In my hometown, State College, Pennsylvania, every house seems to come equipped with its own ghost. The ghost of Betsy Aardsma, killed by an unknown person in 1969, haunts the Pattee Library. She touches patrons on the shoulder and slowly fades as they turn to look at her. Others have reported seeing a pair of floating red eyes in the spot where Betsy was killed. The ghost of former university president Atherton still comes back to Schwab Auditorium to watch all the plays and support the arts, and there’s even the ghost of an angry donkey in Watts Hall. If a place didn’t have its own ghost story, the town teenagers would make one up to scare the younger kids. This may be because State College, Pennsylvania, is, by most accounts, pretty boring.
The town’s main attraction is Penn State University itself, and most of the residents are professors and their kids. Most of the buildings are old, and the businesses are geared towards college students. There are even five bars per square mile in State College, and many more places either inaccessible to children or chronically boring. There were more mountain bike shops than toy stores, and more frat boys than actual children. Life was dull for a kid growing up there, especially for a fearful one who wasn’t into going into old buildings after dark or doing a séance in the woods with friends.
I was far more into My Little Pony than I was into local lore, and I wasn’t even that big of a fan of My Little Pony. Even that had too many monsters. I was afraid of everything when I was young. I developed a fear of thunder because it was loud and made the dogs bark. I learned that thunder happened when clouds were out, and so I eventually went into a blind panic when it was cloudy, and then if I so much as saw one lone cotton-ball cloud. This was a pretty big problem, because it’s cloudy 187 days out of the year in State College. (I imagine this made it incredibly exhausting to be my parent, since it was also incredibly exhausting to be me.)
I tried my hardest to avoid ghost stories and those who spread them, but I was surrounded. Ghosts are everywhere in State College. You can’t walk a mile without stepping on a drifter’s alleged grave. The old university and the spooky, ivy-covered buildings make the town the perfect place to curl up on a couch and watch “The Exorcist” over drinks with your loved ones. Pretty much every babysitter I ever had assumed I wanted to hear about the urban legends and ghosts that roamed the town. My own parents betrayed me by renting horror movies to watch after I went to sleep, playing horror games on the computer, and developing a chronic addiction to “Twin Peaks.”
It seemed to me that everyone around me was insane. I could barely stand being alive, what, with all those dangerous clouds overhead. (At any second, one could make a moderately-loud sound!) How were other people existing, happily, in a world full of threats and beasties? And why did everyone treat me, the only sane person around, as if I were a party pooper for not enjoying it too?
I resigned myself to a solitary life with my fears until my neighbor’s granddaughter came to stay for the summer. Let’s call her Taylor. Taylor was older than me. She was also tall and excruciatingly cute. She had a round face, blue eyes, and long blonde hair that she kept in a messy ponytail. I developed a crush on her, and since we were the only kids on the block, she and I played together frequently even though she was quite different from me. Taylor was reckless. She loved ghosts and danger. The fact that she was from out of town increased her adoration of State College’s many terrifying tales, and she had me tell her each one. She hung on my every word and then dragged me searching for ghosts downtown or in her grandmother’s house. One day, we were in her attic with a flashlight while she tried to call to ghosts to show themselves, and I finally asked her the question I had been too frightened to ask others: “Taylor, why do you even want to find a ghost?”
She lit up her own face with the flashlight and grinned, “Because it’s fun to be scared!”
I was stunned. “So, you’re scared of ghosts?”
She nodded, “Of course I am! Isn’t everyone? But it’s fun to think about!”
“What would you do if you found one?”
She thought for a moment. “Run away.”
As many phobias as I had, it had never occurred to me that other people were frightened of things, or that they could turn that fear into something else. I had somehow gone my whole life without it occurring to me that my parents were probably frightened by things, or that people’s enjoyment of horror wasn’t just because they found the content fun, but the fear fun as well.
Although my motivation was the oldest one in the book, to impress a girl, I decided I should try my best to get over being afraid of ghosts and horror and to enjoy them instead. Not only was being frightened of so many things exhausting for me, but I knew it made it hard on other people as well. I told myself I was a person who enjoyed horror, and I became one. I even made up my own ghost story about my house and warned all my friends that the closet in my guest bedroom contained the ghost of a young boy who had died of consumption (although I changed the sickness often) years before we moved in and hid in the closet when he was scared. This story worked, in part, because my house was old, like the others around it. It had ivy creeping up the outside walls, and big, blue, wooden shutters that flanked an old front door with a rusty mail slot. When friends stayed over, we daree each other to open the closet door, and then scream and hide as it creaked open before laughing together. The only downside to this was that I eventually scared myself so much that I began to believe my own story. I even thought I saw the boy out of the corner of my eye when I played in that room. In spite of my fake child ghost, however, I started to enjoy being scared, and I started to enjoy life more, too. Nothing seemed as frightening once I learned that fear could be fun. The once-dreaded thunderstorms became the perfect occasion for a cup of cocoa rather than my imminent demise, and I voraciously read the horror books in my school’s library.
I began to wonder why horror itself had been the thing to cure me from my fears, and why, exactly, it is that being frightened is so much fun. A healthy dose of controlled fear—roller coasters, ghost stories, haunted houses, horror movies and novels, and Halloween itself—can add a lot to your life if you have the stomach for it. Many people experience feelings of excitement rather than fear when presented with imaginary danger, even if they have to pay for it with nightmares later on. Other animals engage in frightening and dangerous play, such as chasing each other and wrestling. A little adrenaline can be all that’s needed to turn a boring day into the highlight of your week.
Fear is an interesting emotion, too. I have noticed that horror often seems to be the only genre guaranteed to elicit an emotional response from its readers. A well-placed jump scare can turn a grown man who huffs and rolls his eyes during romance movies into a terrified, sniveling mess. Whether you scream or laugh at the terror, horror always prompts a response.
If horror is such a universal concept and force, why, then, is it often ignored or treated as trivial? Unlike history’s deepest, most boring, or most disturbing books, horror is rarely dissected as a genre or studied in school. Horror fans, like myself, often feel the need to apologize for being a fan of it. When I tell people I write horror, they are often significantly less interested in what I do, and seem to assume I’m profoundly disturbed.
Most of the horror fans I’ve met, however, and the people I’ve encountered at haunted houses and attractions, have been perfectly stable and normal people. I’ve also noticed when I’m watching or reading more horror, I feel like a more stable person. I think it’s in part because having an external force to apply it to is healthy for the brain. Imagining the worst possible scenario and concluding that it will not happen to you puts real-world problems into perspective. I’ll never go through as much as Carrie White, for instance, and vicariously sharing her abuse and bullying made my own lesser abuse bearable. So did imagining that, at any moment, my telekinesis could awaken and I’d send my bullies flying. Being the only kid in my class who carried Stephen King books to class and read them with narrowed eyes also cut down the mocking significantly.
In my teens, I actually started to seek out real ghosts. My friends and I even once went to the famed Pattee Library in search of Betsy herself, and while looking for the spot where she was murdered, we ran into a pair of floating, soulless red eyes. It’s hard to see something like that in a library, where signs everywhere remind you not to make a sound—you can’t scream.
Horror helps us through, and telling horror stories is, I think, the first time we consider audience accommodation in our storytelling. If you’re telling a funny story or an everyday story, it’s less important that the person be fully engaged. Most things considered funny are universal, and all that matters with an everyday story is that the other person is lending half an ear. If you’re trying to tell someone about your nightmare or repeating a story about the ghost up the street, though, you may have to change it. Not everything is scary to others, and with horror, minimalism is key. The mystery is cut out of a story if you include too much. Horror stories change every single time you tell them because of your audience. When you tell a horror story, you pay close attention to your listeners’ non-verbal and verbal cues. Should you imitate a creaking door, or would that be too cheesy in this case? Do you describe the monster in your nightmare, or will mentioning its purple fur lose your parents’ sympathy? Does the absurdity of the monster having purple fur actually make it scarier? These are all things you learn as you relay them to others, and it helps you tell other stories later on. The ability that words have to terrify is a powerful thing to discover, and something that, I believe, everyone cherishes at some point in their lives.
I can still remember a babysitter of mine telling me an urban legend, and I remember every detail. As she told it, a friend of a friend of a friend had come home to her dorm room one night drunk and had stumbled into bed without turning on the lights. When she woke up the next morning, she found her roommate murdered and the words, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn the lights on?” written in blood. I remember that the babysitter looked delighted the whole time she told the story. She grinned while I trembled, and in spite of myself, I asked “And then what?” at every pause. I believed the babysitter for years, and as a babysitter myself years later, I told my own versions of the urban legends that haunted my dreams, passing the buck to terrified little faces. We love our ability to be scary as much as we love to be scared, and I think it’s about time we acknowledge the power the horror story. Horror is interesting, horror gets children reading and telling stories, and, regardless of age, it can still make your hair stand on end. What better time of year to acknowledge it than Halloween? Whatever you do, now that you’ve finished reading, don’t . . . turn . . . around.
Categories: Sister Sirens