Alien, Black Lagoon, Creature, Dr. Jekyll, Dracula, Flying Dutchman, Frankenstein, Freddy Krueger, Ghost, Halloween, Hannibal, Jacob Marley, Jaws, Lector, Mr. Hyde, Norman Bates, Overlook Hotel, Poltergeist, Sadako Yamamura, Stephen King, Undead, Wolfman, zombies
Is your office a scary place to work? Unless you are a soldier, a firefighter, or a seamstress in the developing world, it’s not usually your environment that makes work frightening; it’s the people. A screaming boss, a diabolical co-worker; all it takes is one monster to ruin your day. Or your career.
In his book Danse Macabre, Stephen King surveyed horror in popular culture, and noted that most fictional monsters fit into one of four archetypes. It turns out that the same categories also describe the four types of people who can make your work a living hell! With an eye towards Hallowe’en and a nod to King, let’s look at some of the villains who might be haunting your workplace:
The Creature: Frankenstein’s monster. Jaws. The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Alien. The Creature is The Thing That Doesn’t Belong – the being that, innocently or maliciously, cannot be part of our world, and thus must inevitably come into conflict with it. The greenhorn with no specialist skills who is hired to fill the specialist slot because of nepotism or political correctness? The associate who went to law school because he thought it was the safest choice, but who devotes most of his attention to amateur theater? These are The Creatures of our workplaces, who are there even though their goals or abilities have nothing to do with the mission of the office or even the profession. When we work with them, we never know when their incapabilities will lead to catastrophe – or when they will sabotage our plans in pursuit of their own.
The Wolfman: The werewolf. Norman Bates. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Hannibal Lector. People have always been horrifically fascinated by those outwardly kind and urbane folks who harbor hidden demons – and release them from time to time. The boss who glad-hands the clients, but throws things at the secretaries. The Machiavellian schemer whose true motives are only revealed through a knife in the back. The substance abuser whose gifts are sometimes chemically blocked. These people may deserve our pity, as we can see in them the potential each of us has to do both good and harm. But they also deserve our wariness, because any working relationship we develop with them will always remain treacherous. We can only rely on their unreliability.
The Ghost: Poltergeist. Jacob Marley. Sadako Yamamura. The Flying Dutchman. No other horror trope is so laden with sadness as The Ghost, who has lost hope of everything. Sometimes melancholy turns to rage, as The Ghost envies those who still possess life and possibility. At work, these are the people who show up, but are not really there anymore. The veterans counting down the days to retirement. The journeymen whose ambition to rise has been thwarted or ground away. Tethered by their paycheck, they cannot bring themselves to move on to a better place. In fact, often as not – as Cole Sear said in The Sixth Sense – “They don’t know they’re dead.” Still, they sense that they have become spectrally ineffective, except when their resentment prompts them to use the only power they have left: interference. They may not think they can help you, but they know how to stand in your way . . .
The Undead – Dracula. The Overlook Hotel. Zombies. Freddy Krueger. These . . . things . . . are the scariest monsters of all. Each in its own way seems to be alive – taking actions, making choices – yet cannot be harmed by normal means, because each possesses only the opposite of life. Instead of creating and adding meaning to the world, they exist only to survive, and they survive only by sucking the life out of others to satisfy their own unappeasable hungers. And so it is at work, as well. Leaders who have grown so attached to politics and position that they will defend their own status by degrading that of others. Upstarts whose personal ambition overrides concern for the good of the organization, or of the people within it. These people will take whatever they can from you, leaving you only drained in return – if you are lucky. For if you work too long in their shadow, the worst of The Undead have the most frightening power of all: the power, like that of a vampire or a zombie, to turn you into one of them.
And, really, isn’t that the worst fate of all? Not to encounter one of these Monsters of the Workplace, but to become one yourself? So avoid these beasts as best you can, but more importantly, do whatever you need to do to avoid joining them. Find a job that demands the specific skills and commitment that you have to offer, so you won’t be The Creature. Attend to your whole self, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, so you can be a reliably humane and productive individual, unlike The Wolfman. Aim to make a positive difference to your customers, clients, and co-workers – don’t become The Ghost. And never forget that the best payoffs from work come from the joy of doing the work itself, and the satisfaction of seeing that work make the world a better place. The cravings for prestige, title, and earthly rewards for their own sakes can never be fully satisfied, and attempting to do so may turn you into one of the inhuman, soul-sucking Undead.