The Good Scare, Part 2

Last week, I talked about the fact that I’m terribly hard to scare when it comes to spooky stories and movies, but that, as Steven King says, I’m trying to throw some meat to the “hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river underneath.” And I mentioned last week that I think I have finally come to a conclusion about why my alligators are so hungry, yet such picky eaters. 

For a long time, I thought that my brain might, perhaps, not be wired for fear the way others’ are. But that’s no way to explain the puddle of quivering jello I become when a German Shepherd gives me a funny look, or when I have to walk down the jetway to a creepy little coffin of an airplane. I won’t even describe for you the snotty ugly-cry I launched into before my big surgery this summer. I am very much covered when it comes to dread of immediate threat.

But vague dread? Dread of ghost and spooks and that which lurks undetected in the dark? Not so much. I’ve realized that I burned out on that sort of fear when I was a small child.

Anybody who’s read my collection Burn This House (all five of you! Kidding. Well, sort of. No, really. Kidding) or heard me talk about the book knows that I grew up on the fringes of Christianity. My family was “spirit-filled,” “pentecostal,” “four-square,” or whatever you wish to call the ultra-conservative brand of religion we practiced at that time. This was speaking-in-tongues Christianity, slaying-in-the-spirit Christianity, demon-casting-out-on-any-given-Sunday Christianity. The great irony of my upbringing, in which I wasn’t allowed to so much as watch Disney cartoons because of their “satanic” themes, was that Satan was always present in our lives. He was behind every corner, waiting. Lurking. He was at church with us on Sundays, for pete’s sake, walking in with our fellow congregants so that he could be cast out during the service. The devil wasn’t an abstract threat–he was right there with us, all the time.

There’s truly no fear equal to the fear we experience as children. Even now, the many sleepless nights I devoted to repeatedly saying something called the “sinner’s prayer”—an admission of personal evil and a request for God to save you from eternal damnation—are something I can only recall in the abstract. I remember the heart-pounding, the shaking in my bed, the certainty that God was waiting, yearning, even, to punish me for whatever it was I’d done as a small child that could be worthy of damnation. When I was about six or seven, I was generally certain my first sinner’s prayer hadn’t taken, somehow, and that I should repeat it nightly, many different times each night, in case I died in my sleep. Hell was, in my mind, just on the other side of the house’s foundation. It was ready to suction me up at any moment. I remember all of that very clearly, but, perhaps mercifully, I can’t call back that sense of horror.

When your parents, your sunday school teachers, and your pastor all tell you that you’re in danger of being burned to a crisp for eternity by this ever-present devil, that God is complicit in the whole business, and that they as adults cannot help you or protect you, well—it doesn’t get much scarier than that for a kid. The boogie man doesn’t cut too much of an impressive figure against the Big Man upstairs, the one who’d toss you to his counterpart downstairs for his eternal barbecue.

After dread like that—the knowledge that nobody, nobody can or will help you—what’s left to be scared of? I think my gators may stay hungry for a long time.

3 Replies to “The Good Scare, Part 2”

  1. You put into powerful words a profound feeling of childhood terror. Perhaps it was growing up during the Cold War, or perhaps it was the oddities of my own family that I am recalling, but you unquestionably give voice in this post to a fear that I feel I recognize and that I somehow experienced (that is to say, my own version of it). When someone else gives voice to the thing we know but that we cannot say, we gain strength from that person speaking. Thank you for this beautifully stated account of the thing that haunts many of us.

  2. Bob, I feel like I should be picking up some reference there, but I’m missing it!

    Stephanie, thank you! That’s really interesting what you say about the Cold War–that’s a dread I escaped in my generation, but…yikes. What a thing to have grown up with.

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