Friday, October 21, 2011

Monday, October 17, 2011

Home Invasion

I finally got around to watching episode 2 of American Horror Story last night and its title spoonfed me the topic for today's post: Home Invasion. On a day to day basis there is probably no fear that afflicts more people than the idea of a stranger or strangers breaking into their house and causing them or their loved ones bodily harm. You have to wonder just how far back this fear goes, and how deeply ingrained it is in our DNA. When we lived in caves, we had to worry about bears, and wolves, and rival clans. When we settled into huts, it was enemy villagers. Even castles were sieged and sacked. At no point in the history of our species did we live without the fear of our fellow man penetrating whatever shelter we had fashioned for ourselves. When you think about it, we are actually pretty lucky to be living in the present day and age, as every one that preceded it had a higher prevalence and likelihood of in-home violence. Horrible, horrible things happen to people in their homes everyday, but statistically speaking your fear of some random bad guy breaking into your house and killing you is mostly media-driven and phanstasmal. Fully 80 percent of all murder victims know their killers. I don't know anyone that was killed by strangers in their home. As far as I know, I don't even know anyone who knows anyone. Do you? If you do, I am heartily sorry to hear it, but you are in the minority.

That's not to say I don't suffer mightily from Scelerophobia along with everyone else. I spend an outrageous amount of my sleep hours creeping around my house searching for the sources of strange noises. If I hear voices on the street outside, I peer through my blinds until they pass. If a dog barks or a motion activated light comes on, I assume it has spotted a prowler. I once pulled a knife on my dryer, for christsakes, unaware it was the cause of the sound that was putting me on edge. Personal firearms were once a completely forbidden topic with my wife, but they are inching closer to acceptable the more time I spend alone at a family farmhouse. I am very curious to know whether owning a gun will ease my anxiety or increase it.

Logic and statistics aside, I'd probably feel better if everyone exhibited the same degree of vigilance as I do, so just in case you don't share the same home invasion fears as the rest of us, here are a few links to true crime stories that might leave you thinking otherwise:

Villisca Axe Murders

Cheshire, Connecticut Home Invasion Murders

Richmond Spree Murders

Wichita Massacre

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Acts of God

No, I'm not talking about a beautiful flower blooming, or cancer going into remission (as an Atheist, I don't believe those things have anything to do with a greater power), but rather those random catastrophic occurrences that not even your insurance company can save you from. Most take the form of weather events -- freak storms, lightning strikes, floods, tornadoes, tsunamis, etc. -- but some are even stranger, like death-by-satellite-debris or spontaneous combustion. And just like the germs and evil children I talked about a few days ago, there seem to be more and more Acts of God every day. Global Warming? End of Days? I sure as hell don't know, but here are a few of the weirder entries in the annals of stupendous calamity.

The Tunguska Event - An enormous explosion in early 20th-c. Russia. Meteor Impact? Spaceship Landing? Tesla Experiment?

The Great Thunderstorm of Widecombe-in-the-Moor
- Ball lightning takes out a church in 17th-c Dartmoor.

Koro, or Penis Panic - The incredible shrinking genitalia.

The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic - Mass hysteria forces a school to shut down in Tanzania.

The Dyatlov Pass Accident - Nine skiers disappear in the Ural Mountains and their bodies turn up with high radiation levels and a strange brown tan.

The Moberly-Jourdain Incident - Otherwise sober and respected British academics experience a time slip at a small chateau in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles.

Raining Animals
- Old Testament plagues made real, and not just toads and fish, but worms, spiders, and even jellyfish. Oh my.

Monday, October 10, 2011


As I sat down to think about the construction of a Halloween scarecrow for my little garden, I was struck by the notion that they seem to frighten humans a lot more than they do crows. The history of their use goes back at least as far as the ancient Egyptians, and examples exist in cultures all over the world. For their scarecrows, the Greeks made statues of Priapus, the mythical son of Dionysus and Aphrodite. Said to be exceedingly ugly, Priapus is better known by the huge permanent erection with which he was always depicted. (He gave his name to Priapism, the frightening condition made famous by the Viagra disclaimer.) The Pennsylvania Dutch called their scarecrows "der Butzemann" which is the German equivalent to boogeyman. The Japanese call their scarecrows kakashis, which translates to "smells badly." Apparently, they originally burned animal flesh near or hung fish bones on their scarecrows after discovering that it dissuaded birds from eating nearby. Nowadays, apparently they use super creepy mannequins heads.
All of which is to say that there are deep subconscious chords struck by a rough human form standing alone and unmoving in a desolate field. Our minds want to invest it with life, or more specifically, the semblance of life, which is much more disturbing.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Woods

Leaking air mattresses. Macaroni and Cheese without butter. No-flush toilets. Meth-head neighbors. $10 bundles of wood containing two viable logs and two more with moss all over them. The horror.... the horror...

In all seriousness, as I begin to pack up all the various and sundry gear needed to pretend we are actually going to rough it camping in the Shenandoah this weekend, I am thinking about our ancient and primal fear of The Woods. When did this fear begin? Were we frightened of the forest as primates, when we actually lived there and slept in the trees? Or was it when our race left that habitat that we began to develop our atavistic terror of the deep, dark woods? Would the dread lift if we spent a week among the arboreal Old Ones? A month? A year? Or are we now such a stranger from Mother Nature that She can only bring us nightmares when the sun goes down and we are left without solid shelter to protect us?

A lot of questions this morning and, as usual, no answers. All I know is that my overactive and uncannily powerful ears go into overdrive as I lay awake in my sleeping bag, listening to my damn wife and kids breathing deeply in their easily won slumber. I hear EVERYTHING and all of it COULD BE something DANGEROUS. I don't worry so much about bears, because if one ever did lumber through our campsite, I'd hear it coming a mile away (what to do and where to go are another story, but I've got a pretty good Voice of the Devil I plan to use on it, plus some mean camping breath). On average, it takes me two to three hours to shut down my fight or flight instincts and actually fall asleep, and by then I usually have to pee from the silly number of beers I have consumed in an effort to silence those irrational thoughts in the first place. So I get up and wander a little ways off into the woods to do my business, and that is when the real fear creeps in. The entire campground is dead silent, the witching hour is upon me, and I'm in the most vulnerable position imaginable. Assuming I make it back to my tent alive, sleep is now out of the question.

Ah the rejuvenating effects of a peaceful night in Nature... let me know what that's like when you get a chance, will you?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Evil Children

Like a ghost in a churchyard, or a malevolent toy (future topic!), there is something particularly unsettling about the juxtaposition of evil and good, sin and innocence. Transmuted by fear, things that once seemed intrinsically benevolent or heartwarming can change in an instant into something Other, something beyond mere wickedness -- a betrayal of whatever Geneva Conventions exist in our hearts and heads governing the proper order of things. Perhaps the most powerful of these inversions is the trope of the Evil Child.

The first two movies that really terrified me were The Shining and The Omen. Not only because I saw them at too young an age, but also because they featured Evil Children. Likewise, the first book I had to stop reading for a while (just as its author had to stop writing) was Pet Sematary. The antichrist is one thing, even ghost twins and a river of blood, but an undead toddler? An unlovable thing seeking out Mommy and Daddy for one last hug? That, my friends, is what I call H-O-R-R-O-R. It's probably a good thing that the film adaptation fell a few loads short of full on brick-shitting scary. **

Seems I am not alone. In 1998, a new urban legend was born based on a single online posting by a journalist named Brian Bethel. (The original is available here, thanks to the wonders of the Way Back Machine.) Apparently, Bethel encountered a pair of young kids (age undetermined, but estimated at 10-14) who spooked the living hell out of him, partly due the way his mind and body reacted to their presence, and partly due to the fact that their eyes were entirely black -- "no pupil, no iris, just two staring orbs..." Oddly enough, it took Bethel several minutes to notice this detail, as if they were somehow willing him not to.

Ever since, dozens of similar accounts have popped up online. They even have their own acronym -- BEKs, or Black-Eyed Kids. What they want is still unclear, but like the vampires of old they often seek entry into the narrator's home or car, evoke an amount of fear that is hugely disproportionate to their physical size, and seem to exert a Darth Vader-like ability to influence their victims. Hell, even the Marines are scared of them.

I'm not suggesting that any of this is true, but it does raise some interesting questions about how we feel about our children. Again and again in these What We Fear entries I am going to reiterate the fact that horror films and urban legends are mirrors of what is most unnerving society at any given point in time. After Columbine and countless other cases, it's no great epiphany to recognize that "broken children" now frighten us as much as the escaped convicts of yesteryear. But what are we to do about it?

I don't have any answers, I'm afraid, at least not in a blog post, but I can recommend some really good additions to the film genre, if you want to plumb the depths of your own "Evil Child" fears. All of the movies listed below were made in the last decade and are worth a watch.

Eden Lake
The Orphanage
The Strangers

And for one, really great non-horror treatment of the subject, check out Boy A.

** Given the recent remake trend, you'll probably be unsurprised to hear that Hollywood is having another go at Pet Sematary. Alexandre Aja, of Haute Tension fame, has been tapped to direct, so we should probably start baking the clay and filling the molds.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Woke up congested this morning and started thinking about germs. I don't suffer from atychiphobia (sometimes called mysophobia), but maybe I should. Maybe we all should. Consider the evidence: Listeria, Salmonella, Botulism, Cholera, E. Coli, Malaria, Meningitis, Tuberculosis, Typhoid, Giardia, Hepatitis, HIV, Rotavirus, Mad Cow disease, West Nile Virus, Bird Flu, the list goes on and on. Sometimes it seems like there are more viral or bacterial boogeymen than ever before. All our advances have only made them stronger, more resistant. Why haven't WE become more resistant? Who is winning this battle anyway? And don't get me started about allergies...

Maybe we don't want to win. I'm no fan of Rick Perry, but the way the whole nation jumped all over him for daring to mandate a HPV vaccine that could save thousands of lives suggests we are more comfortable taking our chances than any preemptive protection. Same with the wildfire spread of the Vaccines cause Autism scare. Maybe it's just easier to assign our fear to an arrogant doctor with a big needle than handle the notion that ravenous beasties are all around us all the time, jostling to invade our orifices and set up camp.

Are there more germs now than ever? Or are we just paying more attention? Whatever the case, there can be no doubt that our collective fear of contagion is metastasizing. For an easy gauge, look at the explosion in movies, shows, and books about zombies. Forty years ago, George Romero had the entire market cornered and only a few demented souls paid any attention. Now we have worldwide bestsellers like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, hit shows like The Walking Dead, and enough films to demand a campy send-up like Shaun of the Dead. Just last night I watched the latest entry in the genre, and perhaps the most blatantly metaphoric yet. Simply titled, The Dead, it sets the action in the hot zone of all our infectious fears: West Africa and instead of supernatural sprinters like the undead in 28 Days Later, these zombies shuffle like crippled patients, easily outrun and easily ignored, just like all those starving children. Besides, there are prettier things to look at, like that gorgeous sunrise over the savannah. Until you are surrounded. You'll want a vaccine then. But it will be too late.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Abandoned Buildings

Yesterday I talked about the fear of premature burial, which is an offshoot of claustrophobia or the fear of small, enclosed spaces. Today we move on to the polar opposite of that -- the fear of large abandoned structures.

Tales of haunted buildings are as old as civilization, but there is something especially modern about this particular fear, something connected to the unease evoked by industrial decay. Nowadays, traditional ghosts can't hold a candle to the more visceral terrors of the Nameless Things that lurk in toxic ruins. There's an icky quotient, certainly, and a basic fear of the unknown, but I believe abandoned buildings derive the bulk of their power to frighten from a kind of collective subconscious guilt -- an unspoken feeling that we, as a race, perhaps deserve to be punished for what we have wrought, the desecration and the devastation, the hubris to build and then desert, to enclose and then vacate. A walled-in space is built to be inhabited, to be used or worked in. If we leave it empty, the Universe will populate it with something and god help us when come back and disturb it. Popular game franchises like Doom and Silent Hill freely tap into this poisoned well, to the point where they barely need any back story at all -- you find yourself in an ill-lit basement, there are monsters trying to eat you, now fight your way out.

In recent years, a new kind of hobby has been gaining in popularity called Urban Exploration or UrbEx. The title is a bit of a misnomer, as "urban explorers" don't limit their activities to cityscapes, but it is often in cities where they find their most atmospheric locations. The really nice thing about this subculture is that it strictly adheres to a self-created code of ethics most easily summarized in the motto: take only photos, leave only footprints. Though, strictly speaking, they are trespassers, Urban Explorers are not vandals or thieves, and will in fact police their own. And the photos they bring back from their adventures are truly amazing. Instead of arousing aversion or apprehension, they reveal an undeniable attractiveness, or as the title of one notable coffee table books dubs it, the Beauty in Decay, born not only of a hearkening back to past grandeur, but also the lush colors and textures and odd juxtapositions that ruin can engender.

Fortunately, you don't have to risk life, limb, and lung to find this beauty, as there as many talented brave souls willing to do the leg work for you. Two of my favorite places to hang out during the lonely, late hours are The Kingston Lounge and Opacity. Getting lost among their photography is the next best thing to packing a flashlight and a crowbar and UrbExing it yourself.

For further exploration into this subject, I recommend the documentaries: Echoes of Forgotten Places, Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness, and the most excellent Dark Days, available for streaming on Netflix (and which, while not strictly about Urban Exploring, investigates the history of homeless living underground in abandoned tunnels). I also recently watched a newish and quite effective Australian horror film called The Tunnel, that is taking the unique distribution model of a legal torrent. Follow that link for more info, but use Google for an actual torrent link.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Premature Burial

Inspired by an October project of yesteryear, and once more feeling a strong cold wind at my back (thanks in large part to the still-wet-ink release of Richmond Macabre, a horror anthology to which I had the honor of contributing), I will endeavor to devote a small portion of each day this month to a specific fear or phobia. Entries will be relatively short (but definitely not sweet) and will be largely compromised of signposts or rabbit holes to certain stories, sites, and images that dwell on the dark side of the web.

First up is an oldie but goodie: Premature Burial.

I'll admit to not suffering much from taphophobia myself, as I have left express instructions to be cremated (resuscitating in a crematorium oven would not be fun, but at least it would be short lived) and while I have a healthy distrust of the medical profession, I am fairly confident even the most incompetent of today's doctors will be able to determine whether or not I have actually expired.

Or at least I was, until I read a story just this morning about a woman in Brazil who woke up a few days ago in a morgue fridge. It could be worse, I guess. You could wake up at your own funeral and die of fright/heart attack.

Interesting historical note: The fear of premature burial was so widespread in the 19th century (thanks to a not insignificant number of widely publicized cases) that it led not only to the formation of the Society for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive, but also the invention (and healthy sales) of the "Safety Coffin." At least 22 different patents exist for these dread-safe boxes, which incorporated various design features that allowed for breathing and communication, the simplest of which was a bell attached to a rope that was left in the hand of the deceased. Though there are no documented cases of anyone actually being saved by a safety coffin, it's a safe bet some entrepreneur is exporting several thousand modern variations to Brazil and Russia at this very moment...

Should you find yourself wishing to more deeply explore this particular fear, there are no shortage of books, stories, and films to indulge you. For stories, turn to the tale that helped start the Safety Coffin craze: Poe's "Premature Burial". For film, I recommend you spend 95 min. in a pine box with Ryan Reynolds by watching Buried, an under appreciated recent release.