The Monster with a Human Face: Secrets, Serpents, and My Human Experience
An otherworldly woman appeared before a woodworker one night. She was a spirit of ice and snow- a monster feared to freeze men to death, and yet, despite this, she had spared his life. Upon urging the man to withhold the details of this encounter to himself, she vanished. Years later, she appeared before him once again, this time as a human woman, the two falling in love and subsequently being wed, bearing children not long afterward. To her, the man recounted his experience with the spirit so long ago, at which point she revealed to him her true identity, disappearing in despair upon having broken his promise.
The Japanese tale of the yuki-onna had fascinated me since childhood. Immediately, the nature of her identity needing to be kept secret stood out to me, prompting me to question both her motivations, as well as those of her husband for having broken his promise. In my own personal research years later, I found similar depictions of “othered” being seeking a form of acceptance through their disguise into a human form. The Celtic faerie selkie operated on a level similar to the yuki-onna, with the seal woman disappearing back to the sea. The French tale of Melusine followed a similar line of thought, with the revelation of her form as that of an aquatic dragon prompting her disappearance. Common to these entities were themes of water and womanhood- an unseen wall dividing the normative masculine views in society with a mysterious otherness of the unknown, darkness, and womanhood. Recurrent depictions featured attributes of fish and serpents, further emphasizing an animalistic, and often venomous and reptilian, visage- as deadly as they were unknowable..
To me, these experiences echoed those of my own. Social difficulties even at a young age marked the extent of my interactions with others, a strained, tense relationship with another denoting a net positive in my personal experience. Parents had taken note, and, as any good parent would, offered to push for a screening and diagnosis to potentially tease out any mental or developmental issues that may have contributed to my alienation. To me, this felt like a recipe for social suicide- the idea of even acknowledging that something may be “wrong” with me, be it an anxiety or a developmental disorder, marked a death warrant. Through my pleadings and an appeal to their frugality, I avoided an appointment with a psychologist, content to lie to myself about operating at a level of normalcy. Just as these fantastical entities often did, so too did I feel I would “disappear” had some form of socially unpleasant reality come to light. Further schooling overlapped the images of “otherness” with “potential threat” as I became all too aware of the dangers I posed in the eyes of others. Emotional regulatory issues compounded with an increased awareness of my perceived threat level in the eyes of law enforcement on racial grounds, coalesced into a singular conclusion: withdrawal from society. Ahead of the curve in a pre-pandemic world, I soon isolated myself within my room, rarely venturing out for any reason. My thoughts turned to personal, indoor hobbies; writing, drawing, and independent research on whatever topics my mind obsessively clung to in isolation. To this end, I found myself once more enamored with these figures, so neglected and shunned, in my pursuit of personal inspiration for a story.
Drawn to these neglected souls once more, my expanded breadth on cultural research revealed to me a silver lining in these depictions. Certainly, viewpoints on these beings-turned-women over time evolved to more tragic interpretations, centered around their own unrequited love for humans, as opposed to the mystical allure of the “mysterious woman” so marked by her aquatic affiliations. The image of the vicious, nocturnal vampire Lamia found an overhaul in 19th century art. Her depiction as the eponymous star of John Keats’s work reinvented her image as that of a more tragic figure, her love to the young Lycius left unrequited from the exposure of her identity at the hands of the sage Apollonius, her body and form disappearing upon Lycius’s realization. Similarly, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid follows the story of a nameless ondine, who, in a bid for humanity and an eternal soul, bargains with the Sea Witch for legs so as to win the heart of a human prince, and in doing so, win the right to live with him in Heaven upon death. With the prince’s betrothal to another human, the water spirit dies of a broken, unfulfilled heart, her body dissolving into foam as she ceases to exist forevermore. The Chinese historical folktale, the Legend of the White Snake experienced a similar overhaul to that of Lamia. An initial tale about a wicked white serpent attempting to seduce a man in human form, only to find herself cast out and banished by a virtuous monk, found the relative roles of each party flipped on their head. The serpent, now a romantic going by the name Bai Suzhen, attempts to win the affection of the human man Xu Xian, with the monk now no more than a resentful turtle spirit attempting to dissolve their union by his own hand. In contrast to the prior examples, Xu Xian’s affections for Bai Suzhen are returned in spite of learning of her true form, transforming a tale of a lascivious serpent into one of acceptance of one from another world. This narrative’s alterations, in comparison to those of Lamia, proved more pervasive in their culture- a fact possibly aided by stone-age era serpent worship in China, as opposed to the groundwork laid by more western associations with demonic tempting entities such as Lucifer and Lilith.
It could be considered an act of fate, then, that I found my own self, as viewed through the looking glass, to be tested once again, via an examination of my own hypocrisy through my personal writings. I had recently found myself acquainted with a small community, of which many participants followed creative undertakings as writers, aspiring poets, and visual artists. Brief displays of my own work across these fields drew the attention of a fellow hobbyist writer, and one I found myself immediately drawn to in a series of friendly ramblings and debates over themes in fiction.
She had taken notice of my work, offering to pay a healthy, triple-digit sum in exchange for a drawing piece at her own request. Her attention found itself drawn to a digital artwork I had posted as a work in progress, featuring a young woman bearing inhuman facial features, adorned in an ornate dress- the star of a short webcomic I had intended to write for fun, based around an earlier short story I had written while in high school. - as it told the story of a serpent-turned girl, who, after repeated negative altercations with the humans she so desired the acceptance of, decided to embrace the label of “monster” for herself, opting out of any false pretenses. Our resultant conversation culminated in one “oh yeah” moment after another, my story’s inspiration in works such as Lamia and the Legend of the White Snake being far from subtle- and practically worn on its sleeves- as she connected the themes of each to that of her personal experience.
In her experience, the narrative of the White Snake had touched upon her identity, resonating with what she had seen in herself. The identity of an entity shifting in form from one to another called to mind her own identity as a transgender woman, and the accompanying social implications that followed from her growing up in such a way alongside her socially conservative, traditionalist Chinese-American family. The inspiration I relayed to her appeared to resonate with her feelings similarly, with my story and character eliciting a response regarding the narrative decision to let her embrace her status as a monster at the behest of her initial desires to present as human. Her response was one of unexpected praise, my client raising a point with one word:
I’d been taken aback. “Why do people need to celebrate the humanity in these stories, as opposed to inhumanity?” She continued, lauding my decision with a “hell yeah” and subsequently enhancing my personal embarrassment. The answer was simple for me: because I craved that normalcy. The idea of celebrating, or admitting to, what cast me apart from other people drew a burning anxiety from the pit of my stomach. Celebrating the other side? The sort of maxim only possible in the fiction I produced, never to be cultivated within myself, out of a fear of signing my own warrant to alienation- a truth I knew too well, yet could not accept. To “own who you are” was perhaps, to me and many others, an untenable ideal; a sin of wanting, never to be reconciled by the simultaneous desire for social acceptance.
In her understanding, I found a recontextualization of my own understanding- the answer to the incongruence I felt within myself at even many of the more favorable depictions of the unknown. Malformed attempts at understanding the monster, understanding the allure and the melancholy of the unknown, their yearning for humanity and human affection invariably leading to their downfall. Keats’s Lamia rejected her status as either a nymph or a serpent, receding to no more than dust upon the exposure of her reality, while Andersen’s mermaid found herself trapped under the weight of her own unrequited love, unable to cultivate within herself the coveted human soul, her body reduced to foam. The narratives contained an answer I felt I had been searching for: the destruction of the “self” as a means of rejecting it.
The identity of the “other '' in this way, may be viewed as a sense of self-othering as well- the idea of social norms and this pervasive pressure leading to an internalized rejection of the self. A rejection so pervasive, one would find it leading to self-destructive behavior in an attempt to consolidate both normalcy and inherent distance- a decision many of us in this community resonated with to an uncomfortable extent. The idea of such a forbidden love, that one need present their “self” into a form unreal to their core, speaks to the nature of social masking- a series of methods under which one of an “othered” group may front in ways as expected of social behavior, at the detriment of their own personal mental health. Historically and in clinical settings primarily attributed to autistic spectrum disorders and similar developmental conditions, the idea of wearing a social camouflage to compensate for one’s natural behavior has been empirically linked to depressive and anxious tendencies in autistic adults- a trait I nonetheless connected with my own experience with my parents, and my subsequent convincing of them to delay a potential developmental diagnosis of my own social incongruence while growing up.
Where, then, does this leave us? In what direction does the narrative of the othered, inhuman at odds with society evolve? The messages conveyed by contemporary children’s media yields conflicting results. The popular 1989 animated Disney film The Little Mermaid, built upon Andersen’s fable, offers a more positive outlook into the ideal of that reconciliation through framing the transformation in reverse. The titular mermaid, Ariel, finds herself enamored with the realm of humans, whilst psychologically alienated and outcast in the realm of the sea- in this sense, the framing of her transformation to humanity is one of the acceptances of her true self and natural desires, at the initial behest of a society condemning her to the “natural order” of the sea. In this framework, the mermaid essentially cheats the faustian bargain of the sea witch, earning her romance and legs in spite of the dangers following her own curiosity. The 2008 Ghibli animated film Ponyo yields a similar tale, in which the eponymous Ponyo (itself a chosen name, independent of her birth name of Brunhilde) destabilizes the very ecosystem and millions of years' worth of marine evolution in an effort to become human, so as to live with the boy she loves. In both examples, the ideal of being human is itself framed as the “otherness” itself- a rejection of the natural order based on both inter- and intrapersonal feelings. A differential outlook on the reconciliation between othering and acceptance may be found in the 2001 Dreamworks animated film Shrek, wherein the titular ogre, in wavering acceptance of his own inhumanity, finds romance with fellow ogre Fiona, with the latter’s own character arc revolving around her own self-acceptance in the face of her monstrous true form.
In my own experience, I would argue neither interpretation in these contemporary works as potentially more “correct” than another. So long as the desire to live according to natural inclinations is displayed as a net positive to the mental wellbeing of the protagonist, such depictions, I feel, will present as more beneficial to those experiencing a social othering in their interactions with others. Fiction allowed a respite and an escape from my own social difficulties growing up; the power of its ability to affect another, to me, should not be understated. In personal isolation, I found fiction and fantasy alone to be my anchor- a lens by which I could stare into a window, through a writer’s lens of human nature and morality, into an untenable experience not unlike my own.