An Exploration of Fear

When I was 4, we lived in an old white farmhouse on a dirt road way out in the country in Nebraska. Some of my earliest memories of fear belong to this location. There was the creek behind the house whose water turned opaque under the bridge. If I could not see the bottom, water became one of my sharpest, most terrifying fears and yet I remember 4 year old me, eyeing the water, slowed by terror, forcing herself to crawl under the bridge to reach the cement slab there. Not because anyone had forced me to but because I wanted to reach that slab. I arrived and left safely and my parents never knew I played there.

We had one neighboring household, and they had two little boys, one between my two older sisters in age, and the other near my age. This family also had a very mean billy goat that would chase children if he escaped his enclosure, and he certainly escaped his enclosure too often for my taste. I remember he found us all by the road one day and the memory in my mind is apocalyptic – the older three children scattered for safety, while the younger boy and I scrambled into the ditch and crouched there, scared almost out of our minds and unable to think of a way to escape. I think one of the older children found an adult to come catch the billy goat before he went from intimidation to attacking.

This dirt road had once held the houses of several families that were part of an active farming community. Our house, and our neighbors’ house, were the only two left, but down the road from these two houses were a one room schoolhouse and a graveyard. It was not the graveyard that terrified me – it was the abandoned schoolhouse. It was behind a fence, and while there was a swing set next to it, I never once considered climbing that fence and using the swings or exploring the schoolhouse.

Friends of ours – the boy a couple of years older than my oldest sister – visited from time to time and he had once told us that if you looked inside you’d see everything still there: writing on the blackboard, books and supplies at the desks, even an apple on the teacher’s desk. Because one day everyone – the teacher and the children – simply left in the middle of the day and never returned. It was believed that they had fled because the schoolhouse was haunted and that day, they had seen the ghost.

That night, I saw the ghost. I dreamed that I was inside the schoolhouse, and everything was still on the desks just as our friend had described. There was a set of stairs at one end of the schoolhouse, leading to an attic, perhaps, and coming down the stairs was a human-shaped figure, though it was smokey white and had blurred and jagged edges and no facial features of note. What the figure wanted was enigmatic. It did not matter if it meant harm or not, its mere presence was terrifying. I can still see that dream in my memory, 34 years later and the image would be a fitting one to include in the intro of X-Files.

To be honest, I treasure these memories. I’ve been trying to figure out what the difference is between these childhood memories of fears and my anxiety as an adult, or other memories of fear or terror that are not simply an interesting story and experience to examine later. Where does the difference lie?

When I was 4, a dream about a ghost upset and scared me. Years later, probably around the age of 10, I had a dream about vampires taking over a town in which my family lived, threatening the lives of my family, and I woke up so distraught that I actually went to my parents’ bedroom and woke them up, seeking assurance and comfort even though I knew they were likely to be annoyed.

This terror of vampires had its roots in an image I’d seen while people were clicking through cable channels at my grandparents’ house – two people, men I think, speaking to each other, and one seemed to be trying to ease the fears of the other, reaching out to hug him, only to bite his neck instead. The next shot was of blood spurting out and hitting the naked light bulb in the ceiling above them and it was that image, not the bite, that left an indelible mark in my mind and began a fascination with vampire mythology and vampire fiction.

Somewhere between that dream at age 10 and adulthood, I stopped being frightened by most horror movie imagery. I might still feel disgust if an image was bloody or gross, but the terror of childhood had passed. Now the dreams that others might call nightmares were simply dreams that occurred in the horror genre, and sometimes I quite enjoyed them. The dreams that haunted me were the ones in which my family or a relationship were threatened, or that contained some unexpected grotesquery, like scratching at the acne on my face only to dig my fingernails deeply into my skin, then peeling my skin away from my face as if it were a mask.

It’s possible that my placid response to most horror movies and horror movie-style dreams as an adult was the result of immersion therapy. I watched X-Files as a young teen, even sneaking away to see a new episode on our tiny black & white TV if I needed to. Somewhere in my middle teens, after my parents had separated and my mom had loosened up on the subject of fiction, she handed me a novel by Dean Koontz and over the next several years I devoured his works. I read all sorts of vampire stories, including the original Dracula, and watched shows like Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, and found what is still one of my favorite movies of all time: The Lost Boys.

Now I’m thrilled if a horror movie or show can actually manage to scare or at least unsettle me. If one can manage to leave me feeling unsettled even after the movie ends, even better.

So what is the difference between the fear whose memory I can enjoy after it passes, and the memories of fear that bring discomfort? One difference is whether or not the fear involves a threat to my loved ones. That has been one of my greatest, most consistent fears from childhood through to marriage and parenthood. Fear that involves the possibility of loss and grief is not a fear I enjoy, either while I’m experiencing it or after it has passed.

Other memories of fear that I do not enjoy looking back at don’t just include fear: they include shame, guilt, humiliation, coercion or punishment. My dad, thinking he could help me get over my fear of water and bridges by forcing me to cross the bridge we lived near, which to my childish eyes was an enormous, lengthy and tall bridge, which added my fear of falling from heights to my fear of water and bridges, leaving me so paralyzed and upset that eventually he was forced to turn back and bring me home. I felt like a disobedient failure.

My uncle, upset because I told someone I didn’t like how he would throw me up in the air when he saw me. His offense was treated as more important than my childish terror at being thrown up in the air.

The terror I felt whenever I had some sin to confess to my parents, and which guilt would not let me ignore or keep secret forever. The way I felt when I had misbehaved while in public and my parents warned me that I’d be spanked when we returned home. The fear I felt of the impending end of the world, an ending my mother looked forward to because Jesus and Heaven would be on the other side. The fear I felt of dying and going to Hell because my faith had wavered and I had never been convinced at any point from age 6 to age 16 that I was truly saved.

Fear on its own is not a particularly awful prospect to me. If I choose to walk through it, I can pat myself on the back, and if I choose not to walk through it, I can shrug and know that I do not have to force myself to walk through fear for unnecessary, trivial reasons. On the other hand, shame, guilt, humiliation, embarrassment, failure – the awful prospect of facing one of these generates fear.

So that old adage about ‘nothing to fear but fear itself’ does not really apply to me. Fear and I have walked together a long time now and Fear by itself can be a stimulating and interesting companion, when they are not walking beside me because I’m thinking of shame, guilt, humiliation, failure, loss or grief.

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