Fear, Itself

This morning as I was walking into the mall I saw the upper windows over the entrance covered, billboard style, with an enormous ad for Busch Gardens’ Howl-o-Scream, a Halloween staple in Tampa. I reflexly reached down next to me to steer Boo away from the view, but as she is now 11 and in middle school, my hands did not meet her soft head but simply swished through air. So ingrained is it for me to try to steer my child away from these images, I’d actually forgotten she wasn’t with me. I guess that’s because from the time she was about a year old (she was born in November) she’s been horrified by Halloween to the point where I couldn’t take her anywhere except the grocery store from early September through the first week in November without shielding her eyes because the minute she caught a glimpse of something she found scary she would freeze and begin to tremble.

For years, the biggest places to avoid were Party City and Wal-Mart, as they always seemed to have the most ghoulish decorations front and center. Planning Boo’s November 10th birthday parties was always a nice challenge, since those were the best places in town for invitations and party favors. So in the beginning I hid her eyes a LOT, walking her stroller into the store with her inside, a blanket over her head. Then, as Critter got older she would tell Boo to close her eyes and she would lead her older sister, as if blindfolded, through the worst parts of the store. Yet as the years wore on the props went from being merely visual to also having sound components, so even with her eyes closed Boo would hear the cackling, the groaning, the moaning, and the screaming. She flat out refused to enter stores after that.

Then, of course, there were the tv ads for that same Howl-O-Scream, which we could fortunately always skip over since my kids watched nothing live (thank you, Tivo!) The few times that I did watch them, they quite honestly scared even me. Howl-O-Scream does fear incredibly well, at least from the outside (I’ve never attended and honestly never will). They seem to be aware that the scariest things are the things you can’t see. One of my friends, after skydiving, told me the scariest part of the whole experience was waiting to jump because the biggest fear is that of the unknown. Critics have written that’s why the film Jaws is so terrifying–because for the majority of the movie the terror is just glimpsed. A fin. A tooth. A flash of gray skin. The same with the movie based on Stephen King’s It. Pennywise the Clown is probably the most terrifying figure to haunt any movie screen. As an avatar for a deeper, more dangerous monster in the sewer, Pennywise is an unknown on top of an unknown.

Clowns have always terrified me–I might be coulrophobic–because at a young age I realized that their expressions are painted on. As a child I was terrified of things that looked one way but could easily, underneath, be something entirely different. A clown could be happy but have a sad face painted on. He could be truly sad but have a happy face painted on. She could be murderously evil but look innocent and pure. Like with those horrid plastic masks everyone wore in the 80’s, you never REALLY knew what was going on under that mask, what it was hiding. All you could see of the person were their eyes, framed by unnatural rigid plastic. I still shudder just thinking about it.

For me, the most terrifying scene in the movie The Shining was when the heroine looks down the hallway and sees the butler of the hotel talking to a man dressed in a dog suit, and they both look down the long hallway at her. That dog mask, to me, is more horrifying than Jack Nicholson chopping the door down with the axe saying “Here’s Johnny!” (I actually find that kind of funny), or the little boy quoting “Redrum” over and over again until they finally realize it’s “Murder” spelled backwards. My mother didn’t understand why it was THAT scene that made me run out of the room crying. “It was just a guy in a dog suit!” she shouted, having paused the film to come after me. But to me, it wasn’t a guy in a dog suit. It was a person, completely masked, in the suit of a dog. It could have been anyone in there, dressed as a fuzzy friendly dog. And when I looked down that hallway, at the person in that mask, the only thing that looked human were their eyes. Human eyes in a dog face. The incongruity, the falseness, the sense that what lay beneath that mask was not what it seemed . .  struck me with bone-deep, core-chilling, breath-quickening fear. When I explained that to my mom I remember her just looking at me for a long time. She didn’t know what to say to that. Her final reply was a shake of her head, a sigh, and the words I heard most as a child: “You really do think too much.”

In much the same way as my mother wondered at my fear of a man in a dog suit and was struck by my much overthought explanation, I once asked Boo what it was about these costumes and props that were so scary. After all, they were just plastic. There weren’t even any real people in them. They weren’t real. I was worried that she couldn’t distinguish fiction from reality, and I wanted to see if she was giving into rather than facing her fear of what simply amounted to plastic and paint. Her answer, at seven years old, floored me in much the same way as mine effected my mom. “It feels evil,” she said. “I don’t like evil. I think there’s enough real evil in the world that we don’t need to invite in any more by putting representations of it out in public.” She was seven when she said this. SEVEN. Seven years old, speaking to me not of fictional ghouls and goblins and monsters with plastic skin and painted eyes, but of the real presence of evil in our world that she did not want to see fictionally augmented.

Boo has always been sensitive to such things, perhaps overly so, but perhaps not. She is attuned to reality in ways I’m not. She sees through things, and people, to their core. She is an incredibly astute judge of people–even me. She can see through my excuses and rationalizations and call me on them like no one I have ever met. So when she sees something, or senses something, I listen. And if she sees evil, and wants to be as far away from it as possible, I’m okay with that. I have never asked her to go into the stores around Halloween time again, even with her sister guiding her or a blanket over her head.

Now, of course, in what I have realized is the way of things, she has started to try to protect me from the representations of evil she sees. Yesterday, in Publix, there was–surprise, surprise–a cardboard ad for Howl-O-Scream selling gift cards for Busch Gardens. I was looking at the buy one /get one free Captain Crunch cereal convincing myself we did not need the sugar in the house, and she and her sister spied the display before I did and attempted to steer me down the aisle before I could see the evil clown prominently displayed at the top. As I resisted I looked to the side and saw what they were trying to protect me from. I looked away quickly, and saw their faces looking up at me with worry. “It’s okay,” I said. “I know. The clown. Thanks for trying to keep me from seeing it.”

“You did the same for us,” Boo said. “A lot.”

“But you’re still my kids, and I’m your mom. You don’t have to protect me,” I answered. “I can handle it.”

“The thing is mom, you shouldn’t have to,” Boo said. “Why do they have to put that out there in the middle of everything like that? If they didn’t have the big, evil, ugly, terrifying clown up there would people not know what they were advertising? Sheesh. It’s like they’re going out of their way to put the most gruesome images everywhere they can.”

“Well, sweetie, it’s advertising. They want to get your attention,” I tried to explain. She was having none of it, and I honestly didn’t know why I was even explaining or justifying it.

She just continued, “I just don’t get this in-your-face promotion of evil. I don’t mind the Day of the Dead stuff, the respect for those who’ve died. I like Halloween for the dressing up, being someone different for a day, maybe living your fantasy of being something you just can’t be every day. But to be constantly faced with all this undead evil stuff . . . I just don’t think we need to be exposed to it at the GROCERY store.”

Eleven. Almost twelve. She’s her own person. She has her own ideas–ideas that have been developing since she was seven. And you know what? In many ways, I agree with her. Why do we inundate our spaces with images of fear, of unnatural, undead, monstrous evil this time of year? Is it because we like convincing ourselves that kind of death is a fiction? Is it yet another way to avoid facing our own, absolutely real mortality? Is it just that being scared is kind of fun sometimes? And if so, why is it fun?

My daughter’s (and, honestly, pretty much my whole family’s) aversion to the more gruesome aspects of Halloween raises more questions than it answers, I think, but they are questions we need to ask ourselves as we move into that holiday season. What are we inviting into our lives, our homes, our spaces, our consciousness? Do we really want it there? And if so, why? What about it appeals to us so much that we want to give it not only space in our minds but in our homes and places of business? And what does that tell us about ourselves (as individuals or groups)–what we desire, what we fear, what be believe, what we despise, what we glorify?

My answer is that this year the girls and I are “glorifying” Dr. Who. We desire to travel through time, we fear immortality as much as we fear mortality, and we truly believe, with the Doctor, that nothing is more important than every individual human life. So, it’s entirely possible that the next time you see us, at this year’s Trunk or Treats or running around on Halloween or Facebook, you’ll see the Eleventh Doctor (Boo) complete with red fez and (green! it has to be green!) sonic screwdriver and the cuddliest Dalek you’ve ever seen (Critter) chaperoned by, of course, The Tardis (me). I have carried them through space and time, after all, in one way or another for over 11 years. Why stop now?

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