My Favorite Night Terrors
On the surface, things that terrify everyone else terrify me. For example, when I first read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I slept with the lights on for about a week. The Exorcist scared me badly enough, that I slept with the lights on all night for a month—maybe it was longer. It was hard not to be afraid during that movie—the nuns were always telling us that St. John Bosco was tormented by the devil and levitated, and I just figured if it happened to a saint and a twelve year old, what chance did I have to escape that ugly fate? None. Similarly, when I was a kid, I used to convince myself that the Mummy was actually foot-dragging right down my driveway, headed (for reasons known only to Karloff) for our front porch—since I heard him starting toward the house from the back lawn, I’m not sure why he didn’t want to crash the kitchen door, but perhaps there were too many stairs for a five thousand year old disgraced prince. Or maybe he suspected my mother kept the tanna leaves in an urn on top of the mantel or something.
But in addition to the usual night terrors in books and films, I had my own list of things that made me quake and often vaulted me right out of bed (lights on) just to make sure nothing was awry in my little world. These included, but weren’t limited to:
Fear of toxic goiter (the pictures in my mother’s medical surgery books were fodder for my young warped mind). Fear of leprosy (it’s embarrassing to admit, but my mother had a friend who went to work in a mission in Thailand and I used to refuse to get the mail on days I spotted one her letters in the box and there were plenty of nights I actually got up to make sure my palms weren’t turning yellow like my mother’s texts described and by the way, do you know that there’s actually a distinction between nodular and anesthetic leprosy?) Fear of wolves (I wasn’t a particularly stupid child, so don’t ask me why I thought gray wolves were going to descend from Canada and find their way to Port Chester which is only 23 miles north of New York City). And, to round out my portion of irrationality, I was afraid of witches. I’m talking deathly afraid. I didn’t know any, but I was sure they were around –probably in the house at the end of the block--and these hideous warty-chinned creatures wanted to get me. (For all I knew the witches were commanding the wolves—just like in Baum’s The Wizard of Oz—and getting the damn things to come trotting right down the thruway and get off at Exit 3.) And finally, I was numb with fright at the thought of the dead guy in our attic. This was the former owner of our house, whom, my older brother assured me, hanged himself—on the days my brother didn’t have this suicide jumping out the third floor window with flames roaring at his back like some suburban version of the demented Mrs. Rochester. Of course, no one was killed or died in our attic, but you couldn’t convince me of that. I used to sing hymns right out loud whenever my mother sent me up there to get the Christmas--or worse--the Halloween decorations.
And I have to admit, since I live in the house I grew up in, I still feel a sort of pinging dread whenever I have to go up there. Or down in the cellar for that matter. In fact, I’m getting a little worried now, because I can swear I hear something ....shifting down there...near where the old coal bin used to be...and the cats are up here with me.
Listen, do me a favor? Here’s a flashlight, you go down and check, okay?