October 28, 2011
Sometimes in science fiction or horror films, or in science fiction horror films, a character will be confronted, either through technological or supernatural means, with their worst fear. It’s an idea that goes back as far as Orwell’s 1984, although his hero, Winston Smith, gets a real cage full of rats strapped to his face, rather than being subjected to an induced hallucination or virtual reality simulation. The fears are almost always pretty standard: various creepy crawlies, being burned alive, or Mickey Rooney in a dress. And it’s almost always suggested that this is the person’s worst nightmare. Everything else they could presumably deal with, even things that make them really uncomfortable, but this one thing, we’re led to believe, is the one fear the person can’t handle. If it’s true, if most people really only have just one thing that scares them that much, then I think they’re pretty lucky. If I were in a situation like that I think the supernatural force would tear itself apart or the virtual reality machine would short out trying to narrow the results down to just one thing.
I’m not saying I live in a state of constant paralyzing fear, but there’s a lot out there to be afraid of. Type the word "fear" into Google and the number of results will give you a rough idea of how many things I’m afraid of. Yes, it’s true that there are some things I’m more afraid of than others. Even though ferrets creep me out I think if given a choice I’d rather pet a ferret, or even have a cage full of them strapped to my face, than be dangled out the window of the seventy-third floor of a skyscraper. Drowning scares me when I think about what it would be like, but I know it’s also not likely to happen to me. Once I rode a roller coaster and was in a state of constant paralyzing fear until the ride ended. The solution is simple: don’t ever ride roller coasters ever again. And I can walk right by a roller coaster without it bothering me the way, say, walking by the ferret cage at the pet store does. And context has a great effect on fear. In a dark room in the middle of the night a strange shape over in the corner can be absolutely terrifying until I turn on the lights and see it’s just the pants I left draped over a chair. Getting in my car to go to work is pretty dull. Getting in my car in the dark and remembering all those urban legends about someone hiding under the car with a knife and slashing the Achilles tendon of the driver or of a crazy person hiding in the back seat can be unsettling, but, as much as I’d like to use them as an excuse to take a day off from work, I’m not going to, especially when the "crazy person" turns out to be a pair of pants I left draped over the back seat.
Taking a shower isn’t scary. Taking a shower in the Bates Motel can downright unnerving. And I remember lots of stories I heard on camping trips that, around the campfire or in the darkness of the tent, were terrifying but which, by the light of day, seemed laughable. There were tales of the pig man, a guy who’d worked in a slaughterhouse and started drinking pigs’ blood until it turned him into a wild creature who roams the woods. There were tales of the man with a hook for a hand, of faceless people, of headless people, of whole campsites wiped out by Mickey Rooney in a dress. The story I remember most vividly, though, is one I heard on an overnight camping trip in a cave. I love caves. They are testaments to the staggering power of time. Deep underground, in vast spaces carved by water patiently working away at rock stalactites and stalagmites can grow to dizzying heights, and yet they’re so fragile their growth can be ended by a single touch of a human hand. Deep in caves there are crystalline walls of gypsum that have lasted so long in unchanging conditions that the heat of your body will cause them to shift and crack, and there are enormous crystal beams that surpass the length of a city block. Caves are also dark, which is what makes them an ideal place for scary stories. On this one camping trip, when my Scout troop had pulled out our sleeping bags and bedded down on the cave floor, one of the rangers who’d led us through the maze of tunnels told us about a man who’d gotten lost in the cave. The man, a ranger himself, had made the mistake every spelunker dreads and is supposed to be on constant guard against: he took a wrong turn. Trying to retrace his steps just led him deeper into the cave, to places where no search party could ever find him. His flashlight was dead in a matter of hours. In desperation he ate fungus from the cave walls and drank the blood of bats. He survived months, then years, becoming a creature of the cave. Once he came into a regularly toured area of the cave lit with electric lights and saw his reflection in a pool. He was naked, hairless, and his skin was now translucent, all his organs exposed. He found his way to a group of sleeping campers, and touched one of them on the neck, where the blood beats the strongest, and was about to bite when the boy awoke and scared him away.
A story like that should have kept me up half the night, but, for one thing, I was surrounded by fellow campers. If anyone was going to be bitten by a skinny vampiric cave man it was probably going to be Ritchie, who nobody liked and who was sleeping off by himself over at the far end of the room. For another I’d already had a private, quiet experience of terror that far surpassed any story. In caves there is a darkness deeper than anything we can experience on the surface world, and in every cave tour I’ve ever been on there’s always a moment when the guide insists on turning out all lights to experience the darkness. I’ve never been a fan of the dark. I slept with the lights on until I was…okay, sometimes when I’m alone I still sleep with the lights on. But for some reason on this particular caving trip my fear of the dark, just for a moment, went beyond just fear. All the lights went out and I felt I was falling upward. I felt there was nothing around me. It was, I thought, what death must be like. Philosophers can debate whether the world is real or merely our perception, but we are, each of us, a living consciousness. As contradictory as it may seem I had a sense of what the universe will be when the last light goes out and all is void. It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced, although, now, being unable to describe it, it doesn’t seem scary at all.