[ Since I posted my first English essay here, I figured I’d post my next one. This one is about the childhood fear of the dark/supernatural that we still experience as adults (especially those of us who have seen The Ring one too many times!). Apologies for the length, though I promise it’s not as long as the last one. ]
Our Love Affair with Fear
Your breath catches in your throat: were those fingernails scratching at the window?
No, only the wind rattling the tree branches outside.
Your body tenses in anticipation: is that floorboards creaking beneath heavy footsteps?
No, only the house settling in for the night.
Your heart lurches in your chest: did the closet door just slide open just a crack?!
No, no, only your imagination playing tricks on you again.
Fear of the dark, that most overwhelming and irrational of leftover childhood anxieties, has been ingrained in us since humans first populated the darkness with imaginary horrors. Long before we were old enough to read ghost stories or sneak into R-rated horror movies, we peered into the cold night and shivered at the thought that something might be staring back. Our uncontrolled imaginations birthed these terrors, and mythology and urban legends gave them names: poltergeists, vampires, werewolves, demons. Even the legend of the Bogeyman, a human-like monster who steals children from their beds at night, is present in almost every culture: as “Old Red Eyes” in Belgium, the “Black Man” in Germany and Italy, and simply the “Monster Under the Bed” in Sweden. Given that we are inundated with myths, urban legends, and campfire ghost stories from a young age, it is no wonder that humans have developed a multitude of phobias toward the supernatural. Achluophobia (fear of darkness) and noctiphobia (fear of the night) are phobias from which not all of us may suffer, but are still momentary fears that we have all experienced at some point in our lives. Likewise, spectrophobia (fear of specters or ghosts) and bogyphobia (literally a fear of the Bogeyman) attest to the timeless power of our imaginations to trump logic in the face of fictional horrors, no matter our age or beliefs.
The subject of fear always brings to mind one particularly shameful memory of mine. It is one o’clock in the morning and I am trapped on top of my desk chair. Why? Did I see a spider? A mouse? A cockroach? I wish. That would be logical. After all, no one appreciates little creepy crawlies nibbling at their toes. If I did have an eight-legged friend on the floor, my current predicament might be understandable. But no, instead I am perched atop this chair with my legs tucked safely away because of something I did not see. I did not see ragged fingernails clawing at the windowpane. I did not see milky eyes gaping at me from the mirror above my desk. I did not see any sign of ghoul, haunt, or specter, yet my heart jackhammers and cold goosebumps prickle my back. Paralyzed by my paranoia, I am convinced that if I venture one leg over the side of my chair, surely bony fingers will snag at my flesh; if I turn my eyes from the mirror for just one moment, surely the twisted creature within will crawl its way through the glass. Despite the absurdity of my terror, I am still frozen with fear, and so here I am at one o’clock in the morning, twenty years old, hiding on top of a chair from the creeping clutches of my wild imagination.
Recalling my night of terror, I might be tempted to claim that I have since conquered my paranoia and can now sleep soundly without waiting for undead fingers to grab at my legs. But this would be a shameful lie, as I still cast wary glances to my closet door when I wake in the middle of the night. In my defense, however, my highly irrational fear of vengeful spirits is not entirely my fault. Yes, I gorge myself on supernatural horror movies like The Grudge and Silent Hill, but I didn’t spark this masochistic desire for cinema-induced fear. It was my sister who urged me down the path of temptation by convincing me to watch The Ring at the innocent age of eleven. At that time, my closest encounters with true horror movies had been monster movies like Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Tremors – violent movies, but not psychologically terrifying. The Ring, with its one second flashes of fingers impaled on rusty nails and corpses frozen in their final hysteria, was in a league all its own. I could handle the possibility of ravenous dinosaurs on a distant Costa Rican island that I would never visit; a half-decomposed ghost which stalked Seattle citizens and crawled out of televisions was much more terrifying precisely because it seemed so plausible.
Years later my sister admitted to me, with no small glint of mischief in her eyes, that she had purposefully shown me The Ring at a young age to “fuck me up” the way watching Jaws at age four had left her forever terrified of open water and large marine animals. Well, I can only begrudgingly congratulate my sister on her astounding success (I would have done the same if I had been in her position, I’m sure). I couldn’t sleep with my back to my bedroom door or television for years after seeing The Ring. When cleaning out my bedroom last winter, I threw away every unlabeled VHS tape I found without first checking its contents, just in case a cursed video tape lurked among the collection.
However, despite my highly illogical assumption that someday a dead little girl will climb through my television and drag me to my doom, I know that horror movies alone are not to blame for my late-night paranoia. The Ring would not have been nearly so scarring had I not already suspected that malevolent Things lurked in my closet and beneath my bed. The horror genre as a whole would lose both its credibility and its popularity if it did not prey on fears that are already years in the making. This societal proliferation of the paranormal is a product of our fear, not the source. Horror movies and ghost stories are popular because we want to be scared. The question, then, is not why we were first drawn to the monsters in these movies, but why we still fear these childhood monsters late into our teens, our twenties, even our full-on adulthood. Why do we still twitch at the sound of a tree branch scraping against our window, positive some hungry spirit has come to snack on our immortal souls? I believe that, aside from the true horror junkies who get a sick thrill from Hollywood’s version of snuff films, most of us still succumb to midnight terrors because being afraid of what may lurk in the dark reminds us of childhood. After all, I know ghosts aren’t real. I am a sensible, well educated adult and I don’t believe in ghosts or monsters or things that go bump in the night. But then again, I don’t believe in Bloody Mary either, and yet I still can’t utter her name three times into my bathroom mirror because the little kid inside me fears that name will summon an eye-gouging witch.
As much as we may combat our fear of the supernatural with logic, we cannot shake its weight from our shoulders completely. We wholeheartedly believed in creatures like ghosts and goblins when we were children, and this belief is not so easily cast aside when we hit adulthood. As Neil Gaiman wrote in his novel American Gods, “people populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.” Once our imaginations have given form (as well as claws and serrated teeth) to the amorphous darkness, that darkness becomes an entity in and of itself. It becomes more than just a lump of clothes in the closet; it grows bat wings, tentacles, and a malicious hunger. It feeds on our fear, and our fear feeds on its presence.
Not only can we not separate ourselves from this childhood fear completely, I believe that deep down, somewhere in the murky depths of our subconscious, we want to preserve this fear. Even if the fear is temporary, limited to the witching hours between midnight and three o’clock in the morning, some part of us still relishes the paranoia. We want to relive that thrilling childhood fear because it’s exhilarating, nostalgic, almost comforting in a morbid way. Being afraid of the dark meant you were young, still so impressionable and imaginative. You plugged in your night-light, hugged your favorite stuffed animal a little tighter, and huddled down in your blankets to wait out the long night. But the day you no longer peek under your bed or double-check your closet door is the day you’re no longer a child, and that sucks. You realize that there is no turning back now; you are an Adult with a capital ‘A’. Society says you have more important things to worry about now, like careers, rent, and insurance, so forget about those old ghouls and goblins. Next time you hear floorboards creaking, you better just worry about calling a contractor in the morning.
Whether we still believe in ghosts or not as adults, I think we need to retain a healthy dose of childish fear to feed our hungry imaginations. Even if we feel silly in the moment, submitting to our irrational paranoia is a way to relive some of the most poignant moments of our childhood. Every time I wrench myself awake from a Ring-induced nightmare (and this happens more often than I care to admit), I lay frozen in my bed, expecting whithered hands to yank me from beneath my blankets. Yet in the morning I recall that same nightmare and the resulting sleepless night with relish, oddly proud that my imagination is still powerful enough to spark such pure, adrenaline-fueled fear. After all, I would rather wake up in a panic at four o’clock in the morning because I think a ghost is under my bed than because I’m worried about filing my taxes on time. A little fear spices up an otherwise flavorless adulthood, as these lingering ghosts are our reminders that we once believed in specters, magic, and other worlds. They are the connection to our pasts, a part of ourselves from which time cannot distance us. As the tag line of the Japanese horror movie The Grudge ominously cautions, “once you see it, you can never forget; once it sees you, you can never escape.” Whether we check the closet at night or not, we can be sure our childhood fears are still staring back at us.