Slaying Trauma: A Pop Culture Healing Journey

7 min read

Buffy Summers, the ultimate high school superhero who traded prom dresses for stakes, and makeup for monster hunting, was the chosen slayer destined to protect the world from vampires and demons, all while navigating the perilous halls of Sunnydale High. She is also part of a decades-long love story that became the means for poet Erik-John Fuhrer to process their past trauma. The poems in Gellar Studies (2023), Fuhrer’s latest collection, are the doorways to a realm where personal stories meld with iconic cultural symbols, providing a fresh perspective on the complexities of trauma and the potential for profound catharsis.

“Locked Inside” seamlessly weaves together a deeply personal account with the cultural iconography of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, leveraging the narrative backdrop of the iconic television series to dissect and navigate the intricate mesh of sexuality, masculinity, and the repercussions of traumatic encounters. “For Those Whose Horror Was Locked Inside” reimagines the scream queen trope from horror films, traditionally a symbol of fear and victimization, as a powerful vehicle for processing and transcending familial trauma. These two poems—as the second and penultimate—serve to frame the collection. Together, they underscore the profound impact of pop culture narrative as a means of personal catharsis.

Coming to Terms With One’s Own Reactions

“Locked Inside Forever” begins with a declaration of love, not in the conventional sense of romantic or physical desire, but rather, a yearning to emulate the strength, confidence, and beauty embodied by the character of Buffy, brought to life by Sarah Michelle Gellar. The poem unearths how Fuhrer’s love for and desire to be like Buffy coincided with the increasingly visible pressure to adhere to traditional gender norms in the middle school years. This love—so different from the hetero-patriarchal “be a f*cking ‘man’ kind of Love”—becomes a source of secrecy and shame that has to be “locked inside.”

At its core, the poem discloses a traumatic episode etched into Fuhrer’s middle school years—an unfounded accusation of same-sex kissing that triggered a chain reaction of bullying, isolation, and victimization. In unflinching honesty, Fuhrer unfurls the role played by toxic masculinity and gaslighting in the perpetuation of this cycle of abuse. The Social Studies teacher’s and principal’s responses are either bullying in themselves or negligent: “Be a man,” “Fight back,” the Social Studies teacher says, doubling down on toxic masculinity; “Boys will be boys,” the principal lobs, further perpetuating the experience of silence and shame.

Buffy’s fictional battles against supernatural forces become a lens through which Fuhrer then processes and frames their own response to this gaslighting and bullying. When the boys in chorus pull Fuhrer’s head down toward one boy’s crotch, Fuhrer instinctively fights back, only to be beaten by the students and suspended by the principal. Decades later, Fuhrer uses Buffy’s unwavering defense against evil to retell and reframe their involuntary and desperate response to physical assault. The slight puncturing of the boy’s shoulder by Fuhrer’s pencil—still in hand from doing vocab homework—during the initial assault becomes, in the poet’s mind, one and the same as Buffy burning down the gym to kill the vampires. Fuhrer contemplates how the bullying and assault reshape their body from a symbol of personal agency and identity into an object that invokes both desire and repulsion, ultimately reducing it to a dehumanized state described as nothing more than “meat.” When the bullying, assault, and gaslighting are reframed within the context of vampiric evil, Fuhrer gains a deeper understanding of and comes to terms with their own reactions: “My only choice / was to stake. / Not intentionally. / But perhaps / Buffy had / prepared me.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer serves as a lens through which to work through the past and gain the voice stifled, locked inside, by societal norms and gaslighting.

Marcos Paulo Prado / Unsplash

Marcos Paulo Prado / Unsplash

Finding a Voice

With a confessional tone and sparse, evocative language, the poet embarks on an emotional journey deeply rooted in the trope of the scream queen. The scream queen trope typically involves a woman character whose screams punctuate scenes of terror, but in “For Those Whose Horror Was Locked Inside,” it is reimagined and subverted, becoming a powerful vehicle for defying Fuhrer’s voicelessness.

The poem opens with a poignant scene: the speaker standing before the mirror in their mother’s bathroom, invoking the name of “Bloody Mary.” This act is not a mere childhood game but an invocation of the macabre, a longing for a visceral, cathartic horror experience that mirrors the depth of the speaker’s inner turmoil. The desire for “box office horror” and a “quick death” reflects a yearning for a release from emotional pain and an escape from the tormenting past.

The act of summoning Bloody Mary serves as a compelling metaphor for the poet’s desire for a spectral figure to emerge and “stain” their body with their own blood. This is a plea for liberation, a shedding of the past and the metaphorical “chainsaws” that threaten to imprison them. Here, the scream queen archetype comes into play, as the poet positions themselves as the character destined for a dramatic release from their anguish.

The poem subtly delves into the notion of demonic presence, inherited from the poet’s grandmother’s warnings that the Devil would make the room unbearably hot. The speaker’s response to this threat, a plea for salvation, is delivered with fervent prayer until it ultimately wanes into indifference. This transition signifies the resignation of the young speaker, who moves from desperate faith to an almost nihilistic acceptance of the fiery ordeal they face. The horror here isn’t merely external but embedded within familial relationships—a unique twist on the genre. The idea of “flaming lips” and the desire to remain within that room, consumed by fire, challenges conventional notions of hell and salvation. Fire becomes both a symbol of destruction and an unexpected source of comfort, hinting at the complexity of the poet’s relationship with their own suffering.

The third section sheds light on a more insidious form of horror, the kind that is quiet and unseen. The mention of a “hand where it isn’t supposed to be” and the threat of exposure creates a disturbing undercurrent. The absence of details in this section is powerful, emphasizing that horror doesn’t always rely on graphic imagery but can manifest through emotional and psychological torment.

But unlike the scream queen who gets to vocalize her fear and pain of victimization, Fuhrer struggled with expression of their truth until they used the scream queen, in this collection, to do so: “And therein / lies the horror. / To have / my truth / never put / into production.” Fuhrer explores the dissonance and disconnect between the external facade of “family fun” and one’s own inner turmoil. The poet’s reality remains unspoken, a film “always burnt in the room” with them, highlighting the isolation that can accompany trauma. Fuhrer lives in a sealed-off world: the keyhole is “taped over with whispers,” signifying the silencing, the secrets, and the unspoken pain. The poet’s transformation into a scream queen is revisited, albeit with a twist—this scream queen never gets to die, trapped in an eternal, unending horror. The screams go unheard and the film tape keeps playing and playing.

Why Pop Culture?

Using a pop cultural lens to write about trauma can offer a transformative means of processing experiences that were, for a long time, too daunting to confront. Pop culture, with its familiar symbols, tropes, and narratives, often serves as a bridge between the personal and the universal. When individuals employ these familiar elements as tools to express their own trauma, it can create a safe space for them to finally articulate and understand their experiences. The distance provided by the pop culture lens allows for a certain level of detachment, enabling writers to approach their trauma from an alternative perspective. This fresh viewpoint can provide insights and avenues for expression that might have remained inaccessible through more direct forms of communication

Alexander Grey / Unsplash

Alexander Grey / Unsplash

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