It’s Halloween, and in tribute to this spookiest of holidays, I’ve made a list of the things that have most scared me in my 30 years.
Amorphous, man-eating blobs. During an ill-fated trip to Lincoln City the summer of my sixth year, my dad permitted me join him on the sofa to watch few scenes from “The Blob.” (In case it doesn’t ring a bell: think Steve McQueen bravely battling a giant red alien gooball that oozes its nasty way around Phoenxville, Pa., digesting everyone in its path.) Just as my displeased mother predicted, I was completely traumatized. I wouldn’t eat jelly for three years, no exaggeration. I loathed the nighttime and would spend hours staring at the wallpaper, just waiting for the goo to seep through. It took a good two or three years for those sci-fi visuals to fade from memory, and to this day, those Costco-sized jars of Smuckers still do bad things to my mind.
Bugs with wings. Over passing time, I’ve learned to concede the necessity of sharing the planet with gross things. And over several years logged in the tropics, I came to recognize that bugs, like slugs, amoebas and other life forms relegated to less glamorous life stations, do serve an important purpose, namely, eating other bugs. But there’s just something about a winged bug that completely unhinges me. When I lived in Mexico, I was terrorized by a family of flying roaches that made their home in the thatched roof of my apartment. (OK, hut.) The nasty creatures were so large I once momentarily mistook them for a swarm of hummingbirds. Back home in Oregon, the creatures are blessedly smaller in size, but a chill still passes over me whenever a fly lands on me or a moth flies out of my towel in the morning, which is relatively often.
Dolls’ eyes. Back in the early ‘80s, an urban legend circulated among my cousins about a China doll who came to life in the middle of the night. With a wicked chuckle and a blink of her shiny glass orbs, she crawled out of the toy box and did away with some poor 8-year-old girl’s family as she slept. Then, horror of horrors, one morning I picked up my favorite doll, J.J., to discover that one of her doll eyes had managed to flip itself completely upside down so the eyelashes were on the underside and the pupil stared creepily downward. The effect was terrifying. My mom still laughs when she tells the story of how I ran down the hall in a fit of hysteria, refusing even to touch the doll until she’d put one of those round bandages over the offending eye. But here’s the really spooky part – a few months later, during a trip out to the coast (yes, the coast again … It’s creepy here!) we passed by an old doll hospital. I shouted with joy, and my dad pulled over and escorted me into the crumbling building. The door was open and the lights were on, but it was eerily silent inside the store. The air seemed to buzz with some strange energy. We rang a bell and called out a few hellos, but finally gave up and left. A few months later, my dad heard on the radio that the owner of the doll hospital had been found dead of natural causes inside her shop. No one registered her absence for weeks – unless you count us. The only good part of that horrible experience was that J.J.’s wonky eye had begun to seem decidedly less terrible, and a few months later, I worked up the nerve to remove the bandage. To this day, one of her eyes sits upside down. I no longer mind. I know there are far worse potentialities out there.
Which brings us to Halloween. What possible purpose does it serve? Why take all our deepest-rooted childhood fears – monsters, creepy-crawlies, the horrific transmogrification of those we love most – and cast them into the light? I think it’s like this: when you’re a kid, there’s nothing more terrifying than the premise of some nasty, hungry thing slithering out from under the bed. When you grow up, you get to take your pick from a laundry list of infinitely more nebulous and awful possibilities: bioterrorism, eco-terrorism, nuclear terrorism. Car and plane crashes. Alien probes. And at a certain point, perhaps, there’s little left to do but take refuge in the memory of a time when our greatest fears were simple, finite things. What could be more pleasantly relieving than discovering that the axe-murdering clown at your door is merely the pimply teenager from down the street, or that the ghost floating up your walk is after nothing more insidious that a few hunks of chocolate?
Nothing to fear but fear itself? Yeah, right! Happy Halloween nonetheless.