“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” –Neil Gaiman
A simple question: Why do we tell scary stories?
My earliest memory of someone telling a scary story involved a group of older kids who enjoyed terrifying me and other younger people with tales of suspense that, inevitably, ended on a joke. Ever heard of the “Viper?” SPOILER ALERT: He turns out to be someone with an accent, “I am da Vindow Viper, I am here to vipe your vindows.” They would spend minutes building the suspense and indicating something dreadful…before faking left and unleashing a punchline that revealed how gullible, and therefore inferior, we all were.
Then there were scary movies, and as far as I could tell there was exactly one reason to watch these…to prove that you could. If you could watch Candyman or The Shining or The Exorcist without it destroying your life, then you were seen as a legitimate person. Kids unwilling to even attempt a viewing of a legit scary movie (you’ll notice Nightmare On Elm Street is not on this list…that’s considered a comedy series…it’s possible my neighborhood was not “happy”) were seen as just that…little kids.
1) They revealed to me the power that lies within stories, and how powerful a story-teller can be. The stories we tell, and the way we tell them, have a remarkable ability to affect the emotions of another human being. When you tell a story, you are in control…and, conversely, the audience of a story is to some extent at the mercy of the story.
2) In a culture with no real initiation rituals to mark the passing of one phase of life into another, horror movies served as a tell-tale sign of maturity. If you’re willing and able to participate in the telling and hearing of scary stories, then you are ready to leave behind the black and white world of childhood and enter into the mysterious, complex, and, yes, somewhat terrifying world of adult life. Entering into a situation that makes you uncomfortable–even if it’s pretend–is a voluntary act of evolution…you are letting go of control over the world you know in order to gain…something new.
The temptation is always to laugh at someone who has a fear that we don’t share. Nothing sounds sillier than someone’s dread over something normal and commonplace. A young woman from my first youth group had a fear of bugs. Not spiders, or scorpions, or things that sting and bite….just…all bugs. We did a lot of camping and outdoor activities so we were around flies and beetles and ladybugs all the time, and she would always jump and leap at the sight of them. It was easy to laugh at her discomfort. I have a similar thing…but with mannequins. Go ahead and laugh, it’s fine. The thing is, we are united in our fear. Not because we necessarily fear the same thing, but because we are always afraid for the same reason: We fear the uncontrollable. We fear chaos. It’s been said that we “fear what we don’t understand,” which is true to an extent…but the ultimate fear is actually that there is nothing to understand…ultimately we fear that everything may be meaningless and nonsensical. Because if that’s true…then anything can happen. And then nothing is safe. We never delved too deep into my youth’s bug fear…we did what we could to accommodate her and keep her safe. Why do I fear mannequins? Because I’m terrified I’ll be staring at one…and it will move. And if that ever happened…then everything else would fall apart.
You may laugh at things that go bump in the night…but when your world is shattered in broad daylight..then you know terror.
So…why do we tell scary stories? I think it’s because we have a very basic desire to survive them. More importantly, I think the inverse is also true: The fewer scary stories we encounter, the less likely we are to defeat real life monsters.
On a cold and blustery fall morning, a Squirrel was squirreling about the forrest leaping from tree branches, scurrying down tree trunks, collecting as many nuts as he could carry. Only the most observant onlookers could tell that he was not playing, but working, collecting what would be the last of his necessary stash of food for the impending winter. Squirrel liked to have a good stock pile long before snow or ice ever came into the picture. He liked being comfortable.
As he was leaping out of a pile of leaves, rushing a freshly collected bunch of chestnuts back to his hideaway, he stopped in his tracks. From the corner of his eye, he had caught sight of an Old Rabbit standing perfectly still. Squirrel couldn’t remember the last time he had seen any rabbit stand so still, let alone this particular Old Rabbit, who was usually stopping just long enough to munch on a nearby plant. Old Rabbit was not eating. Not blinking. It took several seconds for Squirrel to become convinced that she was breathing at all.
He gently and quietly came up beside her, “Rabbit?”
She said nothing. Despite the position on her head, her eyes did not indicate she saw him. Her ears didn’t perk up. She stood completely still.
“Uh…” he gently inched forward, unsure of how to proceed, “uh…Rabbit? What are you doing?”
Squirrel jumped off the ground at the sudden sound of her voice. He jumped into her side and stared wildly in the direction Rabbit was facing. “What? What is it?”
As he calmed his own panicked breathing, Squirrel noticed what had Rabbit’s complete attention. It was a hole in the ground, not much larger than Squirrel’s own head, and completely black in color. A thick, inky black. Squirrel slowly switched his gaze back to Rabbit. He knew what this was.
“Rabbit? What are you thinking?”
For a long time she said nothing. Then simply, “I’m going away, Squirrel.”
“In there?” Silence. Then he said, “But, Rabbit…no one ever comes back from that.”
Then, “I know. But something so much worse awaits me if I stay.”
Squirrel stared long and hard at her face, which had not moved, before asking, “What? What is it?”
“It’s coming. And it’s dreadful.”
“What is it? The winter?”
“Sure,” Rabbit whispered, “the winter.”
Squirrel wanted to call for help. He wanted to sound an alarm. He wanted to tell the entire forrest what Rabbit intended to do…he wanted to convince her to stay. He knew how fast he was, he could rather quickly gather a few other animals around, they could help keep her here, they could–
“Good bye, Squirrel.”
And she hopped once, twice, then down the hole, enveloped completely by the black.
Squirrel stood in shock…staring silently at the site where his friend had ceased to be.
And he thought about it. He’d be lying to say he didn’t. Rabbit was not a coward, Rabbit was not easily scared…or easily pleased. So he considered it. What did await him? What did that hole in the ground have to offer? Why not find out?
But as the cold set in, and the days grew short, Squirrel looked at the hole less, and less…until one day he couldn’t remember where it was. Sometimes he would try to find that spot, the last place Rabbit had been seen, and he couldn’t be quite sure if it was there…or over there. So he paid his respects from afar. And with each passing year, he would think of Rabbit, and he would continue to go out and gather food for himself…no matter the cold.