Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
Once upon the time, the stories that scared me were simple tales. A boy falls in love with a girl who insists on keeping a ribbon tied around her neck, and warns the boy never to remove it. One night curiosity cannot be contained and he does, only to have her head fall off her body before his eyes. A girl goes to visit her mentor at her strange and dusty house only to find new residents who say that old woman has been dead for years. A taxi driver brings a woman back to her lover’s house only to arrive with no fare and the news that the women never returned from a cab ride decades ago, and cannot possibly be the young women the driver took directions from. These are gentle tales of the meeting of our world and a foreign one, that place beyond death that so many great stories told around fires and by candlelight draw their mystery from. I remember them from books that first were read to me and later took a place on my shelf that would quickly fill with more and more stories designed to keep me awake at night.
Most successful in evoking sleeplessness for me were the novels of John Bellair, who wrote a series of fantastical horror stories about the life of poor Johnny Dixon, a boy cursed to encounter far more of the terrors of the world than most. One of his adventures was an encounter with a killer robot. The Killer Robot wasn’t designed for murder, but for baseball: the robot is the invention of a sorcerer who decided to make the ultimate pitching machine. It’s not hard to imagine someone building such a robot—there are even robots today to aid in ballroom dancing, so the possibilities are endless. Unfortunately, this latest robot is designed more for killing than for baseball, and thus the story takes its turn from whimsical to frightening.
The haunting feature of this particular robot is the last component needed to bring it to life: human eyes. Naturally there’s no reason to imagine that anyone would actually need to cultivate human eyes as part of a cyborg, but the image of a robot coming at night to extract my eyes and claim them as his own haunted me. So frightening was the whole concept that I hid the novel under the sink in the downstairs basement so I wouldn't have to keep it in my room where it might somehow radiate its power. But for nights I kept imagining the empty eye sockets of a robot watching me from the window beside my bed that would never stay fully closed as the top kept sliding further down every night. [Many years later, I would realize that this was the fault of a bad window installation, not of a maniacal robot—but at a certain age it is easy enough to believe the latter.]
The art of Edward Gorey that adorns the cover and interior of most every John Bellair novel captures the world of a child’s fears. The images are stark, all ink and white space, with wide-eyed children and rooms with plenty of dark corners in which danger inevitably lurks. Most of his illustrations are of that world of shadows where fears run rampant and the color of daytime fades to the starkness of pen and ink. These specters can haunt a child with their simple gaze and their harsh lines: these are not the soft and fuzzy images of Monsters Inc. They belong to a different era, trapped in a Victorian period of starched colors and suppressed fantasies—and fears.
There are movies that capture this innocent experience of ghouls and goblins; movies that capture the need for gentle fright: the playfully homicidal antics of The Addams Family, the gentle introduction to the afterlife of Beetlejuice, the heartfelt pain of The Corpse Bride, the comic specters of Ghostbusters. The children of The Addams Family and Beetlejuice don’t have much to fear from the dark. They thrive in it, and understand its darkness well. These are the children with nothing to gain from avoiding death, as its mysteries are part of their lives. Wednesday Addams plays with guillotines and electric chairs and is at home in the family graveyard: if there are any monsters lurking under her bed, it is them who are cowering in terror.
I can watch these films today with the benefit of a glass of white wine and far from the old familiar confines of my parent’s house [well, I moved into an apartment about ten minutes away, but it can seem further late at night when the rats start moving in the ceiling vents]. What I can’t do is recapture the feeling of fear. Even in the noises that come from the shadows I can rationalize away from a comfortable position of knowledge: the scratching noises are not a madman but squirrels on the roof, and the voices in the walls are more likely to be the couple downstairs arguing over bills than the words of the damned echoing across time. It’s hard even to lose myself in the fantasy of it, to escape to the age where those things were not only possible but simply another element of existence.
The fears of childhood are the fears of the unknown. Spaces not visible in light are sources of the unexpected and perhaps the terrible: even the space right under the bed is a nightmare. The moment the glow of a parental flashlight brought out in comfort moves away from a shadowy corner or towering closet the monsters and ghosts can return to play. But such fears are also as easily assuaged: if you can see what is there, then it can’t hurt you. If you put garlic over your bed or say a few words of self-protection garnered from a favorite fantasy novel, nothing can harm you.
And most of all, nothing can harm you when grown-ups are there to protect you.
Often the ghosts of childhood are revealed to be no more than man playing tricks. The Scooby Doo crew persisted in their belief in spooks even as every imagined foe was revealed to be the nasty caretaker. Add enough shadows and gloom and even the sharpest of minds can see ghouls where there is only wind and an idly waving curtain. On Halloween we walk the streets in costumes raging from the horrific to the absurd and let the world react with the comfortable knowledge that all is masquerade: only the youngest child can still be left in terror when my mother answers the door dressed rather convincingly as the Wicked Witch of the West [leaving aside any similarities that may cause such fear, of course…] Just like the caretaker in Scooby Doo, most of the terrors we frighten children with are nothing more than mass produced illusions packaged and sold at Target and Party City and adopted with no expectation of scaring adults. Our masquerade is for the frightening of children and the realization of an adult desire to be scared in the same light-hearted and innocent way.
What are the terrors that are meant to grab us today, as adults? This last week I finally faced up to watching Saw. I’d been warned again and again that the violence of the film, of the gory scenes of bodies mangled among razor wires and men sawing off their own feet for the sake of life. But none of that really bothered me: maybe I’m just another product of a generation oversaturated with images of violence and death, but none of these things can grab my attention anymore. That’s not the part of Saw that left me awake at night reliving the experience of reading children’s horror stories. No amount of simple violence could make the rats in the ceiling sound like the promise of a madman come to serve judgment upon me for my wasted life—though how such a madman could know of the hours wasted reading web-comics and savoring the existence of low-maintenance employment is another matter entirely.
None of the scenes of violence haunted me, only the impressions of human nature, of self-interest and vindictiveness, of the anger of men who can already see the deadline on their lives looming before them through no fault of their own. I find these stories now just as believable as the monster under the bed once seemed. More so, perhaps, because now I have encountered some of this darkness, even in myself, even in the tiny moments of pleasure at someone else failing or in the desire to succeed and exceed expectations where others have failed. Knowing that the darkness under the bed cannot surpass the darkness in human nature somehow makes the blackened alleyways that much more terrifying.
What do we do, then, when are fears grow to encompass those shadows in human nature itself? No one can shine a flashlight on them and bring them out into comforting light. There are no magic words to speak or adult to run to for comfort. There’s just me, and an apartment with rats in the ceiling, and the simple knowledge of mortality awaiting the resolution of fear into nothing at all.