Yesterday I finished reading Johannes Cabal: Necromancer by Jonathan L Howard. It was an entertaining read about a necromancer, a haunted carnival, and a deal with the devil with a wry wit and some interesting characters and concepts – I recommend it if you’re in the mood for some tongue-in-cheek horror/adventure.
As the chief setting of the book is a carnival of the damned, however, it got me thinking about certain things a broad swathe of our society finds frightening that I don’t quite understand. Carnivals are among them, generally – I always had fun at carnivals, was never all that creeped out by carnival folk, and the only thing that scared me was the haunted houses, and that only because I was a kid and, having never gone in one, my vivid imagination made them seem MUCH worse than they actually are. In practice they’re relatively boring, honestly, but maybe that’s just adult me talking, and I’m not easily scared anymore.
Of course, I’m not talking about children being scared of things in this article – kids, particularly imaginative ones, are scared of all kinds of things. It’s actually not such a bad evolutionary trait for children to have, either. No, in this article I’m talking about grown adults and their pet fears that I find perplexing and confusing. So, to start:
Why are people scared of clowns again? I mean, they’re just people in face paint. Face paint and funny clothes. Brightly colored face paint and funny clothes. Meant to entertain children.
I mean, I guess the makeup makes them look a little corpse-y, but is that it? I’ve heard that people feel like they ‘can’t trust them’, but, then again, I don’t feel like I can trust a lot of people. That doesn’t mean they’re axe-murdering cannibals that populate my nightmares.
I saw an interview with the Insane Clown Posse once, and they were ‘asked ‘why clowns?’ The answer was ‘we’re fucking terrifying, that’s why.’ I wanted to explain to the gentleman that the thing that made him terrifying wasn’t his face paint, it was that he genuinely seemed to be the kind of guy who might commit a felony. Even without the facepaint, I wouldn’t be keen to spend time with him.
I totally understand that clowns are odd and a bit overly jolly to make me want to hang out with them. I get why kids might not like them (but kids also are afraid of bizarre stuff like cracks in the sidewalk and the letter ‘T’), but there’s just no reasonable explanation for a grown person to scream in terror at the sight of a clown. Of course, reasonable is the operative word, there. Fear isn’t reasonable by definition.
Okay, fine – maybe grown men in makeup are unnerving. How, then, do you explain the terror some people experience from dolls. You know the ones – the dead stare, the weird prerecorded voice, the neat, staid clothing.
Here the problem is, ultimately, that they’re tiny and inanimate. Even if they are animate (e.g. Chucky), they’re still up to your knee. Possessed by the devil or not, just pick it up and lob it into the nearest woodchipper or trash compactor – there, crisis averted. This is another instance of things made to look adorable or attractive somehow becoming terrifying. I don’t understand this. I mean, sure, again, a little weird, a little creepy, but not really scary. Anything that can be overpowered by one hand and destroyed by a pair of scissors isn’t on my list of fears.
So lets move on down the list until we get to ‘creepy children.’ This one blows my mind. Really.
I like kids. I have a kid (soon to be two). I’m a teacher and, in my career, I’ve taught small children. They aren’t scary. Ever. Ever ever. I can’t even conceive of an instance where a child under the age of 10 could ever be at all creepy. They could say anything they want and my response would be somewhere between ‘ain’t that adorable’ and ‘that’s inappropriate, young lady.’ Can kids make you angry? Hell yes. Can they make you sad? Certainly. Can they be weird? 100%. Scary? No. Not to psychoanalyze in abstentia, but part of me feels like people freaked out by children aren’t so much afraid of the kids as much as the presence of those kids somehow reminds them that they are growing up and older and becoming adults, which in turn frightens them. I’m probably 100% wrong on that one, but that’s just the first thing that comes to mind.
Here, I’ve got a creepy kid story for you. Let’s make this a litmus test, maybe, for whether you ever find children scary: A coworker of my wife has a little girl of about three. Said little girl was informed by her parents that the reason her grandmother was so tiny is that, as people age, they get smaller. The little girl looked straight at her mother and said this:
Yeah, and when you get old you get tiny, too. You gonna be this big. I gonna keep you in a cage.
The mother responded with ‘oh, don’t be silly.’ The girl’s response, dead serious:
No, I keep you in a cage. I lock you inside. You stay there.
Did you chuckle, or did you suddenly get a chill down your spine? If it’s the latter, may I remind you that it’s a toddler. She isn’t a threat to you. Honest.
I could add to this list – throw on zombies and the Borg and spiders and other things I don’t really find all that frightening – but you get the point. Of course, stuff I’m scared of might not scare you, so we’re probably even. Fear, as I said above, isn’t rational, and so explaining it or understanding it in another is very difficult. This psychological distance, however, is ripe for storytelling and adds a great deal to the experience of being human.
And I’m sure the psychiatrists of the world don’t mind, either.
I had a nightmare last night. Not a real, sit-up-in-bed-and-can’t-sleep-anymore type nightmare–I rarely have those anymore, and if I do they aren’t anything like this. It was, instead, one of those dreams that simulates a horror movie. I was staying in a hospital with two other people–an ex-student and a friend (but I can’t remember whom). It was night; we were alone. There was somebody stalking us.
At first we thought it a prank, but then we were wrong. The person we thought it was, well, they never really existed. This was something different…something wrong. It was coming for us, and it was going to get us, one by one. I found myself walking through a darkened surgical ward, hearing it whisper my name, and then it burst from a cabinet, black and smoky, glowing eyes.
I led with my knuckles. The dream ended with me digging my thumbs into its stupid eyes, swearing a blue streak.
My reaction to fear is, I think, sort of different than most. I feel fear, sure, but my instinct is almost always ‘attack’ rather than ‘run’. That pounding of the heart, the chills in my bones, the tremble in my hands–all of that gets focused into a sort of berzerk sort of rage that I direct at the object of my terror. I can control it, sure, but if you jump out from behind a bush as a joke, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll slug you as hard as I can. Horror movies frustrate the hell out of me, primarily because all the people do the exact opposite thing that I’d do. They go all limp and start squealing or running or whatever–I gave that up a long time ago. If I see Freddy Kreuger, I’m going to go for his jugular and hope that glove of his doesn’t finish me off first. I’m not going to give him the time to deliver his pithy one-liner.
Fear is a terrific motivator. Not only can it change me–relatively peaceful, easy-going guy–into a norse berzerker, but it reduces otherwise intelligent people to drooling idiots, organized people into flighty bubble heads, and stupid people into superheroes. Panic is enormously powerful.
In Frontier: 2280, I’ve included a weapon called a ‘panic bomb’. I stole the idea from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers: it’s a weapon that looks like a bomb, sounds like a bomb, acts like a bomb, but isn’t actually a bomb. You toss it in a room and it starts hissing and beeping and a little LED counter starts down from 10; it might even announce that it is a bomb in a loud, scary voice. The idea of the weapon is a way to flush people out of cover without actually exposing them to anything harmful or, conversely, cause confusion and panic in the defenders. If you don’t think such a weapon would work, you’ve never been in a crowd of people who were frightened of something before. Us berzerkers start smashing things to stop the danger, the panicky ones start running amok, the squealers start yelling their heads off, causing more panic–things get ugly, and fast. All the rationality and higher thought that we, as a species, are so proud of goes straight out the window, and we become little better than stampeding cattle.
I’ve talked before about how the zombie apocalypse trope underwhelms me. I don’t see zombies as wiping out a huge number of people, all things considered. You know what would, though? The panic associated with the possibility of zombies attacking people and the dead rising from the grave. Can you imagine the looting? The violence? The chaos? All perpetrated, by the way, by humans against other humans. All those anti-zombie fanatics who actually have spent time thinking about ‘what they would do if the zombies come’ are going to be running amok, chainsaws in hand, trying to ‘survive’ when, in the end, they’ll mostly be hurting other people or getting hurt themselves. That’s the power of panic, you see–more potent and faster spreading than any disease you can name, and probably the cause of more deaths.
There’s a reason, after all, that it’s illegal to yell ‘fire’ in a movie theater without cause, and it isn’t just for the hell of it. People have died because of that, trampled beneath the sticky soles of a thousand other panicky movie goers who, for the love of God Almighty, do NOT want to burn alive.
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
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.