I read somewhere that when you remember something, you aren’t remembering the event. You’re remembering your memory of that event. Memory is unreliable, changeable, colored by years and emotions. Some people don’t remember much about their childhoods. I remember a lot. Memories will bob to the surface every so often, triggered by a smell or a random turn of phrase. There are two versions of childhood me that exist in my memory. There is the Small Joan who was terrified of the flower curtains in her own bedroom, because she could see faces in them at night. And then there is the Small Joan whose parents had to make sure all the doors were locked during thunderstorms, lest their very young daughter go running outside. According to a story my mother told me, I used to do this when I was about three or four years old. I still love thunderstorms.
I’ve tried, really really tried, but I cannot pin down one single moment in my childhood memories when a switch flipped and I went from being scared of everything, to liking the scary stuff. When I was a kid it seems like I went to a billion sleepovers. My friends and I had them all the time. Of course, we would all sit around on our sleeping bags, hugging our pillows and telling scary stories. I have one specific memory of me in the bathroom at a friend’s house, sitting on the fuzzy toilet lid with both my feet pulled up, and my fingers in my ears, AND the door closed, all so I wouldn’t hear whatever story my friends were telling.
It’s possible that the reason I shut myself in the bathroom, was because I’d already heard a few stories that scared me. I heard them all anyway, somehow, at some point. All the classics. The Hook, The Dead Boyfriend, Humans Can Lick Too; an extremely barf-tastic tale about mayonnaise, which I’ve never seen anywhere else, but it was all over Wood Acres Elementary School. I think one of my classmates made it up.
At these slumber parties, my friends and I played Light As a Feather. I usually wanted to be the storyteller, or at least that’s how I remember that memory. That means I was sitting there telling my friends creepy stories. There was one time I agreed to play the corpse. My friend Kris put her fingers on my temples, and told a story about how one day I took a shortcut through the woods, and along the side of the path, I saw some wild mushrooms growing. So, I picked a few, and I ate them, and… that’s how I died. I remember thinking that was a stupid story. I’d never do that. I didn’t even like mushrooms. I still hate them, in fact. But, Kris said, “When I count to three, she will become… light as a feather, stiff as a board… one…two…three…” I felt myself rise off the floor, lifted up by my friends, light as a feather and stiff as a board. RIP me.
These two Small Joans must therefore be one Small Joan. Just one me. There is no moment when I decided. I’ve always been scared of scary stuff, and I’ve always been drawn to it, too. I deliberately checked out scary books from the library, knowing they’d scare me. I was traumatized by Scott Corbett’s Red Room Riddle for years. YEARS. All the way into adulthood. I finally tracked down the book, and I know own my own copy, complete with the same groovy 1970s artwork. Right on the cover, it says “A Ghost Story.” So, it’s not like the book tricked me. I knew exactly what I was getting into.
I’m exactly the same way now. People find out I’m into horror, and they’re like, “Wow, you must be really hard to scare, huh?” Nooooo. I get scared all the time. Every time I sit down to watch a scary movie or read a scary story, I hope I won’t be too scared. Lightly scared. Crispy, but not burnt. Because if I’m not scared at all, y’know, it’s a disappointment. And yet… there’s that creepy creep lurking inside of me who wants the pure elixir: the terror of a child at night. So, I come back again and again to that well, and I dip my bucket. Most of the time, all I bring up from the dark is reflected moonlight. Every so often, there’s more.
In 2002, I went to the movies and saw The Ring. I remember thinking it was PG-13, so how scary could it be, right? I was a full grown adult, and no lie — I stayed awake all night with the lights on after I got home from the theater. I was nine years old all over again, too terrified to close my eyes.
Thank God I’d made that deal with the scary things back when I was a kid: they could scare me all they liked for one night, and one night only, and after that, they had to leave me alone.
For about a week afterward, though, I flinched every time I heard a phone ring. I’ve never watched that movie again. I can’t bring myself to do it. It was a good month or so before I worked up the nerve to watch another horror movie. Oh, you know I did. I couldn’t stay away. It’s like eating slice after slice of a delicious pizza, knowing that every so often one of those slices is gonna rise up and slap you real hard across the face. What, you thought I was going to say something about cheese burning the roof of your mouth? Well, that too.
That same year, I watched the Japanese trilogy of Ringu, Ringu 2 and Ringu 0, AND I read the Koji Suzuki novel the movies are based on. Was I scared? Absolutely. Why? Why did I do that? Why am I like this? I don’t know. I just am. I don’t plan to write scary stories, either. It’s just that eighty percent of the ideas I get for stories happen to be scary. I can’t help it. I sort of don’t want to help it; to be honest, I kinda like it. Some of the time. Actually, most of the time. Okay, fine. All of the time.
Some of us are just born spooky, I guess.