When I was a child I was scared of many things, all imaginary. I had a vintage Everyman Library edition of ghost stories that I tortured myself with at bedtime, and my parents foolishly allowed me to watch TV specials on alien abductions, hauntings, and unexplained phenomena and monsters. I endured periods during which it took me several hours of trembling beneath the covers to get to sleep at night, because it didn’t seem unlikely to me that Scotland’s Loch Ness monster might swing its head around my bedroom door, or that some bride suicide in her tattered whites would rather trouble me than the cad who jilted her.
Everything I was aware of in those hours before I fell asleep frightened me. After my father kissed me goodnight, he switched the light off by pulling a white string attached to the ceiling lamp. The centrifugal swinging of the string in the dark formed a faint vibrating image that in my imagination transmogrified into a bleakly staring face. I insisted my door be left ajar so that light from the hallway could stream in, and despaired if my parents went to bed before I fell asleep, turning the hallway light off and leaving on only a dim nightlight which barely illuminated my room at all and left me vulnerable to the horrors of the dark. Of course, even with the hallway light on, what was to prevent an alien from appearing in the doorway? There was really no good solution. I often opened my window curtain to let the light from our neighbor’s window, which shone from across the shaft, spill in to make a comforting pattern on my ceiling. They were awake and unafraid, chatting with the lights on, and so I could relax. But then they turned the lights off, went to sleep, and left my ceiling bare, and me with only the grim shapes hovering in dark relief against the blankness.
Ghosts and aliens alternated worrying me, depending on what I was reading or watching on TV. Those were the two big fears, although once in a while the Jersey Devil added some flash to my paranoid fantasies as well. Occasionally I’d enjoy an extended period free of night-fears, when I’d know how silly it had been to be so afraid of these, I knew, imaginary things, but then I’d catch a special on some alien they dissected at Roswell, or flip open my ghost storybook and read about the driver who finds out that the hitchhiker he picks up has actually been dead a week, and feel the arrant dread rising like mercury in me, and know that that was it for the next few months at least. It grew tiresome, this nightly anxiety; the fear itself was just so tedious, that I actually grew to resent myself for being so frightable. I’d like to say it had worn off by my teenage years, but I was such a fan of the X-Files that a milder form of my old fears would revisit me every week, but luckily not last more than a night or two. Particularly effective episodes were the one about the tiny Canadian insects that suck your body of its fluids if you stepped into shadow, the one about Eugene Victor Tooms, who lives in an elevator shaft and eats human liver, and the one in which a dying circus performer’s conjoined twin goes rogue and makes many fatal attempts to attach himself to someone more healthy, and Agent Scully eats a cricket (crickets look too much like cockroaches not to give me the heebie-jeebies).
I’m still afraid of the dark. I stupidly watched Paranormal Activity 2 the other night at my sister’s. Of course I’m too sophisticated now to be duped by spooky music and trick lighting, but it was the very banality with which the malevolence asserts itself in this film that made it able to catch up to my now-diminished frightability. Everything looks and sounds so normal. A pot falls from the hook in broad daylight, unartfully recorded by a standard CCTV lens, like the kind they use to catch shoplifters at Century 21. Well, my house has no spooky soundtrack, and no Hitchcockian-lighting effects, and pots fall off hooks all the time. The similarities are endless. And right now my 70 year-old atheist hippie mother isn’t at home to protect me from the hell-sent forces of evil. That was a bad movie night.
Furthermore, I live in a railroad-style apartment, in which all of the rooms branch off from one long hallway. Believe me, you don’t have to be all that stoned to envision a torrent of blood splashing towards you from the kitchen.
There are things that would make more sense to fear, but somehow I can’t be bothered to fear them. I’m stoical about flying. I’m aware the plane might explode, but I’d rather go where I want to go and accept the risk. I don’t let a little mad-cow fear scare me off steak when I’m in Europe. I don’t wander about in “bad” neighborhoods, but neither do I worry about getting mugged or attacked. I wouldn’t think twice about returning home by train at 2:30 to my apartment in the Bronx. No, I’ll charge down the dark street past my fellow nightowls in all their colored bandanas and tear-drop tattoos, kicking the bullet casings aside on the way to my building, and then get home and worry about the scary shadow-shapes my dolls make along the wall.
Also, if it isn’t bragging (or even if it is, I guess), I’ve not been as fearful as I could be in my interactions with people. I don’t shrink from an argument, and I don’t believe that frequently bursting into tears should disqualify me as a rational being. I’m usually honest about what I’m thinking or feeling, and am even willing to be the first to admit to something, like with men. In fact, I’ve come to realize that not much happens in my life without my first making some mortifying confession. I suspect that such forthrightness can sometimes have an emasculating effect, and might cause my plans to backfire, but this, too, I am willing to risk in order to start something that won’t start without my own initiative. Sometimes I resent being left to do the courageous thing, but then I consider that they will eventually find out that I would rather hold my pee in all night than get up to use the bathroom if the nightlight is out or the heater is clanking more ominously than usual, and I figure I should get my points for courage in early.