Around the Bend: Recalling ghosts of childhood past
As a child, I was afraid of ghosts. During that phase — where “phase” is defined as “from my earliest memories until high school” — I was convinced that invisible, malevolent forces were coming to “get” me whenever I was alone.It started innocently enough when I saw a “Bewitched” episode in which an enchanted chair moved around by itself. That was supposed to be amusing? A possessed chair is funny? For years, I refused to enter the dining room by myself.As I got older, the fears got worse, but I take full responsibility. I fed my overactive imagination with books, movies, slumber-party stories and TV shows designed to both entertain me and turn me into a sniveling, shivering nervous wreck.I couldn’t stop myself.In an effort to appear cool to my older cousins, I went to see “Amityville Horror” with them when I was only 10. Hello, fear of haunted houses.I read Alfred Hitchcock short stories and watched Vincent Price movies. That gave me a fear of ghosts, vampires, severed hands with grudges, and goatees.I read “Carrie,” “The Shining,” “The Stand” and “Pet Sematary,” which together added the fear of objects moving by themselves, hotel hallways and long winters, and pretty much everything I hadn’t previously been afraid of. I hope Stephen King is happy about the many nights I stayed in bed when I really, really needed to get up to pee but couldn’t risk death by zombie cat.I worried that mummies might rise from the dead in an Egyptian tomb and find their way into my bedroom in western Massachusetts; that flocks of birds might peck me to death; that the house might tell me to get out. Any time I approached a door, I expected an unseen force to slam it shut just before I reached it, trapping me.At night, I could not go up a flight of stairs without believing I could hear something evil sneaking up behind me. To get away, I would take two steps at a time at top speed. (I was a chicken, yes, but I was a chicken with legs of steel.)But by the time I got to high school, things changed. I had spent years cowering in bed, looking over my shoulder and bounding up the stairs. And nothing remotely paranormal had ever happened to me. Anxieties about real-life scary things — mostly boys and possible wardrobe malfunctions, if I recall correctly — took over.Other than an occasional lapse, like when I watched a late-night screening of “The Exorcist” during exam week at college (an event that caused a group of us girls in my dorm to travel together like a bunch of grapes to the bathroom and back for several nights) I stopped trying to scare myself. And I outgrew my fears.If there were supernatural forces out there, they never bothered to come after me. No ghost ever chased me, no door ever slammed, no furniture ever physically threatened me (although in college I did have an especially unwieldy futon that, if not actively out to get me, at least exhibited clear signs of passive aggression).My daughter, however, is 10 now and lately she’s been doing just what I used to do: She scares herself with stories and TV shows, and then worries the things she’s read or watched might come true.I’ve done my best to convince her that none of it is real. “How many people do you personally know who have been attacked by mummies?” I ask her. Not many, she has to admit.I talk to her about how fiction is not reality; ghosts and monsters don’t exist. It seems to calm her down.There’s just one problem.Every time I tell her, “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” or “It’s all in your head,” I think about how in movies words like that are accompanied by violin music in a minor key, followed soon after by blood running down the walls.Consequently, as she drifts off to sleep, secure, trusting me that she is safe, I find myself jumping at every creak our old house makes and spotting moving shadows out of the corner of my eye.I’m not saying my childhood fears have returned. That’s just silly.But I have learned in recent weeks, to my relief, that I can still take the stairs two at a time.