This Is Fine. is a weekly newsletter from VICE about the highly personal tactics people use to make the world feel less harrowing. In this edition, Meredith Graves writes about the soothing properties of thoughtful home decor, which, here, means human ribs and lab jars filled with gruesome, once-alive specimens. Sign up here to receive a new essay about a dealing-with-life strategy via This Is Fine. each Sunday evening.
I open my eyes, and a greasy, rotting clown’s head, its hair burned off in patches and maggots spilling out of its ears, is nailed to the wall next to my face. A shelf is lined with turn-of-the-century mortician’s makeup for stuffing wounds and correcting jaundice resulting from asphyxia. A rusted coffee can holds a bouquet of human ribs. Nearby on a small table, fetal abnormalities float in laboratory jars: albino octopus, rabbit, rat. A crooked mirror and the wall around it are streaked with black and clotted blood.
This isn’t a nightmare—it’s six in the morning on any given Wednesday, and I am waking up in my apartment. Nearly every surface of my home plays host to some mutant parasite, partial human remain, or plant so poisonous it will kill you faster than you can learn its proper Latin name—and I love it this way. My home is full of horrifying things because horror is always where I’ve felt the most at home.
I was an explosively hypersensitive child obsessed with everything creepy. Born in the city of Bruce Coville and Rod Serling, I was studious but quick to anger, bored by everything except the Goosebumps! series and Ancient Egypt's mummification rites in picture encyclopedias (think brains uncoiling out of a head like sausage through the sinus cavity, by means of a sharp hook).
By second grade, I was the tallest in my class, bullied mercilessly by older boys on the bus for my bowl cut, bad teeth, and faint blond mustache.
I got called gross a lot, and a monster.
Home from school, I drank Wegmans grape soda and read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, daring myself to look at the infamously terrifying illustrations for longer each time. By third grade, I was reading Stephen King’s Rose Madder, then Sphere and Timeline (bedtime stories in my house became challenges as my father tried to help me understand quantum mechanics), Jurassic Park, and, in fourth grade, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, all the while racking up unreal overdue fines against books on the paranormal, metaphysical, occult, and generally strange.
My love of everything disgusting, frightening, disturbing, or upsetting escalated in my early teens, when we moved even further up into the part of New York that’s basically Canada—a sunless scab of a military base pockmarking the route to the Adirondacks, which are forested mountains chock full of creatures that will deeply and absolutely kill you, many of them human people. In a place where development and expansion come up against an unbelievably harsh climate, and every year a handful of people you knew in high school are blown to chum in Iraq or Afghanistan, nobody flinches at the sight of a deer carcass–turned–fly buffet.
The few friends I had in this rural wasteland were all marginal monsters of their own sort. We holed up watching Troma schlock or looping slasher flicks, discussing one friend’s family’s vision of the Evangelical apocalypse or another’s furious commitment to supporting the war, stepping outside only to smoke cigarettes under the abyssal Northern sky. We liked it best when, at the end of the movie, the kids like us were the ones who survived.
Like a hellish carnivorous plant mutated by some Mysterious Chemical X, my fascination with the horrifying has only gotten bigger, hungrier. From studying horror across academic disciplines—philosophy, evolutionary anthropology, media criticism—to writing albums pressed to vinyl colored with my own blood and bodily tissues, to reporting on horror wins at the Oscars as the host of MTV News, to publishing essays on the occult in the hallowed pages of Fangoria and hosting director panels for IFC, it has become the beastly beating heart beneath the floorboards of all that I do creatively. The work that is the most monstrous feels the most like me.
And so I surround myself with all that horrifies and delights me and reminds me of who I am and where I’m from—the distant rural void of Lyme and skulls, regressive sectarian religions and military police—and the knowledge that, in horror, survival often depends on difference. On being my own kind of final girl, in the same way the monster from Cloverfield is its own kind of final girl. (I wasn't the only one from my old group of friends to make it out and continue to live gruesomely. My friend Dewey did, too—becoming a renowned horror drag queen, to boot.)
At 31 years old, I think about those boys on the bus when I’m dusting off the collection of masks hanging on my bathroom wall, next to the bag of rubber spiders and the pile of Satanic literature—how they called me a monster. How the monster fears nothing; has survived until this moment; will get their revenge on mankind, will pummel the city to dust and feast on the soft parts of their enemies. At the end, you realize, the monster is always the true star of the film.