What Lives Beneath: There’s a Sociopath in My Closet

“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real, too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” ~Stephen King

 

Happy Hallowe’en, y’all.  I sit here watching the weather deteriorate on this last, blustery afternoon of October, and I think it’s only appropriate that this post be about monsters.  But not your run-of-the-mill horror movie types.  Those are, at the end of the day, the palest reflections of the real monsters.  The ones that live behind the eyes of every one of us.  Sometimes, you run across sociopaths that are overt, on the surface, a part of an individual’s conscious personality.  But what about those that never fully surface?  I’m talking about the horrors that each of us keeps under wraps, the things we would never do or say, and what we even have trouble admitting to other human beings.

 

They Only Come Out at Night

During sleep, our brains shut off most of the systems we need during the day–motor functions with the exception of a few muscle groups, like the tongue and throat, and the logic and reason centers of our brains.  These things need rest, and also being functionally paralyzed in our sleep helps keep us from blundering into danger while we’re dreaming about grocery shopping.  But what waits for us in that darkness?  It’s a subject several horror writers have delighted in exploring, because our subconscious minds generate the most astounding and horrifying imagery.  These themes have the power to chill us in our waking world–reaching cold, slimy hands up from the depths of something that doesn’t feel altogether human to our conscious minds.

 

Horrifying Emotions

I’ve spoken occasionally of a group of people who hurt me and made me doubt the fidelity of everyone I came into contact with in Albuquerque.  These people damaged my ability to trust, and for a while, to feel positive emotions about other human beings.  They are the treacherous garbage of my human world, and for months, I hated them.  I don’t hate them anymore, but how can I, after what my subconscious has done to them?  They are to be pitied.  They are victims.  And while I feel comfortable knowing that they have gone on about their lives somewhere far away, experiencing the normal spectrum of human triumphs and disappointments, in a box buried deep beneath the surface of my mind, I have taken them apart.

If anything, this convinces me that I’m really not a nice person, however devoted I am to being good to others in my own life.  I woke this morning from a dream that was gruesome, but though my conscious mind was horrified, the contents of the dream did not inspire horror in my sleeping brain.  This was not a nightmare.  It was revenge in the only reasonable way my writer’s mind could take it.

 

A Touch of the Egyptian

In ancient Egyptian burial custom, eternity was guaranteed only so long as the ka or spirit could find its way back to the mortal remains.  One way of ensuring this was to name the corpse.  For the wealthier dead, especially, this was done via cartouches–the name of the dead enclosed in a circle to differentiate it from the rest of the hieroglyphic text accompanying it.  Those seeking revenge upon the dead or attempting to confuse a vengeful ka after they had robbed a tomb would often destroy the cartouche, damning the human soul to an eternity of wandering starvation and mourning.

In my dream last night, I did something very similar to these people.  I erased them.  Like a very un-funny Looney Toons cartoon, I stood before them and wiped them out.  They were conscious of what was occurring, and it was apparently very painful.  But my sleeping mind was almost gleeful at their agony.  The pavement was crowded, but passersby didn’t seem to notice what I was doing, or at least they were unresponsive to the cries for help.  I rubbed out these emotional traitors with a giant piece of art gum, and they were powerless to stop me or run away.  It was a slow process, and in reflection, seems a good bit like vivisection without all the gore.  When I had finished, all that remained of these people was a pile of spent eraser bits.  And so I blew them into the gutter.

 

It’s Not What It Seems…

Or is it?  If you think about it, I just committed three or four murders last night in my sleep.  It was methodical, it was sadistic, it was undeniably exactly what it seemed to be.  Perhaps what horrifies me most is not that I dreamed this, but that it was not a nightmare.  The fact that I experienced pleasure and woke refreshed with every detail of the dream clear and defined in my mind disturbs me.  Vivisection is incredibly monstrous.  Nevermind that it wasn’t done with cutting tools in a laboratory or garage.  I started erasing their feet and finished with their faces.  It was a deliberate choice to cause suffering.  I have to live with the knowledge that, even in the unfettered deeps of my unconscious where symbols live and logic does not venture, some part of me is not only capable of this, but chooses this.

 

Today, I’d ask you what monsters you keep in your mental closet?  Have you looked them in the eye lately?  They aren’t “demons” or things separate from you.  They are you, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.  I have to acknowledge that alongside the personality that loves people and wants to heal the harm it sees in the world, there is a shadowy rider.  That part of me is a sadist of unbelievable ferocity, without legitimate emotions.  Even rage is absent and pleasure is a fleeting, sickly imitation of itself.  She’s always been there.  It makes me wonder if more people are keeping such things in the dark.  And it also gives me the creeps, because it shows that “civilized behavior” is an illusion itself.

 

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4 thoughts on “What Lives Beneath: There’s a Sociopath in My Closet

  1. I believe the same, that we all have shadow selves, sometimes more than one. In various jobs I’ve had the experience of dealing with some pretty bad people. One was a murderer, I know for sure …the other one was a career criminal who probably was a murder or two shy of a baker’s dozen.

    But the person in my life that was the worst human being of all, was a newspaper executive. He could cease to exist and the universe would be a better place. I do remember in my darkest nights having fantasies about leaving a bleeding horse’s head in his bed. It was about the time of the Godfather movies (and he raised horses.). Most of us are split 50.5 versus 49.5 good and evil. Some times it doesn’t take much to flip us from the best angels of our nature to the worst. Everyone is capable of great good, and great evil.

    1. Well, as far as my academic training goes–psychology tells me that it’s a normal part of the healthy human psyche to have such fantasies (i.e. impulses we would never act upon under normal circumstances.) Therapists actually consider it a red flag if these things don’t come up–a sign of serious repression, disorder, or even dangerous mental illness.

      I’m not sure the split is so even across the board, but there is a potential for either tendency in just about everyone. I look at the social programming imposed or enforced by the prefrontal or higher parts of the brain as a mental analog to the physical restraints imposed by the brain–such as the fact that your jaws are more than powerful enough to bite through your own finger as if it were a carrot, and yet, your brain typically checks this force.

      It calls up the idea that we regard our human communities as a part of ourselves. So, usually only under extreme circumstances or in cases of faulty restraint mechanisms are we moved to cause overt damage to a part of that social body.

      But I have to wonder if the human capacity for empathy goes offline along with our logic and reasoning center during sleep. Does it also require rest? If so, perhaps our motor functions are suspended only for our own protection, but that of others near us, as well.

      1. I’m coming at this from a literary perspective, not a scientific one. I have myself as a subject of study for 65 years, and all the people I know, plus 15 years as an observer of people under pressure to express the belief that on any given day, under the right circumstances, any of us is capable of doing very bad things. Doesn’t mean it WILL happen, just that there’s no way to predict things like this, since it’s mostly hidden.

        But that’s why stories about the battles between good and evil are so interesting. If it weren’t an even match, it wouldn’t be.

  2. And I suppose the term “bad things” is more broad than just something like murder. I include all sorts of moral failures, bad choices made, including things as varied as a parent destroying a child’s self esteem, betrayals large and small, and cutting in line at the theater. 🙂

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