I have been terrified of horror for as long as I can remember. Ghouls, mainly, when I was younger, scared the heck out of me. And even at five, I could tell that part of vampires’ power came from their allure. It was the not-quite-human, but resembling humans only in a “Human Sematary” kind of way, that always scared me the most. And don’t EVEN get me started on paintings with moving eyes. Hands down the most traumatizing and haunting images of my childhood.
Well, almost. Because when I was six, the most terrifying week of my life began. See, I was supposed to go to Adventureland. And you just don’t even know what that meant to me. After surviving my first roller coaster, I was hooked, addicted. But I had no control over when I’d get my next fix. So a plan for Adventureland was heaven for me. I was so freaking excited.
But it rained that day, so Adventureland was closed. So sad. And we needed a backup activity, because my mom was redoing our living room and dining room of the new house. We piled into my friend Laura’s house, and watched a movie — “Salem’s Lot.”
I’d never seen a full-length horror movie, and I was so scared. It never occurred to me to ask them to turn off the movie. First of all, that would have felt highly uncool. Second of all, I was entranced. Mesmerized by the horror unfolding in front of me. I’d read Eerie and Creepy comics, and seen clips of horror movies before, like the aforementioned moving eyes painting (I THINK it was George Washington — but a ghoul!). I was a bit traumatized by an episode of “The Adventures of Black Beauty” (fancy 1982 cable — Nickelodeon!) that had a ghoul, and now that I’m thinking about it, where did all the ghouls go?
Anyway, so I’d seen scary things. And in adult retrospect, “Salem’s Lot” wasn’t even that upscale a horror film. It was a made-for-TV movie, for crying out loud. But not until later in life did anything affect me quite so viscerally and mentally. There were so many things going on that spoke directly to my simultaneous love and fear of horror. Until that day, my scariest visual was the moving eye painting, but my scariest intellectual horror was one story in a horror comic book, not sure which one. It was similar in storyline to “The Vanishing,” but a bit different. Two guys plotted to commit some crime, steal a bunch of money or something, and one faked his death as part of the scheme. The non-fake-dead guy gave fake-dead guy a watch and some matches and was all, wait in the coffin and I’ll come get you at such-and-such time. The fake-dead guy gets buried alive in a coffin, and is of COURSE freaked out despite being all criminal-y and stuff, but he’s like, yay, the other guy is coming soon to end the horror. He lights a match. Not time yet. And waits.
And waits. And there in that tiny space, the terror mounts as it gets later and later and non-fake-dead-guy doesn’t come. I don’t remember if fake-dead guy finds a letter that’s all “Haha, got you!” or he just realizes, but his last match goes out; the darkness is incredibly final, and from the outside, you see coming from the ground, a word bubble: “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!”
I used to read it despite myself. It was so scary, but even at five, I was like “WOW that is a great story! Worth digesting fear for.”
“Salem’s Lot” had everything in a movie that operated off of my deepest innate fears, for a nonstop hour and a half. I was around others, and because they hid their faces behind pillows for protection, I could do that too, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to be staring at the movie head on, letting my face fall where it may, the way I’d embraced the terror of the comic story a year earlier. I wanted to be able to take it all, handle it all, and work through the fear and as with the comic book, be able to put it down and walk away when I was done.
But I hid behind a pillow and watched others being scared, so there was no defeating the terror. It won that day. I had Been Scared Shitless, and the movie knew. That is how it felt.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I felt drunk when I came home, like how when you come home literally drunk, the place sort of has that ringing familiarity, or like after you come home after traumatic experiences, you can kind of look around and be like sigh, sob on your bed a la Buffy in “Innocence,” and get a little healing. I could endure the horror of what I’d just experienced if only I could just go home.
I stepped in the door, and the house looked entirely different. My mother is like a handyman superhero, who prefers Home Depot to any other store, and got a lot accomplished that day I was two doors away watching “Salem’s Lot.” The rooms looked beautiful, but they weren’t home. I knew when we moved from Hempstead to Merrick that it was all about Moving On Up, and I hated every bit of the process. I was young, but I knew that success in suburbia meant how pretty is this room, don’t touch anything. I came home that gray day and knew that these rooms were no longer havens to kick back in. This Was Improvement. No more tatters, no more faded colors because now things were 1982 peach, and you shouldn’t walk in there, because that was the living room. I felt imminently insulted that a * living * room was treated like a museum exhibit held off by ropes. Was this why suburbanites kept working their way up, to buy more space and close off rooms for show? I spent 5 and a half years without a room or even bed of my own. And I was just fine, because I had an apartment building of family and awesomeness every day. Now here I was, six years old, coming home to lots of rooms and not one but two (bunk)beds, and it was all very “Shining”-esque, as I became overwhelmed and indignant at the audacity of my parents, just like, telling me I had to go to bed.
How could I just “go to bed” now, in this new home, in my room that was way bigger than I needed or wanted, with three windows because “cross ventilation” is apparently a big coup in suburbia. Screw cross ventilation! Because, the hands-down scene in “Salem’s Lot” that ruined me for normal sleep henceforth, and still scares me to this day, was the scene when the little brother scratches at the window and it’s all vampires, manipulation, and preying on trust, in one scene, and meanwhile it’s like, that’s NOT HIS BROTHER!!!
So I lay in my room, which felt ridiculously big and invade-able, with all the windows and stuff, and it seemed so stupid to me, like, Hempstead was dangerous? No. Everyone looked after each other in my apartment building, and lived close by. Here I was, trying to fall asleep, and the closest people were yards away, even my family, and again, I know they were trying to do right by me by giving me my own room, but it — well, read Ramona the Brave, and I can shave a few paragraphs off of this already-long blog. Bottom line, it is TERRIFYING to sleep in a new room by yourself. Especially when you are trying to be a good big sister, and keep repeating the scene in your head of an older brother who failed to save his little brother, and is haunted by him at night.
I felt that somehow, somewhere, what I’d seen that day in “Salem’s Lot,” was real, a little, at least. For my friend Laura, it was the green man that truly scared her. And overall, there was an ominousness to the idea of a town, a community, being overtaken by nearly invincible and insatiable creatures who wanted to take the people, body and soul, and not even just murder them — own them. Overtake them. Keep the visage, but force them to do evil. Force them to kill. Force them to haunt their loved ones.
I didn’t have nightmares, because I couldn’t fall asleep. I was scared of what was out there, and how vulnerable I was in my big bedroom with all the windows. I wanted to go home to my apartment building, to my extended family.
After hours of trying with all of my six-year-old might to be brave, I gave up. It was too much. I’d seen too many terrible things that day. I didn’t like that my beloved, tattered, terribly 70s, blue with yellow flowers couch was in the basement, despite being perfectly comfy and welcoming.
I prayed, yearned, tried so hard to somehow unsee the horror of that movie. After failing to ride out the storm, I meekly knocked on my parents’ door. I cried that I was sorry to overstep my suburban child bounds, but I could not stay in my room that night. I was too terrified. Of the movie, what I’d seen, the ghouls, the posters on my walls, because what if their eyes started moving. All of it.
I thought they’d be mad, maybe. I was failing them. I should have been grateful for my big room with all the windows. This was a waste of livable rooms, my crawling into their bed like I did when I was a baby not that long ago.
They didn’t me tell me that I was silly for being afraid. They didn’t remind me of all the hours they’d worked to give me my own room, with my own bed(s). They just saw how scared I was, and welcomed me into their own room, and took care of their daughter. They told me it was okay to be scared, but I was safe, and they’d protect me from the monsters as long as I needed. Turns out, I needed it for a week.
I never got used to the space, to the big room, to the bunk beds, to suburbia. I’ve never gotten used to fear. But what I learned that night, that week, and over the course of time, is that no matter how many flaming balls of horror life throws at us, if we need it, there will someone or something there in the night to make it all okay. Or at least help us make it to sunrise!