There I was, 11-years-old, brushing my teeth in the bathroom mirror, getting ready for school… and terrified out of my gourd. Toothbrush slowly shaking across my front teeth, back and forth, over and over the same spot as my bulging eyes darted between the open door leading to the dark hallway and the wall behind the shoulders of my reflection, just knowing something evil must be near. I leaned over to spit out some excess toothpaste, taking my eyes off the mirror for only a split second and when I straightened back up, there was my mother standing behind me. Her bed-head hair was twisting in contorted directions, her bloodshot eyes stared blankly at me, and her jaw lay slack from a mid-yawn pause. All in all, the most terrifying, gut-wrenching, thing I had ever seen… that morning. I screamed like I was Macaulay Culkin putting on aftershave. Toothpaste-laced spittle was flying to and fro and my hands flew up in a defensive position across my face, toothbrush bouncing off a wall somewhere, no doubt. I pushed past her and her confused face, knocking her aside as I leapt in one swift motion out of the bathroom, thorough the dark hallway, and into my bedroom where I slipped under my blanket like a poof of smoke and began sobbing uncontrollably.
“That’s it!” My mothered yelled at me, following my flaming smoke trail into the bedroom. “You’re taking those books back today!“
You see, the week before my class took its regular excursion to the library so that we could all browse around and read or checkout a book or two to take home. Trying to stir the imagination, I suppose, was the intended goal of the teacher, but her noble intentions did not take in to consideration the twisted little mind of one of her students and the near nervous breakdown it would cause an 11-year-old to have just a few days later.
Two books sitting side by side caught my attention immediately. One was about the evidence that aliens might be visiting our planet from time to time and the other was about the possibility that ghosts may be all around us, all the time. Tons of photos of smokey body shapes and eyes lurking in the background of family photos, or bearded men dressed in civil war era clothing leaning against tress. I took them both home and opened up a little can of crazy on the rest of my family.
The alien book I found very interesting and not at all scary. Little slimy midgets wearing sunglasses hurdling through time and space in flying muscle cars seemed pretty awesome to this little 5th grader. Lifeless corpses who watch you from the shadows with their dead eyes and the power to possibly posses your very soul, all while moaning and spitting blood? That seemed a little less appealing for some reason.
I was incapacitated by abject fear for weeks. Every open window into the night contained flesh rotting corpses hovering and waiting for me to look their way, so they could stare at me with deadpan eye sockets. The mirror became a portal to the netherworld where a turned back could get you a one way ticket to hellish death. Every creak and crack was a limping, dragging, foot and every breeze a whisper or moan from a tortured soul. I was inconsolable.
I eventually got ahold of the reigns and straightened out, but to this day sometimes I just cannot control the fear once my brain turns something over. I saw the movie “The Ring,” which I understand is laughable to some people, and I couldn’t go to the bathroom or down my hallway by myself for a couple weeks… and I was 26! I mean, the hallway light was a long florescent bulb that flickered on and off! How scary is that? I was living alone with my cat (totally hetero thing to do) and I had to pick him up and take him with me at night whenever I had to go to the back of the house. After all, cats can sense spirits right? Hey, I know all about it, I saw Ghost too. Pathetic.
But when I stop and really think about it, it seems like in this world you generally fall into two categories: you’re terrified of ghosts OR you’re terrified of aliens. I know there is the group that is scared of anything and everything, and then, of course, the “I ain’t a-skeered a nothin!” group which we all know is bullshit posturing, but for the most part I think people would definitely choose one over the other.
My wife lands on the alien paranoia side. Sure she has a healthy respect for possibly ill-intentioned ghosts, but you can hardly let the word “alien” roll off the tongue without igniting a little terror and sending her fingers plunging into her ear canals. La-la-la-la-la I can’t hear you!
In basic training she was woken up in the middle of the night to pull her guard duty shift. She emerged from her tent, rubbing the sleep and exhaustion out of her eyes, only to see three moonlit shapes slowly marching towards her in the dark. They were all holding rifles, of course, and were wearing hooded gas masks as they creeped across the clearing in the woods, towards where she was standing. She was legitimately horrified that they were alien invaders for a moment and almost screamed out… which of course would not have made for a pleasant ending to her military exercise.
What is the difference? Why do I think aliens are cool, but she might need adult diapers if we ever watch “The Fourth Kind?” (Never going to happen) It seems to me that the answer to the question about which you are more fearful of might have to do with a deeper, hardwired, response that you have to fear itself.
Aliens represent an external unknown. Aliens come in and observe you from a distance or they swoop in and steal you away from your own home and place of safety and comfort. They are truly unknowable and foreign. They experiment on you in very inhuman ways and represent something that is beyond anybody’s control.
Ghosts, on the other hand, are very internal and a somewhat known variable. They are basically you, but a different version of you, a possibly evil version of you and others like you. They don’t come from afar, they come from within, and could possibly be sitting next to me as I type this out (… stop saying stuff like that.) They are dead, lifeless, cold, lost souls… and you might become one of them. You know that you could, because if ghosts are evil, you understand that you have that propensity for evil within you right now and you can see it in humanity as a whole.
So which are you? Do you pull the covers up to your eyeballs when you sleep alone at night because you’re afraid someone might come in and take you or because they are already there sitting at the foot of your bed? (stop saying things like that!)