Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Things that go bump in the night

Happy (a few days after) Halloween! I cannot help myself but post something spooky and Halloween related today. I have to give thanks (its a month early for that, ha) to my friend Schaye for the conversation that led to this post. Inspiration is a blessing no matter when or how it is received.
Halloween is arguably a holiday for kids these days, but it was not always. I do not want to spend the pages necessary to explain the alleged history of Halloween. If you are reading this you have access to Google and Wikipedia. Use them… or maybe you shouldn’t. Tonight is all about celebrating things that scare us and knowledge is the tool that humans use to fight off the fear of the unknown. When knowledge fails us we normally default to faith. For tonight, and for this post, it might be more fun to lay aside knowledge and faith. Have some fear…if only for one night and one post.
As a species, Humans are obsessed with the things that scare us a lot more than one night of the year. Horror movies, horror novels, obsession with serial killers, a fascination with cannibalism, and ghost tours are part of our lives year round. I had a friend who celebrated every aspect of horror. He had a library of scary movies in his basement that could have rivaled the selection at Blockbuster (when that was a thing). He collected every horror related comic book, novel, and game he could get his hands on.
I do almost exactly the opposite. I have never been a fan of manufactured scares. I am very, very open to the Zombie Apocalypse. I look at it as an Adventure rather than a scary situation. Sure there is fear in any adventure, but the fear is secondary to the excitement for me. As a writer, having an open mind and being willing to suspend disbelief for supernatural creatures and the occult is simply part of the job. I try very hard to be good at what I do so I put a lot of thought into why and how my beliefs evolved. As an adult why do I not still pull the covers over my head and pray for the scary thing under my bed or in my closet to go away? Why am I not afraid of the dark anymore? When did I start “knowing” and quit having true fear? Why as a kid did I believe in every soul-sucking monster and ghost? When did I lose that?
One of the go-to ideas that believers in the occult (particularly ghosts) go to is that cats, dogs, and babies experience the world differently than most adult humans. Your dog is not barking his head off at nothing. There is something there that is making her angry or scared. You simply cannot sense it anymore. You cat isn’t hiding in the kitchen cabinet hissing at nothing. There is some evil spirit hanging about giving him the fright of his nine lives. Most likely that evil spirit isn’t the ghost of the kitty catcher. It is probably some ethereal being of unknown purpose sustaining itself by feeding on the life force of your home. It is probably draining the happiness and vitality from your very soul while you fuss at the cat to quit being weird.
To illustrate my point I am going to embarrass myself and tell a non-scary story:
During the summer after 5th grade, I spent quite a bit of time with my friend Brandon. We played a Nintendo game now and then, but mostly we spent our time outside. We rode our bikes. We did a TON of walking. Today you might call us Urban explorers. We climbed a lot of fences to get a look at the neighborhood. We ate picnic lunches on rooftops of buildings. We had a lot of fun just bumming around as kids. We were always home before dark. That was a hard and fast rule that we didn’t dare break.
Because we still wanted to get a full day of adventuring we tried our best to get started early. We set our sights on exploring in an organized manner. Eventually, our goal became Fulton High School. We spent a few hours checking out the main building before finding our way into the stadium. When we got bored with running up and down the steps and messing around on the field we started prowling around for something more interesting. We found it in the form of a bunch of sheet metal frame buildings.
We spent a little time peeking in windows, and it wasn’t long before we decided that there were an army building weapons of mass destruction right there under our noses. We saw half assembled jeeps. We saw tons of strange machinery. It was years later when I finally saw Red Dawn, but Brandon and I were convinced that Knoxville, Tennessee was soon to be under attack. We believed it so completely that we sprinted back to my house and convinced my Dad to follow us back to the school.
Dad was very kind to us. He had gone to Fulton and knew that we had come across the shop class. Still, he walked the whole way reassuring us that if there was an invasion he would report it. He looked in the same windows we had and didn’t even make us feel foolish. He just explained.
Our imagination was able to concoct a completely insane story and get a real emotional reaction. Our brains didn’t have the knowledge necessary to make us disbelieve. Sure Brandon had probably seen Red Dawn because he did have HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax that he frequently sneaked to watch. The line between the fantastic and the real world was blurred for us both. To put it a different way, the adult brain develops calluses that prevent it from sensing things that it knew to be real when it was a child.
The difference is clearly evident when we consider children with Fire and the Dark. Both things are childhood fears that most people learn to get past as they grow older. They have some very big differences.
Anyone who has been around a significantly younger person (sibling, child of their own, niece, nephew, friend…whatever) has seen a kid get burned because they have no natural fear of fire. When I was 4 or 5 I grabbed a camp lantern with both hands. That was a pretty common injury at the campground growing up. Kids have to be taught to fear and respect fire. It normally takes getting burned a bit to hold on to that fear and respect. We are not born with pyrophobia.
Being afraid of the dark is just exactly the opposite. No one trains their children to fear the dark. In fact, most parents these days try to condition their kids to be more comfortable in the dark to avoid Nyctophobia. Yet, for most people, you come to fear the dark. You don’t necessarily even have the ability to say what about the Dark scared you when you were little, but the fear was very real. For most people, a nightlight was necessary for some time. It may have even taken years for you to sleep totally in the dark. Some people still fear it as adults.
If you look at the modern world we do quite a lot to light up the night. Daylight savings time is something of an example, but if you doubt this take a nice drive out into a dark countryside where you can look out over a goodly sized city. The lights from town give off enough light pollution to be seen from space. I put forth that this is a major example that most people are afraid of the dark in a very primal way.
Why do we fear the dark seemingly without cause right from the day we are born? Why do we not fear fire in the same way?
The answer in my mind is simple. On some instinctual level, we understand that long ago we have domesticated fire and taught it to serve us. Fire has become our companion giving us light, heat, and security. We want to be able to touch it because we associate it with happiness and life. That same understanding tells us that we have to use light and fire to keep the dark at bay. We cannot tame the dark. We can only hunker down and survive those dark hours until dawn comes again. We fear what, even with our “developed” adult minds that “know”, might be out there in the dark and coming to get us.

If you don’t believe me turn off all your modern comforts. Go somewhere completely dark away from any sign of civilization. Go where the night isn’t held back by the glow of modern lights. Go there alone. Close your eyes and start counting to 100. Do that and just listen. My bet is that you run back to your car or whip out your flashlight at the first thing that goes bump in the night….because you know it is there and you have just been hiding from it in the light.

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