What are you afraid of?

page11-1003-thumbThis post is all about fear.  Not so much the fear of being late for an appointment, of making a mistake, or of getting sacked from your job.

I’m talking about the kind of thing that makes you absolutely, gut-churningly, terrified.

There was a recent TV programme about the amazingly brave Frenchman who specialised in walking across trapeze wires attached to high buildings. After weeks of work and surveillance and reconnaissance, he contrived with the help of friends to throw a rope between the twin towers in New York (in the 70s, long before the disaster of course) and trapeze-walked across the two of them, simply carrying a long pole as a balance, to the consternation of the watching crowd below.

How on earth must he have felt?  As I watched I tried to glean myself into his mind, and I just couldn’t do it.   The very idea of it absolutely chills me to the bone.  That man has to be the bravest man on earth.

What are the things that terrify you?  When I was a child I was afraid of seeing the figureheads on old sailing ships, they looked so huge and scaring.  But it wasn’t just the horror of the giant carved wooden face, so savage and dominating, with the horrible garish colours.  I remember it was more the terror of all the things that the figurehead would have seen, what’s underneath the sea, the thought of all those terrifying nightmare things there must be: drowned people, skeletons, old shipwrecks with slimy fish darting in and out of portholes, horrifying monsters, rotting timber and blackness and green nightmares of sheer liquefied terror.

There’s another kind of fear: the one of being enclosed in a tiny space that just gets smaller and smaller.  I once had a ‘death mask’ made of my face in a sculpture class.  John, the teacher, was a really nice lovable guy, who was kind and considerate.  He rubbed Vaseline over my face, then wet plaster was applied progressively, and I had a straw to breathe through.  I’m not nervous by nature, but words cannot describe the feeling of sheer terror as the light through your closed eyelids gets darker and darker, the pressure of the drying plaster gets more and more heavy and you feel as if you’re literally in your grave. I kept calm, but if I’d had an overactive imagination I might easily have pulled the drying plaster from my face, just to be able to breathe and see and feel as if I was back in the world again.

And did anyone reading this see the Kill Bill films?  In one of them there’s a scene where Beatrice Kidder, the heroine, is beaten badly, and her legs and hands bound and she’s placed in a coffin that’s nailed securely shut, then she’s buried in a grave: the works, 6 feet of soil shovelled on top of the coffin lid.  Before incarceration, her killer/torturer, takes delight in telling her that he’s leaving her a torch so she can see for those last moments before she runs out of air.  The horror as Beatrice is alone in her grave, the sheer terror of her knowledge that nothing can save her is heart-in-mouth time at its most sublime.  Needless to say she gets away, and it’s absolutely spellbinding to see her escape.  But those moments, where we’re actually ‘with her’ alone in the coffin are timeless slivers of fear that are hard to replicate in your worst dreams.

There’s another thing that lots of people are afraid of, me included.  Insanity.  In ourselves of course, but more usually in others.  Here’s a story that illustrates what I mean.  Years ago I went to a portrait-painting class.  The model was a bit strange, in fact truth to say she was weird, sinister, but not so much so that you could actually pin things down, just someone you’d steer clear of.  One of the painters, a friend, was a very straightforward likeable unimaginative character, a middle aged man, let’s call him Arthur.  Arthur had painted the model and took his painting home to work on in his studio.  He came back the following week without the portrait, and started all over again.  “Where’s the one you were working on,” someone asked, “the one you were doing was really good.”  “Well,” said Arthur, “I got it home, and I was alone in my studio working on it.  And her eyes bloody well terrified me, I don’t know what it was but I hated that look in her eyes.  I just had to burn the portrait, I couldn’t stand looking at it.”

I think that insanity in other people goes beyond the obvious fear for our own personal safety.  There can be a gleeful madness that we can reecognise are stark pure evil and that’s what scary, a hidden malevolence that razor blades your mind.  Yuk.

I’d say that most of our fears are rational and reasonable.  Most people dislike or are terrified of spiders, perhaps because of the poisonous variety that are hard-wired into our system to be afraid off, same goes for snakes.  But how about those irrational phobias?  Some people are terrified of open spaces, or to put it more accurately they’re scared of the unreasonable reaction that they might experience whilst out in crowds or in wide-open spaces.  Claustrophobia, yes a pretty natural fear, but of course many people can’t stand lifts or any kind of confined space at all.  There are phobias for all kinds of things: birds, leaves, the underground, dentists, nasty brown envelopes with bills inside, probably dozens of other things I haven’t even thought of.  But for those people who suffer from rare phobias those things are no doubt as terrifying as being attacked by a knife-wielding killer.

There’s also that fear, maybe we all have it, of losing control somehow in a public place.  As a schoolboy I had an irrational dread of standing up in school prayers and shouting out ‘God is a stupid fool’.  I didn’t think it, I wouldn’t have done it, but the terror that some ridiculous force might make me do stand up and make a fool of myself in such a ridiculous way, scared me stiff until I thought about it rationally.  The idea of standing alone in a crowd and being the object of ridicule is a very real fear for so many of us.  Just think of the number of people who tell about their dreams of being in a crowded office, school, or public place with no clothes on, and everyone else is fully clothed.

And what about walking through a cold deserted graveyard at midnight?  How many of us would want to do it?  However irrational it might seem, the idea of the sheer spookiness of such a place is something we’d avoid if we can.

It’s interesting how we can actually almost enjoy our fears to some extent: that’s where writers of novels and film makers come in to their own.  Horror film makers combine the element of surprise, the great old trick that always works of building up the tension: the monster stalking the heroine through the house, seen from the monster’s point of view, the heroine being unaware.   And then, it’s forgotten until completely without warning the shrieking ghoul puts in an appearance as it does its worst.

Film-makers work hard to terrify us.  Remember the scene from The Exorcist, where the little girl’s head swivels through 180 degrees, and she projectile-vomits and swears in a deep deep voice?  It was too over-the-top to scare me.  I prefer more subtle stuff, such as ‘Tales from the crypt’, where 7 victims who’ve met terrible ends all recount their experiences.  And at the end each one starts all over again, as if their suffering just goes on and on in perpetuity. Now to my mind that is scary.

As for real life the prospect of evil people, truly evil people, can always send a shiver down our spines.  There was a recent TV production, based on fact, where a social worker acted as the ‘responsible adult’ , helping killer Fred West give his statements to the police.  West’s horrid mixture of childlike charm and almost innocent ghastliness apparently got under this poor woman’s skin to such an extent that she was deeply affected.  And I’ve read books about West, where it was reported that Fred West’s father referred to forcing a child to have sex with an adult was ‘something that a man wants to do’.  To think that a child can have that sort of twisted unspeakably awful, evil thinking inculcated into its psyche at an early age, now that’s scaring too.  There again, it’s pure undiluted evil and it’s as if the evil is a disembodied thing with a life of its own that scares us; because we hate to think that it exists (if it does exist, who knows?)

Other things that have scared me? The sight of the shrivelled yellow-face of a woman in a morgue drawer when I worked as a theatre porter and had to help deliver my ‘first’ body.  Stepping off scaffolding onto a house roof to dismantle a ‘stack chimney’ and feeling my foot begin to slip along the tiles.  Throwing a huge sheet of lead from a high up roof and just that split second of blind panic when the heavy weight almost pulled me with it.  Being shown around the crypt beneath Kensal Rise cemetery and seeing the rows of shadowy cobwebbed coffins stretching out into the darkness, or, on that same day, seeing a long cortege of black-leather clad rockers on Harley Davidsons, decked out in mourning gear, doing some kind of creepy funereal ceremony that I didn’t understand.

So what else scares you?  Walking home alone in the dark and hearing footsteps behind you?  The sound of a lonely dog howling in the night, à la Hound of the Baskervilles?  The feeling that you’re being followed in the darkness, yet you know you’re on your own?

I’m not a scaredy cat.  If anything unexplained happens I look for the obvious answer, I don’t think of ghosts and ghoulies.  If there are such things as ghosts I suspect that I wouldn’t be particularly sensitive enough to be aware of their presence anyway, deep empathy isn’t exactly my thing.

I live alone, or rather alone with two cats.  In the night they often knock things off tables, clunk about, even meow out loud for no reason.  One night when I was in bed recently I heard a loud clonking somewhere, reasoned it was one of the cats larking about, thought nothing of it and fell asleep again.  Then I woke up.

Both cats were outside in the garden!

My mind span into gear.  What had made the noise?  My heartbeat cranked up high.

I knew all the likely answers: wood contracting due to variations of temperature, something falling off  a shelf that wasn’t securely put there in the first place.  With both doors locked and no open windows I knew a burglar would have made much more noise.  But alone in the middle of the night the rational explanations take a hike and your imagination spins out of control.

You know what?  I think I’ve changed my mind.

Maybe it’s not so nice to think about what makes us scared.

But go on tell me.  What really makes you scared?  I’d really like to know.

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9 thoughts on “What are you afraid of?

  1. Hello Geoff—–Ooooo—–what an excellent, descriptive piece of writing; thanks for sharing. The ship figureheads touched me—small children are far more sensitive than we realize. Brash colours, loud noises and all things garish are a huge assault on the senses. I work in the Rudolf Steiner world of education where the curriculum takes these truths far more seriously than the mainstream thinking—-and thank goodness for that! Now for what scares me? Well—-I live in the realm of The Angels most of the time, so I am blissfully lucky not to encounter much in the way of terror. I never watch scary films or read frightening material, although I am today facing an ongoing nightmare in the realm of a bipolar ex-husband who swings from lucidity to complete insanity. In his lucid months he demands his right to take our children, (thankfully now teenagers), away for outings and holidays. I do my homework–make sure he ‘is in a good phase’, say some prayers and put in place kind friends to supervise these outings—-but still—–I wouldn’t be a normal mother if THAT didn’t scare the pants off me. So, say a prayer as I hand them over to him at 1p.m this afternoon. Thanks—–
    Marina X

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    1. Hello Marina, thanks for sharing that, what a terrible situation for all your family. Bipolar must be one of the very very worst illnesses and I’ve heard it usually affects highly intelligent people. Thanks for your nice words, and thinking of you and wishing you all the best with your difficulties.

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  2. Hi Geoff What a great blog. How visual. I think my greatest fear is my imagination. Once I start to imagine a bad scenario I find it impossible to let it go until it is proved that it is just my imagination.

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  3. Heights, I feel is a very logical fear – you know, you could fall and be in a lot of pain for quite a while if it didn’t kill you. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m sure a lot of people are, because they’re not sure what it’s going to be like or something. I think all of us fear the possibility of inescapable excruciating pain. And many, if not all of us, fear the unknown.
    Many fears are based on ignorance or just not knowing. For instance, I was afraid of snakes until I learned the difference between ones that could hurt me and the ones that couldn’t; the same with spiders. Death, I think, is feared by many because people just don’t know what to expect from it when it happens to them. Ghosts and ghouls and the other things eerily macabre are mostly rooted in this fear of death and the unknown.
    I know I didn’t really tell you much about what I’m personally afraid of, but I feel I’ve covered a lot of bases. We all fear what will hurt us, unless we’re suicidal, then all this stuff goes out the window, because it’s natural to protect ourselves. The unknown, we fear could hurt us. All other instincts follow suit and our fears are born and carried with us until we overcome them or experience something that voids them forever.
    Illogical fears are either learned or a product of an underlying (and possibly very subtle) mental illness. Being suicidal, however, is actually very logical, if you think about suicide in the great scope of things when you are suicidal.

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    1. Very interesting Faye, I’m sure lots of people would agree with those. Heights especially, because in addition I think a kind of vertigo, dizziness can set in when you look down, which adds to the fear. Thanks for commenting

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  4. Geoff, first let me say that you are a wonderfully, talented writer! Excellent blog post. Loved it!!!! As for my fears…I am the original scaredy cat. Most everything you mentioned in your post, scares me. However, my biggest fear is Alzheimer’s. The body is alive but the mind is dying. I cannot imagine how frightening it must be not knowing what you are doing or saying, not remembering friends and family members, and forgetting how to do the simplest of things like tie your shoes. It would be horrid. I can’t think of anything worse. So, that’s my fear.

    Rosary xx

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    1. Hello Rose, thanks for your nice comments. I agree, Alzheimer’s would be an awful prospect for anyone, and I’m sure plenty of people live in fear of that. I think it gets to the stage where you forget how to swallow. Let’s hope they’ll find a cure one day.

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