This essay was originally published on Oct. 2, 2017. It’s an excellent way to kick off the Halloween season, though, so I’m republishing it today. What terrified you as a child?
My brother and his friends troop down to the basement rec room, saying, “Let’s play Operation!,” and I am uneasy. I have never liked clowns. But I go with them; I am young — no older than three or four — and to be allowed to play with the Big Kids is rare treat.
The game is pulled out from storage and removed from its box, and my unease intensifies.
There is a large, red nose on the board. It looks like a light bulb.
The yellow and red color scheme of the board hurts my eyes.
We begin to play — or more accurately, the Big Kids begin to play, carefully lifting out wish bones and charley horses and butterflies from the interior of a cartoon man’s body with a pair of tweezers, while I watch. They giggle as they play; I do not. I am nervous, although if you had asked me why, I doubt I would have been able to tell you. The fear is nebulous and difficult to describe; after all, I am only a few years old. Now, I might classify it as dread.
Then — an error is made.
The tweezers, connected to the board by a thin wire, briefly brush the side of the cavity through which they are currently rooting.
The nose bursts into brightness.
The buzzer blares, loud as a siren.
It is the most terrifying thing I have ever encountered.
I run, screaming, up the stairs and take refuge in my mother’s sewing room, with its dark gold shag carpet and familiar piles of patterns and bolts of cloth.
I do not play the game again. I will not go down the board game aisle at any toy store. I stay away from the television, which often features a horrifying commercial for the game — one with a bright white operating room and a real-life version of the man on the game’s board. He has the same red nose, only it is a thousand times worse, because it is human-sized. The buzzer noise, similarly, is amplified by its scale. The commercial is shot in strange, disorienting angles, and I know to leave the room immediately the moment I hear the words, DOCTOR, MY BELLY HURTS.
I have a recurring nightmare about this commercial for many years. In the dream, I am downstairs in the rec room, watching television, when the commercial comes on. I do not think it is the same commercial as the one I avoid in real life, but according to dream logic, it is. I freeze. I shut my eyes and close my ears. I take a deep breath. And I tell myself that I will face my fear, that I will approach the television calmly and simply turn it off. I do this, crossing the entire length of the room between the couch and the television.
But the television refuses to turn off.
I try again.
It remains stubbornly on.
I do not know what to do.
I attempt to leave the room, only to find as I climb the stairs that the television is — somehow — following me. The commercial is still playing; what’s more, it is getting louder, and bigger, the sounds and the images beginning to take over my entire home. (It is the home we lived in until I was five; no matter how old I am when I have this dream, it always takes place in that house, not the one to which we moved.) I call for help, but no one answers.
When I reach the top of the stairs, I wake up.
After having this dream, I do not fall back asleep.
I seem to have trouble with televisions.
I am now six years old, and my brother and I are staying with relatives while our parents go on a trip. The trip is only 10 days long, but to a small child, IT feels like forever. IT is the longest time I have ever gone being away from both my mother and my father at the same time.
I spend much of the time reading, in part because I enjoy IT and in part because there is not much else to do. Occasionally, my brother turns on the television — an old-fashioned machine, large and with an antenna, the channels changeable only by turning a stiff dial on its front — and attempts to find something watchable. We like Star Trek and game shows; these are usually available, although not always.
IT is a rainy day. Water rushes down the street, siphoning off into storm drains as IT goes; if one were to float something down IT — a paper boat, for example — IT would travel at impressive speeds before ultimately becoming lost.
My brother and I are not allowed outside; IT is too wet.
Instead, we are in the living room. I have my book; he turns the dial on the television.
The sound is solid, almost more of a thunk than a click.
He continues looking, but there is only one channel that will come in clearly; the rest are just static.
There is a clown on that channel. IT is holding a bunch of balloons, and IT waves as a car drives by.
The clown has teeth.
I am better at outwardly managing my fear now; I do not stay to see anything else, instead picking up my book and leaving the room.
But my heart still pounds. Blood still rushes through my head. My senses remain on high alert.
IT is a long time before I am calm again.
I am not afraid of my closet, or of the space underneath my bed. Figuring out what to do with the bedroom door after the lights go out, however, is… complicated. If I leave it open, I am faced with a long, dark hallway; if I close it, I am faced with not knowing what might be on the other side. If I have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, I sprint down the hallway to it, turning on all the lights inside and closing the door firmly behind me once I reach it.
Getting back to my bedroom is worse. The darkness in the hallway always seems even darker when you’re charging into it after abruptly leaving a brightly-lit space.
Unlike my other fears, this one is much less concrete. I can point to a red nose and say, “That scares me.” I can describe a loud and unexpected noise and say, “That scares me.” I can show a picture of a clown and say, “That scares me.” But with darkness, it is about what I cannot see, or sense, or know. This fear does not have a defining memory, a moment at which I became afraid of the dark; it is a fear that is simply always there.
When, as a newly-minted teenager, I move into a bedroom with its own bathroom attached, nighttime becomes less of a problem; I can close the bedroom door at night and keep the bathroom light on. The space is self-contained and knowable.
There are other incidents, as well:
I am eight years old, and a classmate who discovers I am unsettled by an illustration in the third volume of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark — the image of the girl with spiders pouring out of her face — comes up behind me at our school library, taps me on the shoulder, and shoves the book, opened to that drawing, directly into my face.
I am nine, and raiding my brother’s bookshelf, and reading The Eyes of the Killer Robot by John Bellairs, and cannot continue — and, indeed, cannot sleep — after the scene in which Johnny Dixon stumbles across a man with empty, bloody eye sockets moaning, “They took my eyes.”
I am, strangely, unafraid of The Shining. When I am 10, my brother and I choose to watch it and Psycho back to back together one night while our parents are out. When we get to what we later realize is the infamous “red rum” scene — the moment Danny writes the word in red lipstick on the caretaker’s apartment’s door — we pause the VCR (because this was back in the days of VCRs) and rewind the tape. We don’t rewind it because we were so struck by the moment, though; we rewind it because we wanted to confirm what we had seen. My brother had asked, “Wait — what did that say?”
“I think it was ‘murder’ backwards,” I had replied.
We watch the moment again.
“Oh,” we realize. “Red rum.”
And this, perhaps, is the turning point: The point at which horror becomes something fascinating to me, rather than something fearful.
I discover the paranormal section of my local library and spend hours crouched on the rickety catwalk on which it is located, poring through volume after volume of every true (or “true”) tale I can find.
I catch up on all the classic horror films I have hitherto missed, watching with a critical eye and absorbing all the history and rules of the genre. (The rules, of course, are meant to be broken. I learn this watching the new releases I now seek out.)
I get a Ouija board. I learn to read the tarot.
I take a pilgrimage to Spooky World, which, in the days before high-octane haunted attractions had become a fixture of the autumn months, is The Thing To Do for lovers of the strange and macabre.
I build haunted houses with my friends at Halloween — a tradition we inherited from our older siblings — and begin learning how to create illusions that inspire fear in others.
I read. I read about why we find certain things frightening, and where those fears may have originated. I read about why we — some of us, at least — seek out fear.
I learn to tell stories — the kind that are best told on dark nights, when the leaves begin turning and October is in the chair.
And, well… here we are.
Welcome to the Halloween season.
How did you get here?
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[Photos via Alyssa L. Miller/Flickr; Pexels (1, 2)/Pixabay; tertia van rensburg/Unsplash]