Focus on Fear

I am not a brave person. Although at the time I didn’t particularly see myself as such, I reflect on my childhood as being full of jittery, frightened moments. I was a small and rather timid child, slight in stature and composition and also courage. I didn’t particularly care for most creepy crawly things that boys are often associated with and while I had a pretty big mouth (good for getting oneself into frightening situations) I had no spine to back it up with and spent a lot of time fleeing moments that looked like they may come out badly.

The first moment I recall experiencing genuine fear was as a small child in the first home I remember: A little three bedroom number in San Leandro right underneath the BART tracks. It had a detached garage that sat near the back of the property so we had a fairly long driveway that was open to the neighbor’s identical driveway. I don’t recall my parents spending a lot of time talking to the neighbors… my memory pegs them as vaguely white trash in disposition, but they had a young son whom I remember playing with on occasion in our practically shared driveways.

I can’t say how old he was at the time, I must have been four or five so I’m guessing he was maybe ten. He was older and I dimly recall thinking of him as a friend for some time although later I would think of him only in terms of what a ruthlessly cruel tormentor he became. He decided one day to scare me by donning a mask and poking his head over his back fence (which looked out over the driveways where we had been playing). The mask wasn’t particularly scary, but he just stood there, staring at me. At first I was nonplussed but unconcerned, and I implored him to quit clowning and get back to the game. But he remained still, coldly watching and making phony but eerily muffled growling noises. After a few moments of this he disappeared behind the fence once again.

It took me a few minutes to puzzle out that it was possible that the creature over the fence wasn’t my neighbor (Shannon) at all, but in fact someone or something else entirely. I fled into my backyard through the open fence gate and all the way to the other side of the house where I crouched in the side yard for a few minutes, peeking out just enough to see past our gate and to the neighbor’s fence. Eventually the monster reappeared, this time looking around. For me.

I waited it out for a while until the monster disappeared and I heard Shannon emerge from his house again. I ran back out to see what was up. He acted like he had no clue what I was talking about. I tried to convince him for a while and eventually he said he’d go see what was up. He went back into the house and a few moments later the monster appeared over the fence. At this time I was no longer sure it was some person in a goofy Halloween mask, it was clearly some malevolent being who had some sort of interest in me personally. Clearly this interest could lead to no good, so I did what any other mostly chicken five year old would do when presented with this new and frightening development: I ran inside to tell mommy.

Eventually I wandered, timidly, back outside and found Shannon there, wondering where I was. I asked him what had happened and he made up some story about scaring off some other kid by hitting him in the head with a rock. I accepted the story for the most part, but I kept a close eye on that fence from then until really the day we moved.

After that time there were at least two other incidents where someone—undoubtedly Shannon—would wait until I was outside and then don some sort of mask or another and poke his head through the window or push aside the curtains to frighten me.

And it worked. I specifically remember being shocked by a skeletal mask at one point and storming into the house in tears telling my parents that I wanted to move. Their response was typical of an adult who is weary of dealing with a skittish kid who has nothing better to be frightened of than a stupid rubber mask: Shut up and stop being a baby.

We moved out of that house when I was nine years old. In the time between the mask incident with Shannon and our move, two other events conspired to make sleep a difficult task: For one, I saw Cloak and Dagger in the movie theater (strangely I recall this being a double feature with The Jungle Book). The movie isn’t scary, so don’t misunderstand. It’s not like my parents took me to see Poltergeist or anything: Cloak and Dagger was kind of like WarGames or Tron only with spies and detectives instead of crazy computers or living video games. But what got me was that near the beginning a man is pushed to his death over a stairwell. He falls and naturally dies. There is some complication shortly thereafter where the body is not found or the man who supposedly dies is seen walking back up the stairs—it was too much for my young mind to comprehend. But I do recall the plummet of that man to his death as being the most intensely frightening thing I could think of.

Another thing I saw was a few short seconds of the television miniseries V. Of course the part I saw included one of the lizard-like aliens with half his human disguise ripped off in long ribbons of pseudo flesh with the green scaly true face poking out from beneath. I wasn’t allowed to watch the show but a mis-timed request for water or a poorly thought out sense of curiosity had lasting impressions.

To my parents credit they were pretty patient with me. As a six or seven year old with nightmares, sleep was not high on my priority list and they tried their best to console me and be understanding when possible. I recall that it finally got out of hand, keeping my father up or waking him up probably for the 20th time in the same night and I recall him clearly warning me that it was all fine and I was safe and nothing was going to happen to me but if I woke him up again he would not come to my “rescue”, my only recourse was to try and be brave. I was hurt by this but it finally sunk in that my fear was something that should not be shared with anyone. Since bravery was not my strong suit, my actual recourse was unpleasant sleeplessness for many, many nights.

I bring all this up because of a thread over on Fark discussing early childhood terrors (specifically due to movies or TV shows) that would be silly when watched now. I want to point out how strange it was that some of the things that seem to be quite commonly disturbing to children, such as The Wizard of Oz (the flying monkeys seem to do it for most people) or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, really bothered me that much. The tunnel scene in Wonka was a bit grotesque but not frightening by any stretch and I don’t remember having much of a problem with Oz at all except maybe staying awake through the whole thing.

But you also have to understand that my timidness as a child was so pervasive that my parents had to strictly monitor what I could watch on TV. Anything that smacked of monsters or creep-outs was a big no-no (due I’m sure to my previous penchant for keeping them awake all night anytime I got the slightest bit spooked) and since they weren’t particularly interested in scary movies, I didn’t watch a lot of these movies as a kid.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t find other stuff to be afraid of. One of my favorite cartoons as a kid was G.I. Joe. Despite the fact that it was a military cartoon and everyone carried around guns all the time, no one really ever got hurt (how’s that for teaching the “fun” of war to little kids?). For the most part it was fine, but there was one two-part episode that originally aired in 1985 called There’s No Place Like Springfield that was this surreal, Twilight Zone-style mind trip (for an 11 year old, at least). I remember it being not exactly scary but more unnerving.

At one point I came in halfway through Something Wicked This Way Comes and witnessed little more than the film’s antagonist, Mr. Dark, opening his palm to reveal a demonic symbol etched/tattooed into it (perhaps a pentagram… I can’t truly recall). It scared me quite a bit and I can recall several nightmares springing forth from that image which included an identical or very similar scene where a sinister man’s palm revealed his true nature. I have honestly never actually seen the full movie of Something Wicked to this day.

I remember watching an episode of Unsolved Mysteries one night. The show was pretty creepy in general but this was a bit later, around late Junior High I believe, so I was more or less over the standard ghost stories and alien abduction tales as sources for real nighttime fear. But this episode featured a re-enactment of a satanic cult meeting where they were sacrificing dogs and killing babies or something along those lines. It totally weirded me out to the point where I spent most of another night somewhere between sleepless and plunged into nightmare.

The point of all this is that I spent quite a large chunk of childhood being afraid of the dark, trying to cope with vivid nightmares and having a lot of sharply unpleasant experiences with fear. Strange then that I decided to start reading Stephen King novels.

Actually it started before then. In about sixth grade I picked up a book by John Bellairs called The House With a Clock in Its Walls which I’ve since gone back and read and found to be rather… mundane. But at the time it was seriously creepy and atmospheric and left me crowding myself under the covers for several weeks.

I’m not sure why I kept reading, why I continued to put myself into a state of trembling paranoia with these stories. Gallons of ink have been spilled trying to decipher the human tendency to seek out certain types of fear, to embrace it in some ways. Not everyone is like this, mind. Nikki steadfastly refuses to read or watch or play part in activities that lead to terror. But perhaps it isn’t so completely out of character for me. After all, I’m the kid who practically broke down in tears as a little squirt because I was too short to go on the scariest, twistiest ride in the amusement park near our house. And from the moment I was finally able to just push up on my tiptoes enough to cross a few straggling, cowlicked hair strands above the cursed line marking who could and could not ride, I felt the exhilarating rush of the steep drop into the double loops and the whizzing turns that led to the heart-stopping corkscrew and I loved every second of it.

In spite of my general timidness, there was always something about me that made me hate the fear, made me want to face it instead of running and hiding. Some twenty-five years later, I’m more or less over the mask-over-the-fence incident, but for a long while I looked back on my flight and cowardice as hideously shameful acts, taunting in their remembered humiliation. I had been tricked by a cruel neighbor kid and had not been able to shake that fear for many, many years.

Perhaps in a way I started reading scary stories and watching scary movies as a way of facing that kid in the mask via proxy. If I could watch the horror show and sleep soundly that night, maybe it would mean that Shannon wasn’t still haunting me with his pale, hollow mask and uncreative grunting growls. If I made it through The Shining, it might mean I wasn’t a sissy after all. In doing so, in facing the fear, I found something strange. It was fun, kind of like a roller coaster. If you let yourself believe just a little bit and you stretched your imagination some, you could get those nervous chills and the heart-jumping frights but as soon as the book cover closed or the house lights came up, it seemed silly and unimportant. Like stepping off a ride. Fear was replaced with calm reason and a tiny bit of regret. It was over, maybe a little too soon.

I’m still not brave. I have yet to overcome my biggest fear (a completely irrational one I’ve discussed before which can’t be combated in the same way as regular chills because there is no “reality” to step back into when it’s over… the reality is there when the fear is triggered) which is not a surge of adrenaline but a direct evokation of the fight or flight response. But these days the scary movies and creep-out books and survival horror video games are some of my favorites. Excepting the dreams where I’m underwater, I actually enjoy the rare nightmare I have to a certain degree. The imaginative ones, like where zombies are chasing me through my apartment complex which suddenly becomes a particular street corner in San Francisco and the crazy guy who hides behind a broken tree branch outside of Joe’s Crab Shack and scares passerby walks up to me and offers a fistful of thumbtacks as my only defense against the crushing hordes of the undead: Those I like. They’re fun in a “I’m starring in a movie in my head” kind of way. Once you wake up, of course.

These days there isn’t much that really scares me when it comes to entertainment. Modern horror movies go more for the gross out than the real scare. The Sixth Sense was good because it was actually a nerve-wracking experience. More movies should be like that. I like watching old black and white horror movies now more than the modern ones: They aren’t really scary to me either but at least they have a sense of fun about them. Few books I’ve read lately have had much impact. Maybe I’m getting so old that I’m just over the idea of monsters in the closet. For as much as my formative years were spent being afraid of the dark, I needed only step into a bit and realize it was not so bad. It could, in fact, be kind of fun.

Update: The text of this article has changed from the original to better reflect the facts of my childhood nightmares. See the comments section for a complete explanation.

So what about you? What scared you as a kid? Did you get over it? Leave a comment or drop me a note.

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7 thoughts on “Focus on Fear

  1. Don (a.k.a. Dad)

    I feel I really MUST respond. All of the foregoing narrative is factual EXCEPT that I am positive I did not administer a spanking for being awakened–even repeatedly–by my frightened son. I do remember, after having tried everything else, telling him that the things he was scared of while trying to sleep were not really there but that if he could not bring himself to believe that, he would just have to be brave. Since I, myself, lost many, many night’s sleep due to a monster picture entitled “It Came From Beneath the Sea” my parents dragged me to as a child (about a giant octopus that terrorizes San Francisco–where I lived at the time) I fully sympathized with his plight. I probably was not happy about having to get up but a spanking? No way. Must have finally gotten to sleep and dreamed it…

  2. ironsoap Post author

    You’re right, and I’m very sorry. I fixed the text. For the latecomers (and for the sake of completeness), here is the original (false) paragraph:

    To my parents credit they were pretty patient with me. As a six or seven year old with nightmares, sleep was not high on my priority list and they tried their best to console me and be understanding when possible. I recall that it finally got out of hand, keeping my father up or waking him up probably for the 20th time in the same night and I recall him clearly warning me that it was all fine and I was safe and nothing was going to happen to me… unless I woke him up again in which case he’d give me something to be frightened of. I didn’t take him seriously but he was true to his word and I don’t recall relying on them for comfort much after the ensuing spanking. At the very least I don’t think I went out of my way to wake them up each time I had a bad dream.

    But upon reflection I realize that my dad is 100% correct and that while I certainly deserved a whipping at the time, he instead chose the high road and just told me to suck it up. Which from his persepctive probably more or less worked although I do recall being very upset about it (moreso probably than if I had just been spanked) which is probably why my adult brain has a hard time comprehending how I could have been that agitated by his perfectly rational actions without them involving a paddled behind.

    Which is something strange in itself, because I know I received enough spankings as a kid to get the picture very clearly when I did something really wrong but other than this one mis-remembered instance, I can’t recall any other specifics from any other infractions. Which means that since this one was not in fact a spanking at all, I don’t remember any percussive punishments I ever received.

    I guess that either means my parents were way too easy on me or I never did anything worthy of a really epic spanking. I’m going to guess it was the former.

    This also leads to an uncomfortable line of thought in which I’m now not sure how much of my memories from early childhood are actual and how much are warped by the misperception of recollection.

  3. Brandie

    As a young child I was told, probably by my Uncle, that the Boogieman ran around my frequently visited cousins’ house. The house was creepy as it was: cluttered, dirty, run down, and spiderwebs seemed to be everywhere. I have this permanent vision in my head of the boogieman: tall, greenish brown, body texture comparable to a slimy rock covered in boogers. In my vision he just runs laps around the house as if holding visitors inside captive. If we were there after dark I would pretend to fall asleep so someone would have to carry me to the car. There was no way I would voluntarily walk myself out that door and possibly be left alone to come face to face with the Boogieman. To this day I hate being at that house after dark. I know it’s silly. I know there is not boogieman but being there after dark still gives me an uneasy feeling.

  4. ironsoap Post author

    For some reason the Boogieman was never an issue for me. Sure, I heard of him, but he was always so nebulous (yours is the first real unpleasant description of him I’ve heard) that he meant nothing. I had an active imagination but I needed something to go on, you know?

    That said, I probably could have substituted my fear of generic “monsters” for the Boogieman except for two things: One is that even as a kid I found the name “Boogieman” to be much more humorous than frightening. The other is that there was some show (considering this morning’s memory issues, I’m hesitant to wager even a guess as to what it was) that depicted the Boogieman as a big flurry blue muppet of some kind. Once that non-threatening image was burned into my association with the Boogieman it was hard to work up a cold sweat over something no more frightening than Bert and Ernie.

  5. scott

    I’m not sure what this says about the Hamilton boys, but i know i was as much of a scared kid as you were, if not more. I can think of several instances:

    1. I seem to remember being frightened to the point of crying and not finishing the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup i was eating by the same scene in V. For whatever reason it was a long time before the letter “V” was not associated with fear for me.
    2. I had a penchant for being scared by things based on their reputation of being scary, or even if they were just supposed to be scary. Case in point is the Nightmare on Elm Street series, but a more vivid example was Stephen King’s IT, which i have not ever seen but was still frightened into sleeplessness for more nights than i can count by. I even remember seeing a commercial for ITT Technical Institute and having it trigger unpleasant memories (which had all been created in my head, since i had seen little more than brief snippets of a trailer for the TV movie) just because it contained the letters “IT”. Something about me and letters, i guess.
    3. This may be revealing more about myself than many would be willing to do, but several years ago, when i was very much an adult and no longer a child, I went with Sara and her parents and saw The Ring, and proceeded to undergo about a week of sleepless nights. I guess my mind tends to take movies more seriously than is wise, which i guess is why i like movies that create a compelling world (for instance, The Fifth Element or the Harry Potter films) because i can easily find myself identifying with the goings-on. However, this also makes movies like The Ring that much more disturbing for me, since i get caught up in the world that has malevolent beings randomly scaring people until they die simply because they are evil. Not learning much from this experience, i proceeded, a few years later, to watch the DVD of The Grudge with Sara and while it didn’t affect me quite as badly, it still scared the crap out of me.

    I know that i am not like you in your attempts to expose yourself to scary things in an effort to overcome them. I have no problem admitting that scary movies scare me, and so i’ll just keep my distance, thank you very much.

  6. ironsoap Post author

    I recall you being very, very frightened of the movie posters in video stores for horror flicks like Nightmare on Elm Street, to the extent of staying in the car when we went to rent videos out of fear that you might catch a glimpse of one. Truth be told, a bit earlier than you I found myself frightened by the box art for the movies in the horror section of the video stores. But for whatever reason I couldn’t bring myself to look away and became endlessly fascinated by their macabre depictions of sinister villains and horrific creatures. That may have been the first indication I can recall that as much as fear gripped me, I was nevertheless endlessly fascinated by it.

    In fact one thing I meant to mention but neglected to is that one of the things that also helped me determine that I was going to face the fear of the nameless, unknown malevolence I lumped together in my mind as “monsters” was seeing you suffer from your own bouts of nightmares.

    For awhile there you slept in my room out of fear which I assume was for some sort of comfort and I figured it wouldn’t do you much good if I was just as terrified as you were. Of course at the time it was fabricated in my mind a lot less altruistically: I just wanted to make sure I was braver than you, being the bigger brother and all.

    My most recent round of movie-induced “fear” was more of a lingering disgust generated from a scene in Ghost Ship near the beginning where dozens of people die simultaneously and then is repeated several times throughout the rest of the film. The movie itself was ho-hum but that one scene (while spectacularly done from a special effects/make-up standpoint) is so arbitrary and twisted that it really haunted me for some time. Perhaps unsurprisingly it wasn’t until I forced myself to think about it in detail and eventually caught a “making of” featurette about that particular stunt that it began to lose some of its bite.

  7. Don (a.k.a. Dad)

    While we’re on the subject of scary media stuff, there was a too-short-lived series back in the pre-color TV days that was really creepy. It was called “Thriller” and was hosted Rod-Serling-style by Boris Karloff. Where “Twilight Zone” could be weird and occasionally eerie, it was rarely grab-the-pillow-to-hide-your-eyes scary. “Thriller” was just that. Now, it could be the age I was or that time and memory have exaggerated its quality but I remember it as flat-out scary. Yet, much as I hated scary movies, I watched it often. It had an episode about a woman whose car stalls out in the country on a stormy night and has to spend the night in a spooky house with creepy people who end up being even creepier than she could have imagined–that sort of thing. If anyone ever finds a DVD collection of episodes, have a look (and let me know where you found them).

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