfortable, familiar face, open and inviting. Too many times in the aftermath of a horrendous tragedy we've heard the refrain, “We had no idea the boy/teen/gentleman/woman was like that; he/she seemed so quiet and friendly.”
Probably the best example would be Ted Bundy; he was by all accounts charming and ingratiating, the sort of person that engendered trust immediately – which enabled him to kill in truly horrendous fashions more than 36 women. (And as played by Mark Harmon, a performer known for his likeability, in the excellent telefilm THE DELIBERATE STRANGER, he became even more terrifying.)
Of course Horror fiction has long played on the idea that the mundane and normal may hold secret and hidden terrors. Mr. King's Jerusalem's Lot, Maine seems on the surface like a fine, upstanding conservative Yankee town – at least until the sun goes down. But even before the vampires move in there is abuse and infidelity and alcoholism and other subject unsuitable for polite conversation.
Check into the Bates Motel and you'll be greeted by the desk clerk Norman; as played by Anthony Perkins, he's a handsome, friendly and gentle man, quite shy and somewhat bumbling, which makes him all the more endearing. He's someone you'd easily leave your children with when you went out for an evening's entertainment, or left him the key to watch your house and pets while you went on vacation. But he has a shameful habit, does Norman ; he likes to peep through holes hidden in the wall at women undressing. And at times he'll put on a dress and speak in a different voice and become very unsocial…
One of the most famous examples of not judging an individual by appearance is Oscar Wilde's “The Picture Of Dorian Gray”. Outwardly, young Dorian remains upright and upstanding, a pillar of society, beloved by both women and men who value moral reticence. By Dorian has a secret hidden in his attic (which is one of Mr. Wilde's brilliant bits of symbolism in this horrifying tale): a portrait that shows his true face; every line of degradation and decay, obscenity and secret hungers, all naked on the face carefully kept out of sight from the public, telling the true story of Mr. Gray's character - much like many politicians and religious leaders today in wearying scandal after scandal.
(And in truth, I believe I speak for many when I find that the most disturbing things about these incidents are not necessarily the 'sins' of those involved as much as their unspoken arrogance that the rules may apply to others but never to themselves, and the incredible short-sighted stupidity that in this day and age when everything is made public through the media or internet, that they will never be caught!)
The philosopher Eric Hoffer once wrote, “What monstrosities would walk the streets were some people's faces as unfinished as their minds.”
And that, at the core, is why I appear as I do, and why I think it so important to demonstrate that what lies on the surface is not always representative of what lies beneath . I consider that a worthy message that I wish more would embrace.
But…having said that, I also believe that, living in the world as it exists today, it is perfectly fine to disturb people on some level in their daily lives; in truth, I believe it's even more than acceptable, it's imperative . And I want to discuss that further next time, and share my thoughts on trigger warnings, political correctness and the quintessence of drama, expanding finally on the wonderful quote by Mr. Barker above.
I hope you'll join me then.