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The Loss of Fear and the Adult-ing of Halloween

When I was a kid, I was legitimately afraid of Halloween night. As a problematically imaginative boy, I existed in a world wherein I had constructed an elaborate cosmology of evil spirits, monsters, and ghosts that stalked me each time the sun went down. While this peculiar obsession of mine likely brought to me to my current state (creating fanciful worlds for science fiction and fantasy stories/novels), it was somewhat stressful for pre-adolescent me. Any sight of the trivial horror tropes of Halloween stood to haunt my nightmares.

I tell you: completely unable to deal, folks.

I tell you: completely unable to deal, folks.

Remember those aisles in the grocery store which, around October 1st, would start to be lined with rubber masks? Yeah, I wouldn’t walk down those aisles. If I did, I closed my eyes. I couldn’t look. Likewise those elaborate, gruesome displays some people set up in front of their houses – plastic skeletons, a severed arm of Styrofoam, fake blood dripping over plastic fake eyeballs – these places were fairly terrifying to me (though mostly after dark). Come to think of it, much of my young life involved strategically deciding when to close my eyes and not take in the “horrors” that would parade about each Halloween or, for that matter, in any given television show or movie I watched. Apart from the first time I saw it (around 1986), I didn’t actually see the Ark-opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark until I was in high school, despite watching the movie about ten times in the interim. Same deal with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

I remember being convinced that seeing things that were scary would harm me in some way. Initially, when I was little, I felt that the scary things were in some way actually real and might awaken if they caught me looking (it was for this reason, by the way, that I sought to dress as something with a weapon or natural defenses every Halloween – just in case, you understand). As I got older, I was just concerned about getting vivid nightmares (and I used to have very vivid nightmares). Halloween night, of course, was the metaphysical climax of this feeling of terror. I loved the candy, sure, but as I walked around my neighborhood, I kept my flashlight gripped tight and made sure my plastic sword was loose in the scabbard. My weight was firmly over the balls of my feet. I imagine I looked like a spooked deer.

But then it all changed. I can’t put my finger on it, but everything became less scary. I started opening my eyes, tearing back the curtain. I started watching more horror movies. Now? Halloween isn’t scary. If anything, it’s the opposite – a banal display of half-assed “horror” tropes ladled together in a kind of stew that, in juxtaposition, are more absurd than scary. Like, seriously, how am I supposed to interpret the fifteen apparently “severed” heads stuck on your white picket fence? And why are they in such wildly differing states of decay? And what’s with the one that’s smiling? Gimmie a break.

Meh.

Meh.

I don’t scare easily anymore. Yeah, a horror movie can get me to jump, but that’s less “horror” and more clever use of loud sound-effects and fast camera cuts. Losing sleep? Nightmares? It’s been years. In fact, I find a lot of things other people find terrifying to be simply…odd. How can you be afraid of clowns? They’re clowns!

Now, while this means I live a much calmer, much saner life than I did as an eight-year-old, I do think, sometimes, that I’ve lost something crucial. There is something magical in terror, isn’t there? That little spike of adrenaline I’d get as I ran into the house with the autumn wind and the skitter of leaves chasing me; that boiling feeling in my stomach as I put my hands over my eyes and refused to feel the “eyeballs” in the local haunted house – there was something special going on there, in that brain of mine. Fear forces your imagination to fire on all pistons. Not seeing what you fear is infinitely more powerful than seeing it. All those years with my eyes closed, I was constructing truly terrifying edifices in the dark of my own mind. Now that I’ve opened them, well, there’s no going back. Those eyeballs are peeled grapes. That guy jumping out from behind the haystack in the hockey mask is a volunteer actor from the local high school and, for that matter, is two inches shorter and about twenty-five pounds lighter than me. I’m not scared anymore.

Sometimes, though, I wish that I still was.

The Space/Life Balance

When I was in kindergarten, I got on the wrong school bus home (there were two options – Bus 4 and Bus 6). Normal, right? Okay, when I was 11 years old, I attended a soccer camp. I got a ride there with one of the coaches. After the first day, I saw a lot of kids in my group going home on a school bus, so I got on the school bus to go home. I wound up in a town about 30 miles away from my house. I sat in some other coach’s living room while he called my mother while his kids – all, weirdly enough, wearing baseball uniforms – stared at me. He drove me to the parking lot of a police station halfway between my house and his own, where my Mom was waiting to pick me up.

“What were you thinking?” My mom finally said after a lot of hugging. “You didn’t even get on a bus at all this morning? Where was your head?”

I said I didn’t know. I just saw everybody getting on the bus and went along for the ride. I had not bothered to record the whys or hows for returning home that morning. It just didn’t seem that important to me at the time.

If you're talking to me, chances are this is where half my brain is.

If you’re talking to me, chances are this is where half my brain is.

I spend a significant portion of my time not on planet Earth. I am always (ALWAYS) plotting stories and novels in my head. Often I’m plotting stories and novels I’m never, ever going to write (because who has the time? I’ve got enough projects lined up as it is). While I am writing this now, I am thinking of a story involving hyper-intelligent jellyfish who only communicate with each other in dreams. As of this moment, it has no plot, no characters, just colorful jellyfish floating in space, dreaming to each other and to the (hapless?) explorers who happen to discover them. The other day, while sitting in a faculty meeting, I developed an alien alphabet/language that uses quadrilateral pictograms. I found (to my surprise) that this species has the same word for ‘space’ as it has for ‘sea’. I’m still pondering what that means. It has displaced the jellyfish for the nonce.

And then I’ve still got that story about the guy hunted by aliens on a tidally-locked planet (no rotation) who is reduced to trying to determine his longitude by the size of a cat’s irises. It has a title: “Cat-Nav.”

In any event, this makes it difficult for some people to deal with me. Most notably my parents, but my kids and my wife and some of my friends, too. The other day, my eldest daughter (3 years) was pushing my youngest daughter (6 months) in one of those little walkers with the wheels around my parents’ house while both of them were giggling uncontrollably. It was extremely adorable, but I only paid attention for about half of it because I was deep in the middle of pondering the economic implications of a marsupial aliens species that reproduces in litters of 4-6 just about every 8 months in an interstellar society. Turns out its pretty grim.

I understand the real world is an important place (a stupid thing to say, but there you go). It contains all the things I legitimately love the most – my family, my home, my friends. For whatever reason, though, I can’t stay there all the time. I’m always leaving, going on journeys to places non-existent. There are perhaps a thousand answers why, and the most comforting ones come in some version of the statement ‘this dream has meaning for the waking world.’ Maybe it does. There’s a lot of work between me and finding out if that’s true, and I’m doing it. It’s hard, though – I need to go, but I want to stay. I’m here, but I’m also not. I work for the balance – the magical point where I can be in both places somehow. I haven’t found that yet. In all my travels, that is the destination I have yet to find.

 

To Combat the Forces of Darkness…

There is a picture floating around Facebook by Timothy Schmidt (Alex Panagop–check him out here). It’s one of those ‘Inspiration’ poster spoofs, and this one is about Teddy Bears. Observe its awesomeness. If you can only read large type, the caption says “Protecting Innocent

This was my teddy bear's official job.

children from monsters-under-the-bed since 1902.” The picture, of course, speaks for itself.

As a very imaginative little boy, I was very serious about my stuffed animal guardians. I had a stuffed elephant, a teddy bear, a pair of dogs, and a stuffed duck. Their job was to protect me from monsters. I realize this all sounds very girlish, but my stuffed animals had ranks, a chain of command, and particular missions. The elephant was heavy artillery, the rabbit and dogs were reconnaissance, the ducks were air support, and the bear was the frontline trooper. They would combat and, presumably, defeat any evil creatures that laid siege to my bed each night while I was asleep. I presume they were always victorious because I never was actually consumed by any monsters.

The monsters I imagined as a child came in all the various shapes and sizes of a small child’s hell. They were insectoid daemons, psychotic undead killers, giant poisonous spiders and crabs, and a man-eating giant named Big Belly Ben whose particularly frightening illustration in a book of children’s nursery rhymes haunted me for much of my young life. The original rhyme went like this:

ROBIN the Bobbin, the big-bellied Ben,
He eat more meat than fourscore men;
He eat a cow, he eat a calf,
He eat a hog and a half;
He eat a church, he eat a steeple,
He eat the priest and all the people!
A cow and a calf,
An ox and a half,
A church and a steeple,
And all the good people,
And yet he complain’d that his stomach wasn’t full.

The picture featured a giant kneeling over a church in a medieval European city and prying off the roof with one hand while he stuffed wriggling people in his mouth with the other. I’d have nightmares about Big Bellied Ben stooping over my own house, peering in the windows with his big eye trying to see me and, if he did, he’d rip off the wall and pull me out. I’d struggle to hide in the closet, but I never could get the door open. It was stuck, or my socks kept slipping on the floor, or I was in a whole different room in the house and had to run up the stairs, dodging the windows, as Ben’s greusome laughter shook the walls.

Can you understand why I had a team of stuffed commandos by my bedside each night?

With the exception of Ben, the monsters that infested the nooks and crannies of my house had certain limitations I was quick to capitalize upon. Firstly, they abhorred light. Turning on the lights in any room before entering would be sure to drive them away. Secondly, they were slow, so if I ran through a dark room (or outside at night, or through the basement) I’d be unlikely to be grabbed. Finally, they hid between the cracks in the floorboards or in the cement floor or the brick walkways. If I just didn’t step on any cracks, I wouldn’t get nabbed or, at the least, I’d buy myself some time. I can’t quite express how *real* these things were to me, either, and they were that way for a long time. Longer, probably, than most of my friends my age.  

Gradually, the intricacy of the forces fighting against the monsters grew to a point where it had its own factions and rivalries. The bear, for instance, defected to my brother and, while my brother’s stuffed animals were allies in the anti-monster quest, intra-bedroom warfare developed from time to time. Furthermore, my sister (who seemed to have nothing but stuffed rabbits and dolls) had her own little society of critters, but they ‘didn’t believe in monsters’ and occupied the same role in my little drama as Rohan did in the Lord of the Rings–sitting on their butts, not getting involved, all because their ruler (my sister) was having poisonous lies poured in her ear by a traitor in the midst of her rabbit population. My brother and I would occasionally stage crusades against the heathen bunny creatures and take captives. My sister would complain to my mother, though, so such invasions were short-lived.

All of my toys eventually got in on the act. GI Joes eventually formed the backbone of my monster-fighting force, along with an assortment of He-Man action figures, Star Wars guys, and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (though my belief in the forces of darkness living within my house was waning significantly by then). I can only presume that this arms race was due to darker and even more sinister monsters being sent against my bedroom fortress each evening, but I don’t know for sure.

I was asleep the whole time.  

Eventually, all of this led me to write science fiction and fantasy. I learned to build worlds and to populate them with characters before I could even read, and I’ve been doing it in one form or another ever since.