A few nights ago, my dad sent me a text. It was a cute quote from Winnie the Pooh, not a strange thing to get from my dad, whose favorite pastimes include watching the Justice League animated series, listening to Disney’s The Jungle Book soundtrack, and generally being the most responsible and well-educated 10-year-old I know. I’ve always loved Winnie the Pooh, he’s a simple bear who loves honey, his friends, and passing time playing Pooh sticks, and I can relate to all of those things. Owl taught me to have a sesquipedalian lexicon and be loquacious to the utmost, and also that not very many people want to be around someone like that. Eeyore taught me the importance of just asking for help when my tail falls off. There’s tons of great lessons to be learned from Winnie the Pooh. Or at least watching it as a child I believed that. I decided to watch Disney’s original 1977 movie after my dad sent me that text. I got about halfway through when I realized, this shit needs to be added to the list of reasons why I’m so fucked up.
There’s so many paths I could go down with this (Eeyore literally makes Piglet homeless, Piglet does nothing about it, and everyone seems to be ok with it! Rabbit and Christopher Robin choose to starve Pooh over making the hole into Rabbit’s house bigger when he gets stuck after gorging on honey, they don’t even try! A child lives alone in a forest inside a tree and commands a small army of sentient stuffed animals!), but I think it’s obvious what the most traumatizing part of Winnie the Pooh is: Pooh’s post-Tigger’s introduction nightmare about Heffalumps and Woozles. Pooh is a modest bear, a bachelor living in a cute one bedroom, he can sew well enough to fix his seams, and he knows how to provide himself with food. He’s a good fellow, even quickly warming up to Tigger, an intruder who just moments before was scaring the bejeezus out of him prowling around outside. Pooh Bear is an innocent. He has nothing to be afraid of in the Hundred-Acre Woods, other than running out of honey. What a life. So when Tigger informs him of Heffalumps and Woozles, terrifying honey-stealing creatures of the night, then bounces (see what I did there?), Pooh is horrified. He takes his toy gun and stands guard over his honey until he finally passes out against the wall, exhausted.
I think it’s important to note this film was made in the late ‘70s, as the age of psychedelica was at its prime but before the corruption and economic problems of the ‘80s began to really surface. It was the beautiful time when you could work for Disney while high on LSD. That is the only explanation for Pooh’s Heffalumps and Woozles dream. It’s a bait and trick, you think at first maybe they really are just Tigger’s mispronunciation of elephants and weasels until they start fucking morphing in and out of grotesque forms of those two animals, changing colors and patterns and sizes, while creepy accordion music plays and weird voices sing threatening words, and they slow dance through a sea of honey pouring down the watercolored walls around them, and Pooh runs around in a terrified mania with Heffalumps and Woozles chasing him in all directions, picking him up, throwing him, turning into hot air balloons and swinging him haphazardly around until he falls out of the sky, and the evil laughter! Oh, the evil laughter! Even the Joker has nothing on these guys – they're quick and slick, they're insincere! Beware! I definitely do not remember it being that fucked up. Now I know why I have had epic nightmares my entire life and why I’ve never done acid even though it’s been offered to me. Eventually that Hieronymus Bosch-like zoological hellscape ends as Pooh’s subconscious drifts back into his body and he wakes up to a flooded house and the Heffalumps and Woozles are quickly forgotten and never seen again, thank god. I found myself wondering when the first time I watched that was, as I watched the tape over and over as a little kid and again after my brother was born. I wondered, did the Heffalumps and Woozles come before or after a rather defining moment? I asked my dad, he said they came first. Maybe the reason I never realized how terrifying these nightmare monsters were because when I was 4 or 5, they were replaced by something much, much worse: my first funeral.
On my dad’s side, I come from a very large family from the mountains of Virginia. I have so many cousins that if I ever marry, I’m going to have to make sure that the man I’ve picked isn’t unknowingly related to me. My grandfather alone was the youngest of 12, to give you an idea. Now the memories I am about to share that of a small child, I can’t say for certain it’s all completely correct, but it’s what I remember.
When you have a large family, a lot of people die. That’s just statistics. We all die, the more people there are, the more often it’ll happen. My family’s story is a long Southern gothic tale of everyone dying. Even before I even understood what illness was, I understood that death is inevitable. I was a morbid child. We didn’t live in the mountains with the rest of the family, so to visit, we had to drive 7 or 8 hours to Grundy, Virginia. We went a lot, I do actually have many happy memories of childhood trips to Grundy to see my cousins, and being the introvert I have always been, I even enjoyed the long drive out there so I could watch the world go by and the terrain change as we drove across the state. I was told by my dad that we were going to Grundy with Nana and Nangy (my great-grandmother) for a funeral, which meant not much to me until he told me two of my cousins had died and they wanted to go to the burial. I have absolutely no idea how between my parents, Nana, and Nangy it never came up that perhaps it was inappropriate to take a 4- or 5-year-old to a double funeral of a son who committed suicide after finding out his dad died of cancer, but I did mention we’re just a Southern gothic tale happening in real life. There’s something wrong with all of us, but that’s another essay. (Don’t worry though, my mother is not a fish. She’s not even a Pisces.) All I remember was hearing folks at the viewing talking about how so-and-so blew his brains out and they had to break his arms to get him out of the room, as they found him spread eagle on the floor and rigor mortis had set in, and that both of the bodies in the caskets (because of course it was open casket!) were as blue as ice. During the service, I sat in the pew not listening at all to anyone who was speaking. I just stared at the corpses, trying to figure out what cancer is and putting it together that killing yourself is called suicide. Nangy cried a lot, I suppose it was someone in her part of the family. My dad put his arm around me as casually as if we were at a movie. Nana said it was ok if I didn’t want to talk to anyone or go close to the caskets. My first funeral was a father and son, cancer and suicide. This is why I’m so fucked up. And I believe this was also when I started becoming obsessed with death and the macabre, which brings me to my dad’s illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that he kept on the bottom row of the bookshelf in our living room.
By the time I was 7, I was reading at around a 9th grade level. I was reading novels while my friends were reading American Girl Doll books. I was a big fan of Roald Dahl and my favorite book was probably Bunnicula, but as the daughter of two English teachers, I had a house full of literature at my fingertips. (There was only one book my parents told me I couldn’t read, The Witching Hour by Anne Rice. I did finally read it when I was in college, over summer break while my roommate was gone on vacation, and it was so scary I almost called her to ask her to come back early so I wouldn’t be in our creaky old house alone.) All of those books lined our walls, I loved the smell of them, how the different papers felt, the complexities and flourishes of the different fonts from book to book, how heavy some of them were, the covers of the paperbacks and the dust jackets of the hard backs. I loved them and I still do. I wanted to eventually read them all, knowing that I couldn’t read well enough yet to read some of them, but if I practiced and practiced, I would learn more. Well, I should say I wanted to read all of them except one that scared me just looking at it. It was my Pandora’s box before I knew who Pandora was. The reason it scared me was the illustration on the front of this sinewy beast with a sunken face and strings of hair staring out into the world from the cover. I would look at it long enough to freak myself out, then slide it back in the row of books and go do something else. But one day, I was brave. One day, I opened it. Over the course of a few weeks, armed with a dictionary, I secretly read Frankenstein. The illustrations were horrifying but aroused an excitement I later learned was a passion for art. The words, the words, the words, I drank them in one by one like drops of honeysuckle nectar on my tongue. I was mesmerized by the emotional and ethical gravitas in every thought of the Monster. I was appalled by Victor’s hubris and unwillingness to take responsibility for what he had done. I cried for Elizabeth being so unfortunate to be caught in a situation she had not chosen. I was 7 and I was contemplating the meaning of life, death, companionship, and loneliness in my living room floor when my parents weren’t around to notice I was reading something a 7-year-old really shouldn’t be reading. I was being changed forever. When I was done with it, I felt like I had lived another life, that I wasn’t just a little kid anymore. I thought of the blue corpses of my dead cousins and wondered if they were brought back to life, would they be yellowed like the Monster? They were the only dead people I had ever seen, so they were in the forefront of my mind the whole time. That book fucked me up, probably in the best way possible because that was when I realized a book can change everything you thought you knew about life. But I was 7, so I had pretty limited life experience and it wouldn’t hit me until later that Frankenstein raises not only ethical questions but existential. I reread it in my early teens and those existential questions shone bright. I was thinking about mortality while my peers were having their first kisses. I was a ‘90s kid Wednesday Addams who understood where Nirvana lyrics were coming from a little too well. I had finally joined the cast of Southern gothic tale my family had been writing for generations. From there on out, I stood no chance. I was fucked. I could never turn out be a normal adult. Thanks for providing all of those experiences, Dad. At least I can pinpoint exactly why I’m so fucked up. I kind of like me how I am.
© S. Amanda Clevinger