I don’t think I’d be speaking out of turn by saying that everyone has fears, whether you’re able to articulate them or not. There’s nothing wrong with fear. In fact, there are some who consider a true lack of fear to be a neurological disorder.
The emotion, the reaction, is hardwired. It’s a survival tool from our earliest ancestors warning us when there might be danger.
And as a frequent horror writer, fear can be marketable. Just ask Stephen King.
Since I was nine, I’ve had a fear of ventriloquist dummies. The commercial for the movie Magic (1978) with Anthony Hopkins and Ann Margaret was the triggering factor there, though the seeds had been planted for a while. Now, no one I knew had a ventriloquist dummy. It was as rational as being afraid of zeppelins. But I still had stuffed animals at that age, and I began to distrust them as collaborators. I wasn’t afraid of the stuffed Smokey the Bear, mind you. But I couldn’t trust him. So they were all bundled up in black plastic garbage bags and moved into the basement.
My dad’s reaction was to tell me, “Well that’s just going to make them angry.”
That was very likely key in turning a silly, childish fear into a full-on phobia for a good portion of my life. But that was dad just being funny. I know how it goes. It’s kind of fun to scare your kids with things that you don’t think will stick. I know I did it to my own kids and I hope I didn’t do any lasting damage to their sleep schedules because of it.
But here’s the thing: I know the ventriloquist dummy thing is silly. I wouldn’t be comfortable around one in a dark room overnight, but I’m not really afraid of them anymore. My real, deeper fear is something else entirely. And by coincidence it also has it’s roots in something my dad said to me, though he wasn’t being funny at the time.
My paternal grandfather had Parkinson’s disease. I don’t remember a time when he didn’t have it. He depended on his wife to help with his medications, but when her Alzheimer’s became serious the family needed other options. That option was to pack up and sell their house and move them across state to live with my parents.
It was the first time I’d seen my grandfather in a few years, and it was the longest I had seen him since I was a baby. But living there with my parents, I was sometimes called on to take him to appointments. I loved my grandfather. He was always incredibly kind and a hell of a gin rummy player. He had a bushy gray mustache and a fondness for plaid shirts and suspenders. They lived close to the train tracks in Denver, so I could hear the train at night and remember that grandpa used to work the line when he was younger.
But I had a hard time dealing with him when he came to live with us.
He could barely speak. The Parkinson’s disease was so advanced that he just couldn’t form the words easily and eventually he kind of gave up trying.
My dad told me that grandpa was still sharp–still fully aware and smart as ever–but he was effectively locked inside his body.
My grandfather died a few years later. Shortly thereafter my dad started showing signs of Parkinson’s as well.
You might say it’s a family tradition.
So, let’s segue into the world of geek media, shall we? That seems like a nice, safe diversion! Surely nothing in, let’s say, MTV’s Teen Wolf could trigger a phobia, right? Not that sweet, goofy show about bare-chested young werewolf boys!
Enter the second half of Season 3, episodes 13 and 14. (If you care, there will be spoilers from this point on. But this season is over a year old so whatever.) Stiles, the goofy comic relief character, the normal human in the group whose primary contribution is that he drives a Jeep, has a baseball bat, and his dad’s the Sheriff, was part of a story arc that put him halfway between life and death. One of the consequences of this (for him) is an inability to know if he’s dreaming or not.
Now, usually this is an opportunity to do a lot of dream within a dream within a dream fake outs (and yes, they take that trope and run with it). But one of the elements of his dream-state is that he finds himself completely normal circumstances and be unable to read anything. The letters jumble up. Or move around. Or everyone uses sign language. Gotta give them props for originality. It’s the indicator to him that he’s dreaming.
Needless to say, Stiles is deeply emotionally fucked up by this situation.
And I’ve never seen anything on television that terrified me so deeply and so profoundly.
Fuck ventriloquist dummies. Fuck spiders or clowns or any external object that is typically a focus of fear. I mean, if you’re afraid of them, fine. To each their own. But your own brain betraying you? That’s scary.
I watched those episodes and remembered my grandfather, still sharp, still fully aware and smart as ever, but effectively locked inside his body. I remembered him spending the last several years of his life either trying desperately to communicate and being unable to do so effectively, or giving up on trying. It’s difficult for me to look back at that and not see him spending his last years in a prison of his own flesh, all the things he wanted to articulate but couldn’t locked up in there with him.
It’s the scariest thing I can imagine.
And all I can do is hope that I don’t follow in the family tradition.