I Ain't Afraid of No... Marshmallow?

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Dear Readers: I thought you might enjoy a glimpse into my childhood and how it influences my writing today. This piece about my favorite horror villain was commissioned by Wattpad and DC Vertigo to get everyone excited about the new Vertigo title, SURVIVORS' CLUB. Check out @VertigoComics for official Vertigo content on Wattpad!

Some moms potty train their kids with M&Ms. Some use jellybeans or sticker charts or trips to the grocery store toy aisle. My mom? She used marshmallows, and they were probably my most beloved childhood food.

Ah, marshmallows. So pillowy. So sweet. Forget about chocolate. I wouldn't even touch a cup of hot cocoa unless it had half a dozen ewwwy-gooey squares of white deliciousness floating in it. And don't even get me started on the s'mores.... To my little-girl mind, a marshmallow meant more than just a sugar rush. A marshmallow from my mommy equaled love.

Maybe that was why the movie Ghostbusters threw me for such a loop. I wasn't allowed to watch horror films as a kid, but my mom made an exception for Ghostbusters. Most of that movie played like high comedy, after all. It only turned scary at the end. But that climactic final sequence haunted my nightmares for months afterward, and all because it featured the ultimate horror villain for any marshmallow-loving kid: the StayPuft Marshmallow Man.

You remember him, right? A huge, fluffy marshmallow personified, taller than all the skyscrapers of New York City, and bent on the destruction of the world. Yikes! How was I supposed to enjoy my fluffernutter sandwich after that?

The thing that made the StayPuft Man so terrifying was the fact that he wasn't scary at all. He was the cutest darn piece of special effects in that whole CGI-laden film. He might act like a monster, but he looked like a cross between the Gerber Baby and the Pillsbury Doughboy. In any other context, I probably would have adored the StayPuft Marshmallow Man. I would've wanted nothing more than to give him a giant hug - or maybe take a nibble out of one of his plump cheeks. Yet when I first caught sight of his puffy head, bobbing amid the NYC skyline, I didn't find him loveable or cute. I found him terrifying. How on Earth did the filmmakers pull off a trick like that?

The creators of Ghostbusters didn't even know the answer themselves, as it turned out. In researching this piece, I found it fascinating to learn that the director nearly left his iconic villain on the cutting-room floor out of concerns that it might elicit more laughter than fear. In the end, the decision to use the StayPuft Marshmallow Man came down to a sense of symbolism. As co-writer Harold Ramis explained: "It seemed very appropriate that when our monster finally appeared, it turned out to be a marshmallow - that literally and figuratively, our biggest fear of the unknown was as insubstantial as a marshmallow." [Quoted in: Shay, Don (November 1985). Making Ghostbusters, p. 194 annotation. New York Zoetrope: New York, NY USA.]

All due respect to Mr. Ramis, but I didn't scream at the end of his movie because marshmallows were "insubstantial." I screamed because marshmallows were something I dearly loved. If I couldn't trust a marshmallow, then what other beloved objects might turn against me? Suddenly, my dreams overflowed with a whole new crop of monsters. Not just rampaging marshmallows. Killer bunnies.... Pink ponies trampling me beneath their hooves.... Even my favorite teddy bear tried to maul me in my sleep.

What I'm describing is a well-worn horror trope, of course. Take something cute and cuddly, and turn it into the root of all evil. Traditionally, these villains take the form of some angelic-looking child. The 1950s horror classic The Bad Seed may be responsible for creating this cliché, with its pigtailed young blond villainess. Then there was Rosemary's Baby, Poltergeist, The Omen, Children of the Corn, and the list goes on and on. Stephen King gave the same idea a different twist in the 80s with Pet Cemetery, in which dark forces make their presence known through a child's adorable pet kitty. Perhaps the killer bunnies in my nightmare weren't so far beyond the pale after all - and neither was the StayPuft Marshmallow Man.

It's a formula guaranteed to creep out readers, and not only restricted to the horror genre. In slightly more abstract terms, this time-tested plot device can even apply to romance. My latest book, Follow Me Back, is best described as romantic suspense, but I called on my old friend Mr. StayPuft when it came time to write the climax. No, it didn't involve a 30-story tall man made out of sugar (although I'll keep that in mind for the sequel). What I mean is that I let my main character, Tessa, come face to face with her heart's fondest desire - only unbeknownst to her, it turned out to be her worst nightmare instead. Her romantic high turned terrifying, not just for Tessa, but also for all the readers who saw the danger before she did. The reader comments on "Chapter 34: Worst Nightmare" show just how well this plot device can work:

Oh God! This is so intense!

I'm scared shitless right now

SHITSHITSHITSHITSHITSHITSHITSHITSHITSHITSHITSHIT

I'M FREAKING OUT RN

NO NO DONT DO IT

Damn damn!!! This cannot be happening!!!!

WHAT?!?!? AHHH!!

OMG OMG omg omg omg omg omg omg omg nooo nooooo plz just NOOO

SCREAMING

*CRIESSSSSSS*

Now, I'm really gonna scream AAAAAHHHHH!...

And on and on and on....

Why are all these readers screaming? They just came face to face with their very own StayPuft Marshmallow Man. It's a plot twist that works beautifully in romance. Take the one thing that all romance readers love most dearly - the happily-ever-after ending - and threaten to turn it into their darkest fear instead.

Then listen to them scream like little girls.

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