By Chris Goff
With all the talk of scary books and scary movies, I got to thinking about what really, REALLY scares us. We lose ourselves in a story or movie, and we can carry that fear with us for years.
Take The Haunting. I saw that movie when I was thirteen, and to this day I cannot sleep with my hand hanging out over the side of the bed.
Take Black Christmas. A movie that came out my freshman year in college about sorority sisters living in a sorority house with a stalker.
Take Dial M for Murder. Alfred Hitchcock at his best! Made me fearful of staying home alone for years.
But mostly, we fear the unknown.
Last week on Halloween night, I was home alone and had taken the dog out just before bed. It was late. The street was quiet. Rustling in the bushes couldn’t have been anything but a critter—a raccoon, maybe. But then shortly after locking the doors, putting the puppy in her crate, and climbing into bed, I heard a distinct knock on the front door.
Rap. Rap. Rap.
I felt that familiar lurch of fear. My breath caught in my throat. I reached for my phone. It was 1:00 a.m.
Snapping on the light, I went to the window and peered out. Sliding the window open, I craned to see the front porch, but could only see the outer edge. And I waited. Waited for another knock. Waited for sounds of someone inside the house. Think Dial M for Murder. I waited for several minutes, but no one knocked again. No one came into the house. No one stepped off the porch.
I went back to bed, but I left the light on.
The next morning, I told my daughter what had happened, and she reminded me that I have a Ring security system. I could have looked through the front porch camera and spoken to whoever was knocking. Had I wanted them to think there was a man was in the house, I could have had my husband dial in through his phone and demand to know what they wanted. And had I really wanted to be safe, I could have armed the security system.
Then there was the time my mother-in-law was convinced that someone was in the basement whistling in the middle of the night. She was 84, in poor health and headed down to confront the intruder. I was there to look out for her, and the only other person in the house. Needless-to-say, I volunteered—rather insisted—on descending the basement steps. My heart was pounding. After all, I’ve seen the movies and read the books. The move here is to call the cops. I know better than to go down to the basement. But what did I do? I left my mother-in-law sitting on the bench at the top of the basement stairs and slowly descended the dark bowels of the house.
Fortunately, there was no intruder. So, feeling a bit foolish (the reason I’ll likely go into the basement again), my mother-in-law and I sat down at the breakfast nook table and ate ice cream at 3:00 a.m.
There have been other times: two men walking up the driveway when my best friend and I were home alone; my car breaking down in a deserted part of town, pre-cell phones, walking alone for help; someone (or something) knocking things over in the kitchen after a break-in earlier in the day.
My epiphany! Every time I’ve felt afraid, REALLY afraid, it has been out of fear of a REAL person. I’m not really afraid of monsters or ghosts, but I’m terrified of people. The serial killer, the rapist, the home invader, the opportunist. I’m one of those who worries incessantly about the safety of my children and my friends. I mean, who else asks their 50-year-old son to call when he gets home safely, no matter how late?!
I know I’m not alone in this!
Just to be sure, I asked several folks I know what scares them most.
My son-in-law recounts the time three people entered their apartment in the middle of the night. He and my daughter were asleep in their room, when suddenly the dog went crazy. He looked over and could see light coming under the bedroom door, which could only happen if the front door to their apartment had been opened. Jumping up, he grabbed a baseball bat and the dog. Opening the door, he threw the dog into the living room and came out with the bat over his head to find three large men in hoodies—one with a girl thrown over his shoulder—standing in the living room. Turns out they were there with a friend, who had said it was safe for them to crash at the apartment. She shouted out before the bat was swung that it was just her. Order was quickly restored, but even the retelling causes adrenalin rushes.
Another recounts the time someone followed her in a deserted parking garage, only to back off when a car pulled in off the street. She ran for her car, jumped in and locked all the doors. She fumbled her keys, dropping them on the floor, and when she raised up she saw the car was gone and the person was moving toward her again. Jamming the keys in the ignition, she gunned the engine and peeled out.
What is the takeaway?
Crazy people are everywhere. Stay home. Lock your doors. Don’t let the kids out!
Yet, in reality, it’s those stories, the stories of what scares us, the near misses or survival stories, that we love to tell and love to hear. It’s those feelings of fear that writers tap into when describing the reaction of their protagonists when faced with possible death, or failure. I may not know what it’s like to stare down the barrel of a gun, but I can tap into visceral fear. Notepad beside bed, I’ve harvested a plethora of descriptors for my writing. I can make my readers heart race, their breath catch.
So, what was the end result of the knocking on Halloween? I still don’t arm the Ring security system when I’m home, and I still open the door when someone knocks, but I’ve taken to sleeping with a light on in the bathroom. And if I’m home alone, I have my husband on speed dial so he can notify the authorities to check on me.
What about you, Rogue Readers? Fellow writers? What scares you the most? Monsters under the bed or the monsters that walk among us?
Great article here, Chris. It reminded me of the years I worked as a TV News Anchor in SF and had a VERY scary stalker (for years)! Somehow he got my phone number and would call at 2:00 AM and say, “If I can’t have her, nobody else can.” (Whatever that meant). The News Director got the police to drive me home when I was off the air at 11:00 PM. After moving across the country to DC to work at a different station, one day I got a dozen roses delivered in the newsroom with a note “I found you.” Again – police escorts. Finally, working in the White House, the Secret Service was on it – and came to tell me one day the guy had killed himself. I later got a letter from his family enclosing the death certificate along with a letter of apology for his actions. Jeez!
OMG, Karna. That’s terrifying!
OMG Karna that’s terrifying!
However, I’ve actually never had to be afraid of an actual human. Even after 30 years working with law enforcement, it’s still only movies with ghosts that keep me awake!