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(c) Copyright 2010 Marcia McCord
It did spark my interest in finding good scary stories though.
A little later when my brother was less prone to nightmares and entirely too proud to turn off the television, we both loved Rod Serling's Night Gallery. He liked "The Girl With the Hungry Eyes." I liked that one, plus one starring Richard Thomas called "The Sins of the Fathers/You Can't Get Help Like That Anymore." There was something about customs from a time untouched by television or cell phones or even indoor plumbing that was fascinating, even if it was fictional. My favorite, though, was "Silent Snow, Secret Snow."
I wasn't sure then why I liked it so much. It was more eerie than anything else. There were no Kate Beckinsales with tossled hair and color-changing eyes. There were no ghosts to speak of, no monsters, no otherworldly dripping jaws smiling and sniffing while your hero perspired in fear and determination. There were no cute dragons or gremlins, dry or wet. There were no fangs or claws, no decapitations or suddenly animated inanimate objects. But it was scary to me, scary and delightful.
There was just a little boy whose fighting, bickering, battling parents were terribly concerned because the little boy would not wake up. He drifted in and out of consciousness, in and out of reality, preferring the quiet and cold of the snow to life on his parents' battlefield. The snow was so ordinary and yet so seductive. The frightening part was that it was so ordinary and to me so familiar.
I realized that the scary stories I liked the best were those where nearly everything was normal. Even my favorite non-scary stories were those where nearly everything was normal. I loved Edward Eager's Half Magic, so much so that I still own at least two copies of the childrens' book today. The children had a normal life, but not quite; they found a nickel that wasn't exactly a nickel and made wishes that sort of came true. Halfway. And I loved the Barbara Sleigh Carbonel series, two children and a cat whose language they could understand with just a drop of magic.
Over the top movies with a gorefest never appealed to me. My apologies to Freddy and Jason, but they just never were my cup of scream. And I generally preferred reading to movies anyway. If I wanted over the top stuff, all I had to do was dip a toe into H. P. Lovecraft's New England. Now something about Howard himself wasn't quite right either, but he was deliciously weird, a guy who stayed up all night and lived with his aunts, a guy who married another author and then agreed they should continue their relationship "by correspondence." We even have a cat toy I call Baby Cthulu for its combination of cute and, well, Lovecraftian yumminess. Gotta love that Howard. I figured if he wrote it, I "Dun-read-it." I even wanted to do post-graduate studies on Lovecraft but my English department wouldn't go for it. Such is the stuff of turning points in a life.
It's not that I can't be scared. I can. Reading Blatty's The Exorcist I had a case of goosebumps that would have impressed James Michener's Onkor the Goose in Chesapeake. By the time I saw the movie, either all my friends who wanted to see it had done so already and those who hadn't didn't want to. So I went by myself. I sat in the back row. Oh, I remember the stories of people running screaming from the theatres during the movie. Nope, not me. There were only a few of us there that afternoon and I sat in the back and laughed. Yeah, that was me. And I apologize to the other eight people at the movie that day wherever they are. The pea soup scene was especially funny because, well, because it wasn't ordinary enough for me.
I know everyone loves that darling little girl saying, "They're back!" in Poltergeist, but my favorite scene was the steak scooting across the counter. Aside from being sadly misnamed as a movie for the most part, I was a little disappointed in the goofiness of the medium (although she was cute) and most disappointed at the depiction of the ghosts. Seriously, just seeing something or someone that isn't supposed to be there is scary. They don't have to make them oozy skeletons. What if they had strollers and wore hats with flowers and carried umbrellas and woke you up while you were trying to get a decent night's sleep just to talk? What if Super 8 were just a scary motel with bedbugs or amorous neighbors instead of alien technology? What if the bugs started talking to you or worse, the sweethearts next door started calling your name? OK, that's scary.
One of my favorite ghost movies is Ghost Story where people connected to the callous treatment of someone they supposedly cared for suddenly became the victims of a very purposeful haunting. Normal stuff becomes abnormal. People start remembering things they wish they had forgotten. What first seems to be the "bad" ghost becomes a sympathetic character whose actions are at least understandable, well, until things go a step too far. Then you're glad to switch your loyalty back to the hero.
So for one of my very first comparative literature papers in college, while I had the chance to pick what I wanted to read instead of what they wanted me to read, I wrote about Conrad Aiken's Silent Snow, Secret Snow and one of his lesser known stories, comparing them. Both concern the wish of the child to escape his parents' terrible fighting, but while the child chooses escape in Snow, he chooses to move past this trauma and become his own person in the other story. I could relate. And I realized what was frightening about Snow was that the child chose to bury himself in his own mind, to become lost in the snow. Well, that paper got my teacher's attention and it wasn't to send me to therapy, thank goodness.
I'm older and wiser now. The things that scare me are wardrobe failures and departmental reorganizations. They are almost normal. Almost.
OK, so the really scary part is while I was writing this, the University where I wrote that paper on Conrad Aiken called me up as one of the alumni and asked me if I wanted to donate money to their English department. I laughed and told the student that when I went there, there was no such thing as an English department there. It was engineering only and I could only barely declare a major in English. Why, oh, why did my parents think that having me living at home while trying to major in English at an engineering university was "safer" than letting me go up the road to the next university where there was actually a college of liberal arts?
"So you're a student there," I tortured my caller, turning his interruption into my entertainment. "What's your major?"
"Electrical engineering," he said tentatively. It's not so much fun when I pry into your life, is it?
"Ah, not English. But Double-E is OK, right? You guys are usually pretty smart but not as swell-headed as the Chem Engins or the Ceramics." He snickered. So after determining that I was more interested in donating to the university radio station where I spent most of my free time while attending that respected hall of learning, we bid fond adieu.
I laughed. Coincidence, right?