Survivors' Club

People seem to like being scared, at least so long as there’s no real danger. How else do you explain the ever-constant and growing popularity of the horror movie genre? There’s a certainly enjoyable intensity in sitting in a dark room and waiting for the monster to crawl out from under the bed. For horror movie fans, the 1980s was the pivotal decade. Did anyone ask, though, what happened after the credits rolled? The monster is defeated, the day’s saved, and the survivors walk away with no thought of anything more complex than “I’m alive.” Vertigo Comics’ SURVIVORS’ CLUB forces us to see that the story doesn’t end there.

First released in October 2015, SURVIVORS’ CLUB brings together six survivors of a widespread supernatural epidemic that occurred in a fictional 1987. Various people around the globe were exposed to different monsters, poltergeists, and murderous dolls during this year, and these six were some of the few survivors. While there are extenuating circumstances surrounding the sudden appearances of these horror movie tropes, all of these people suffered severe trauma.

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What fascinated me, as a reader, was the way in which writer Lauren Beukes detailed how these horrors affected each survivor in drastically different ways. Each childhood trauma presents itself differently in each character. This article looks to introduce these characters and their histories in order to explore the ways in which their past informs their future in a unique and relevant exploration of childhood trauma. There’s a bit of a spoiler warning necessary, as in order to explore these characters’ reactions to trauma, I’ll need to pull from all nine issues of the story and reveal some of the earlier secrets Beukes presents in the story.

Chenzira — Digital Takeover

Survivor's Club
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics.

Chenzira Moleko grew up in apartheid South Africa, one of many victims of severe segregation. Her mother, an activist in opposition to the government, was arrested and killed in prison for her war against injustice. Chenzira’s father lost all grip on the world, turning to drink to forget about his wife’s passing. Every day, on his way to the bar in Soweto, her father would drop her at the local arcade. Here, she fell in love with video games, her own escape from the world. More than that, she excelled with practice, to the point where she had the highest score on the arcade’s limited stock. One day, Chenzira stumbled onto a hidden away stand-up machine in the arcade’s closet, titled Akheron.

SURVIVORS' CLUB
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics

According to Chenzira, “[Akheron] made me feel like the world was vibrating on a level only I could feel. The game was like a drug.” While entirely addicting, Akheron was so much more than that. During a massive storm that ravaged Soweto, Akheron came to life. It reached out to consume Chenzira, draw her into the game and kill her, but she managed to save herself. She set the game and the arcade on fire, but Akheron didn’t stop. Creatures from within the game kept coming through the flames, and Chenzira realized that the only way to stop the monsters was to beat the game. The flames spread to other buildings, killing several people including Chenzira’s father.

Chenzira — Scars and Obsession

Chenzira carries scars, both physical and deeply emotional. On both palms, Chenzira has severe burns in the shape of Akheron’s joystick symbols. These only act as a reminder of her other scars, the guilt she carries for opening the virtual gate that brought Akheron into the world and for the deaths she caused by setting the game alight. More importantly, for the sake of this story, Chenzira never beat the game. In those climactic moments, the firefighters pulled her away before she could beat the final boss.

SURVIVORS' CLUB
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics

When Chenzira tells her story, she explains that the pain hasn’t gone away. “I still carry the guilt. That I could have stopped it if I’d just tried harder.” As with all trauma, Chenzira deals with this pain every day, but what separates her from her fellow survivors is that her trauma led to obsession. Every day, she lives with what Akheron made her do, the lives lost because no one could stop it. The game consumes her focus.

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While the others turned their backs on their pasts, Chenzira embraced it. She became a professor of video game history and used her position to gain access to the undercurrents of nerd culture. Chenzira’s trauma led her to a constant vigil. Knowing that Akheron could return in any number of forms, she devoted the remainder of her life and career to the destruction of her personal monster.

Simon — Amityville Reject

Survivors' Club
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comic.

Simon Wickman is a fraud. At least, he likes to believe he is. Of the members of the Survivor’s club, Simon is the only one that’s made a living off of his childhood trauma. The supposed victim of poltergeist possession, Simon spent much of his youth under the watchful eyes of priests, his neglectful parents, and his disbelieving sister. At first, it was all an elaborate joke. Simon’s father paid little to no attention to his children. By all accounts, he had no right raising kids in the first place.

When Simon began to act out, his parents hired a pair of exorcists to “save” their son. Their methods? The exorcists taught Simon how to act like he was possessed. They coached him on all of the devilish things he should say, the spine bending contortions he should undergo, and the manner he should adopt, all for the sake of the home TV audience. It all sounded like one big ruse, and Simon was the perpetrator. It was all a lie. Until the day the Muskagee house ate the Exorcists. The horror became real, and Simon and his sister watched as their lives fell apart around them. Simon watched his parents pulled into the wallpaper of his home, watched the world spin out of control around him.

Then Simon Wickman forgot it all.

Simon — Avoidance as Control?

Survivors' Club
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics.

Simon’s trauma is the most interesting of the six survivors, as it’s completely repressed behind Simon’s own lies. Simon himself reacts to the fear and evil he experienced by repressing it. Every action he takes in his adult life is to minimize the fear he experienced as a child. Turning to Hollywood, Simon became the inspiration for a series of horror movies based on his life. He sold his own story to help fictionalize and distance himself from the events. If he could watch some other child going through the events, it would seem less and less real with each watch.

Simon spends most of his days at various conventions around the world, listening to “fans” tear apart the events of his childhood. He is a Z-list celebrity, so far down the ladder of popularity that only the most obsessed fans even recognize him. He also turns to sex and drugs to help momentarily minimize the memories of the Muskagee House, and until the events of SURVIVORS’ CLUB, all memories of the real haunting were replaced with the early days when he was faking the events. Simon is interesting because he seeks out repression. There’s a part of him warring to remember the true events, but he cannot handle the reality of the situation. He’d rather believe his parents left of their own accord than that a haunted house took them from him.

Harvey — Imaginary Friend(?)

SURVIVORS' CLUB
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics

Despite growing up without a father, Harvey Lisker had a good childhood until 1987. His loving mother doted on him, and he grew up with few complications. His only real issue was the stream of boyfriends that passed through the house. Each promised to be a loving husband and father, but each used Harvey’s mother. Harvey learned his only emotional attachment would be his mother. While this seems to signal a Norman Bates relationship, PSYCHO wouldn’t become Harvey’s film.

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A trip to a local museum became the impetus for Harvey’s trauma. While accompanying his mother on a date, her new boyfriend told the boy that he was only there to sleep with Harvey’s mother and leave. It was a warning to keep Harvey from messing with his “plans.” An ancient ritualistic mask was on exhibit in the museum at the time. As time passed, this mask would occupy more of Harvey’s thoughts, as did a voice. This new voice called himself Mr. Empty, and it promised Harvey that he would take care of the young man’s problems. Taking the form of a gangly, pale man, Mr. Empty was born from the ritual mask.

Mr. Empty started life as emotional support for Harvey, who felt lost after the discussion with his mother’s boyfriend. The spirit stood by Harvey at his lowest points. When Harvey voiced his dislike of the boyfriend, Mr. Empty took care of the problem. Harvey found the man hanging from the garage ceiling. These assistances would continue, growing in intensity and faltering in motive. At the opening of the story, Mr. Empty murders everyone present at a neighborhood park simply because it sounded fun.

Harvey — Lost in Fear

Survivors' Club
Image Courtesy of Vertigo Comics.

Harvey’s trauma presents itself in much the same way as an abusive relationship, and it is interesting to note that he’s the only survivor to actively carry his childhood trauma with him. While Chenzira faces a deep obsession with Akheron, it’s a warrior’s obsession. She faces her fear head on. Harvey is dogged by his trauma. He’s constantly belittled by it, told how weak he is. While he’s first introduced as the villain of the story, it’s revealed that Mr. Empty fills that role. Harvey stands by while Mr. Empty kills freely, battered by verbal assault and forced to relive his trauma over and over again.

Speaking literally, Harvey hasn’t faced his trauma, hasn’t overcome it. He actively relives it and, more importantly, he blames himself. While Harvey did create Mr. Empty, he isn’t at fault for this being’s actions. Yet, Harvey still takes each to heart. Mr. Empty has convinced Harvey that every failing in Mr. Empty was his fault. In a twisted way, however, Harvey feels attached to his trauma, like he doesn’t want to escape it. In the bombardment of verbal abuse, Mr. Empty will give the boy a glimpse of hope, a kind word or a bit of fatherly advice. Harvey can’t see himself without Mr. Empty; he’s defined by the monster. Thus the cycle continues, and Harvey falls deeper and deeper into fear.

Teo — Monstrous Hunger

Survivors' Club
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics

The most grounded member of the Survivors’ Club, one might think that Teo Reyes came from a vampire horror film. A pair of puncture wounds lies open on his neck, much like those of a vampire’s fangs. Yet, that isn’t Teo’s story. After returning from a family reunion in Puerto Rico, Teo noticed that his neighbors began to disappear. It was subtle at first, one or two until his building became scarce. A child still, Teo decided to investigate. Having heard rumors for years that his neighbor was a cannibal, Teo paid a visit to her apartment with voice recorder at the ready.

The truth is always so much stranger than the fiction. Teo broke into his neighbor’s apartment, only to find that his other neighbors were neither missing nor dead. They hung from the ceiling in various states of decay. One awakes, and tells Teo: “They’re hatching!” Suddenly, massive blue insects crawled their way from their human nests, and the queen made her appearance. The female neighbor wasn’t a cannibal as Teo had originally thought but a monstrous spider creature looking to build her brood. Before Teo can react, the Queen stings him in the neck, injecting him with her eggs.

Teo — Blind to Reality

Survivors' Club
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics.

Teo survived only because the Queen wished it. While the others in her apartment acted as nests, Teo would help pass on the sickness. The eggs injected into his neck would hatch, but they could pass on to others through sex. He faced several small infections around the country over the years, all while chasing the Queen. In order to prepare for further outbreaks, Teo became a Paramedic. Like Chenzira, Teo’s trauma led to a lifetime obsession. He has devoted his life to bringing down the Swarm Queen and will stop at nothing to see that day come.

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Chenzira, though, is altruistic. She’s capable of understanding others’ suffering. She formed the Survivors’ Club in order to help the survivors move on. Teo didn’t develop this empathy. Despite the fact that his own trauma is stranger than theirs, he cannot bring himself to believe in the horrors plaguing his fellow survivors. He blatantly explains away their stories as a lack of reason, even though his story also has little basis in fact.

While many readers might look at this as ignorance, his reaction does have basis in psychology. Some psychologists recognize that trauma patients can disconnect with outside traumatic stimuli not associated with their triggers. A man who suffered severe abuse as a child might see a car crash and not fully empathize because he wasn’t involved in the accident. Teo may not relate to his fellow survivors because their trauma isn’t his own. He cannot fathom that demons or living dolls exist. They don’t fit his schema of obsession. His fear of another outbreak consumes him; anything else just flutters away.

Alice — Double Trouble

 

Survivors' Club
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics.

I left Alice Taylor-Newsome for near last because her story is the strangest of the group. Overall, I’m not sure I fully understand all of the idiosyncrasies of her story. The fact that there are two Alices doesn’t help. Growing up in an affluent neighborhood of Kent, England, Alice never needed for much. She had all the toys in the world, including a life-size life doll modeled after her. Alice cherished this doll, lauded it as her best friend. It was a protector, a support network, until the day it came to life and attacked one of her friends from school.

The problem is that we’re never given a clear view of which Alice is the doll. Rather, it’s unclear if both Alices are actually dolls. During a sexual encounter with Simon Wickman, the woman we assume to be the real Alice undoes her dress, and we see a doll’s pull string on her back. Meanwhile, the other Alice, the presumed doll, has been attacked by Mr. Empty. Despite laying on the floor in pieces and bleeding, she can still speak. We then learn that this isn’t the first time Alice 2 (for sake of ease) has been mutilated in this way. Alice 1 spent much of their adolescent years tearing apart and putting her “doll” back together.

Alice — Retreat and Compliance

My current theory is that Alice 1 is the doll. In all of the editor’s notes, Alice’s story is that of the living, killer doll, but when we see Alice 2 escaping her box for the first time, she isn’t a killer. She warns the child who’s about to be attacked by Alice 1. Alice 1 exhibits less inhibitive behavior. When introduced to Harvey Lisker, she attacks him without question. Deviancy is only a small part of this character’s personality, as it is revealed near the end of SURVIVORS’ CLUB that she’s capable of pulling her fellow survivors’ strings.

SURVIVORS' CLUB
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics.

If we go with this assumption, Alice 2’s trauma is much more pronounced. Not only was she forced into the company of a killer doll all her life, but she suffered for two decades. The physical torture would’ve been enough, but it was the subjugation of Alice 2 that cements this relationship. It provides insight into Alice’s trauma, but it also lets us see how she developed into the woman she is now.

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Alice 2 yields completely to her doll counterpart. She has no independent thoughts. Her trauma taught Alice that she has no control, that she relies on this monster to make decisions for her. She even fails to speak on her own behalf, backing into corners to let Alice 1 speak. In many ways, her trauma mirrors Harvey’s. Yet, Harvey still lives within the bounds of his fear. Alice 2 has moved past it. She no longer has feelings of her own. Alice has fully retreated within herself, coming out only long enough to aid her doll. She doesn’t hold fear, which is both an aid and a hindrance in SURVIVORS’ CLUB’s final moments.

Kiri — A True Member of the Survivors’ Club

Survivors' Club
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics.

I saved the most interesting Survivor for last. Of the group, I don’t necessarily think I need to diagnose Kiri Nomura because she’s the only person in this group that overcame her own trauma. How? By becoming one with it, by accepting it.

Kiri was born and raised in Nagasaki, and her life was rather uninteresting until the day she stumbled on a dead body. While in high school, Kiri found the body of a girl in one of the bathroom stalls. Interestingly, this isn’t the great tragedy of Kiri Nomura’s life. That would come soon after, when a vengeful spirit attached itself to Kiri’s soul.

This GRUDGE-inspired creature, lovingly referred to by Kiri as Auntie, took its vengeance out on the scum of Nagasaki. Without warning, the creature would spring from Kiri and attack any and all to satiate its great hunger. For a long time, Kiri became simply a carrier for a monstrous spirit of vengeance, its host in the world. She had no place.

Kiri — Overcoming the Fear

Survivors' Club
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics.

That all changed when she learned to feed her dear old Auntie. Taking on a position as a bounty hunter, Kiri traveled around the world, isolating and killing big criminals like drug dealers, pedophiles, and kidnappers alongside her Auntie. Unlike so many of the other Survivors, Kiri came to terms with her trauma. Auntie’s actions destroyed Kiri for so long. While this isn’t explored in depth in the book, we do get a glimpse into the dread Kiri experienced when a new version of Chenzira’s Akheron appears. When viewed, each Survivor reexperiences all of the worst moments of their own horrific stories, and Kiri collapses to the floor in a panic. It brought back a decade and a half of fear for the young woman in a single instant.

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Kiri is a fascinating character because she represents, for me, the goal of overcoming trauma, something the other Survivors cannot fathom. More importantly, she didn’t do so by forgetting that it ever happened. What Simon Wickman did was destructive. It made his trauma something to be fought and resisted. He didn’t leave it in the past; he actively had to resist it in the present. Kiri, on the other hand, accepted that her traumas occurred and took from them what she could. She teaches that trauma cannot only be overcome, but it can make the person stronger for having survived.

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