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.