Is there something wrong with perpetuating superstition through fiction?
The Power of Urban Legends
There’s a reason I put off getting my hair cut until the sides grow into big Wolverine spikes. I get nervous about the conversation with the hairdresser. I don’t like sitting in silence while the client next to me is laughing. I like to take on the appearance of a sociable well adjusted human being, if only for the time it takes to get my bangs trimmed. So I prepare material: funny memories I try to pass off as something that happened recently, news stories that aren’t politically polarizing, and list of the most recent films I’ve seen.
Everyone is superstitious about something. In the information age, there’s still plenty of unknowns to be afraid of. Not every bump in the night can be blamed on an appliance. For writers dabbling in horror, this is a good thing. Today we’re going to mine our superstitions for inspiration.
We’ll be ignoring the classics in favor of ones that are more cerebral. I live with a black cat, when I worked in building maintenance I walked under ladders daily, and I can’t have a conversation about Clive Barker without saying, “Candy Man” at least five times.
Minnesota sidewalks fracture every winter, the only places to step are on cracks, and there’s nothing wrong with my mother’s back. So shout, “Bloody Marry” into a broken mirror, open six umbrellas indoors, wear black on Friday the 13th, breathe heavy on your way through the cemetery, and don’t worry if no one blesses your sneeze.
I want to talk about your secret superstitions, your fascinating phobias. The ones you’re too ashamed to share, but still give you a good scare. The ones you formulated without the playground think tank, the campfire seminar, and the treehouse entrepreneurs.
Those childhood fears that survived your intellect, the ones that you can never seem to purge from your obsessive compulsive rituals, those are the ones I want to tap into. Think of it as a writing exercise to draw out original ideas, to keep your scares from feeling tired and dated.
If an aspect of the unknown becomes known, it isn’t scary anymore. Horror trends have desensitized audiences. Exorcism movies have demystified demon pathology. There have been so many Ouija boards on film that another one isn’t going to frighten anyone, unless it uses hashtags and emoticons.
Psychological terror hides in the dark, just outside the radar of your senses. You can feel it, but you never get a good look at it. That’s where your sophisticated superstitions reign, where your half asleep lunacy becomes reality. That’s where we’re going to find our story.
The Fear Test
The best way to know if your superstitious belief has teeth is if you fear it more than something you should be afraid of. Irrational fears have a way of eclipsing legitimate ones.
I used to live in an apartment above a parking garage. The unit rattled every time the door opened. One day someone discovered a body in the dumpster. A mentally handicap neighbor didn’t know what to do when his mother died, so he dragged her down there. Out of some morbid curiosity, I went into the garage to find the dumpster aligned with my bedroom.
That night I woke up to a tapping on the window. A silhouette was peaking through the blinds. Slipping out of bed, I crawled into the hall. Armed with a Maglite, I charged outside to find a pair of homeless men passing a glass pipe on the window sill. I wasn’t frightened by the crank craters lining their cheeks. I was just happy these men weren’t the ghost of the woman from the dumpster. That irrational relief gave me the courage to trick them into thinking I was a cop.
True story. Here’s another one.
I used to go for walks at night when I had trouble sleeping. My insomnia got so bad I started seeing things. My subconscious planted shadow people behind every tree trunk. I saw them peaking out, ducking behind trash cans, and kneeling in the tall grass. The second I caught one stepping into my path it disintegrated on impact.
We’re programmed to recognize faces from birth. It’s no wonder we see them in wallpaper, tree bark, and the surface of Mars. Deep down, I knew these hallucinations were glitches in my brain’s ability to spot patterns, but they just kept coming.
What made the shadow people all the more disturbing is they were never just chilling out doing their own thing. Walking around the lake, I never spotted them fishing, reading on the docks, or making out on the benches. The shadow people were always on the hunt. They rose from the water, dropped from branches, and lunged at me from the bushes.
I had this childlike notion that the shadow people were real, that my sleep deprivation dulled the feedback from my other senses, allowing me to see them. That’s why when I heard footsteps rushing up behind me, I was relieved to find a bulky man clutching something in his jacket.
When I calmly said, “Is there something I can help you with?” he was taken aback.
He took his hand out of his pocket and laughed. Through a bizarre turn of events, we chatted on the way back to my apartment. It took several blocks for me to realize he’d planned on robbing me, but changed his mind when he saw that there was no fear in my eyes. Over the course of several cigarettes, he all but admitted as much. Still, I was comforted when I turned around and saw a man and not a shadow assuming the shape of one.
Rational fears are topics worthy of your writing, but psychological terror shouldn’t be so easily defined. Show us your shadow people. Share the ghosts in your basement. Give us something we’re not used to seeing.
Rather than purging your fear with some loud distraction, I dare you to embrace the silence. I dare you to ask yourself the following question:
Wouldn’t It be Terrible If?…
I’ve written articles on one of the easiest ways for writers to find inspiration by asking “What if” questions.
What if a house cat got exposed to gamma radiation and hulked out at the sight of a laser pointer?
What if a house cat foiled a group of terrorists by knocking houseplants onto them?
What if a house cat thwarted a serial killer by triggering all his traps before they hurt anyone?
Horror stories start with a modified version of the same question: “Wouldn’t it be terrible if this happened?”
Wouldn’t it be terrible if the only reason the monster in my closet hasn’t struck yet is because I wasn’t ripe?
Wouldn’t it be terrible if there was an anti-Halloween where demons come to earth posing as people?
Wouldn’t it be terrible if everyone on earth stared at me when I wasn’t looking, but somehow I found out it was happening?
Next time you’re searching for inspiration, I dare you to stare into the dark until you find something. Next time you recognize an irrational fear, make a note of it. If it keeps rising on its own, you’ll know it has staying power. Indulge it, let it drive you crazy, then direct its evolution.
Why dismiss your fear, when you can put it to work? Developing it into a story might just be the best way to overcome it. These waking nightmares might just be your subconscious’s way of plotting. After all it’s not madness if you use it.
I swear every word of the following story is true, not in that fake “based on actual events” way, but in that it happened as it’s written.
It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year. I’d been up making music until birds were chirping over my headphones. My parents left for work while I was sleeping. I woke up in the mid afternoon.
A ray of light reached into my bedroom, further than the windows in the house had ever permitted it. It stretched in real time, bending around the threshold, a sunshine snake, slithering through the shadows. It stretched across the carpet, settling on the tip of my mattress. My socks hung over the edge, blooming with harsh blinding light.
I knew I was awake, but my body hadn’t caught on, it refused to acknowledge my commands. Underneath the covers, the only thing I could move was my eyes. The light traveled up the bed, refracting as it went. There were terrible faces in that angry rainbow, furrowed brows, beady eyes, flaring nostrils, and hungry mouths. The prism projected teeth all over me.
I tried to scream but my lips refused to part. I felt like an ant stuck in honey beneath a powerful magnifying glass, a vampire who’d mistaken overcast for nightfall only to realize it was midday. Never in all of my life had I been so afraid of the daylight.
Straining my brain, I tried to fire my nerves up manually. I could feel my inner ears, if I worked the muscle I could make a clicking sound. Recoiling from the technicolor teeth moving up my stomach, I took control of my neck back. Turning my head from side to side, I tugged on my spinal cord, praying my motor functions would start back up again.
The next thing I remember, I was on all fours, crawling up from the carpet. I’d broken sleep’s hold on me. The light had receded, but everything about my bedroom still felt wrong. The dimensions were correct, but I knew it was counterfeit, a dream set trying to pass itself as the waking world.
Tugging the blinds up, I expected to see a matte painting where my neighbor’s house had been. Stepping into the hall, I expected to cross over from my habitat into an alien spacecraft. Entering the kitchen, I expected a legion of demons to pop out and yell, “Surprise!”
None of that happened.
I was on my feet, I’d regained my balance but dream logic still made a sick kind of sense. This was before I knew anything about night terrors, sleep paralysis, or hypnopompic hallucinations. As far as I knew, reality had warped to deliver a message. The Sandman came bearing a premonition.
My dream left the residue of an idea that had never occurred to me before: I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.
Looking around the kitchen, I felt like I was visiting a memory. I didn’t understand why I was living at my parents’ house, why I was still in Minnesota, why I wasn’t touring with my band. It felt like I’d Quantum Leaped into my younger self and I was going to have to go back to high school again.
That notion that there would always be time to pursue my passions was gone. I had precious few years to leave my mark on music before I’d be out of sync with my generation. I was self taught, late to the scene, and not exactly magazine cover material, with my bulb nose and pox marked skin. Music was my life but it felt like my tune was already fading, like the universe had a reason for claiming so many rockstars at 27.
I wondered why I was single, why I couldn’t see wedding bells from where I was standing, why I hadn’t changed my life to accommodate a baby. What kind of father would I make with my duct tape bracelets, torn sleeved shirts, and safety pins running down my jeans?
Thinking into my cereal, I waited for the sensation to pass. It didn’t. I was having a midlife crisis. I didn’t have an urge to buy a motorcycle, have an office affair, or study World War 2, but I was doing an inventory of everything I’d done and everything I had left to do. There was a lingering feeling that I was already expiring. This thought became impossible to banish. The more I tried to dismiss it, the more certain I became of it. I was staring down the other side of the hill, realizing the cost of being an old soul.
I was 16. I did the math. I had to leave my mark soon, because at 32 I was marked for death. After that morning, I saw the number everywhere. All those people jumping at the number 23, they had it backwards.
I laughed off Nostradamus’s date with the Apocalypse, wrote a satirical song about Y2K, and slept in on the last day of the Mayan Calendar. I was comfortable in the knowledge that the world couldn’t end before I did.
That music career never happened, I’d spent most of the time pursuing writing. My lyrics took on too many verses and I just kept going with them, following the words away from the notes. I started calling my songs poems, until they took on chapter headings. Still, the change in medium never made me feel like I’d bought myself any more time. Plenty of authors emerge later in life, but I knew that when the clock struck 32 I’d have to put my pencil down and turn whatever I had in.
Shaking the Curse
I never knew how my life was going to end. I imagined a scenario from one of the Final Destination movies. I’d trip on a marble, accidentally setting off a Rube Goldberg machine of death. Somehow, a weathervane would roll down a roof, knock a rusty gutter loose, and hit me into a fence at the precise moment lightning struck it.
My depression tried to convince me the prophecy was going to be self-fulfilling. It said, “You can’t run from me forever. At 32, I’m going to catch up with you.”
I’m not going to lie, my depression gave it the good college try, but that option was never on the table, not with two Game of Thrones books pending, not with an Aphex Twin album just over the horizon, and not before I could leave my own meaningful impression.
As far as reasons for living go, I could do worse than having a slew of works in progress.
I’ve never understood the phrase, “Live everyday like it might be your last,” because if we all did who’d waste precious seconds doing laundry, mowing the lawn, or writing checks for the utilities? Some of us would be so polarized with fear that we wouldn’t decide on anything, we’d shiver beneath the covers waiting. We’d write bucket lists so long we wouldn’t have time to scratch off a single thing. We’d go through our contacts, saying our goodbyes all day long.
If a writer lived every day like it was their last, they’d post a blog entry and shun every long term project with any intellectual investment. I know that platitude was never meant to be taken literally, but I started to when my superstition caught up with me. I became hyper critical, a perfectionist with limited output, wondering if I died tomorrow, would the piece I was writing be the note I wanted to go out on.
What did that kind of pressure teach me? There are better ways to say “Carpe Diem,” without imagining my own imminent doom.
At 32, I’ve tried to be as prolific as possible, hyper-blogging, working on the novel, writing more short stories than ever before. Still, death has been a constant theme, lurking between the lines, waiting for it’s time to shine.
I consider myself a skeptic. This is my one last lingering thread of superstition. I can’t wait to cut it. My birthday is on Monday. I’ll be 33 and my deadly premonition will have reached its expiration. This weekend, I’ve been looking both ways three or four times before crossing the street, checking the sky for falling pianos, anvils, and loose jet engines.
If you’re reading this, it means I made it. That the self-fulfilling prophecy didn’t get me. I’ve outlived the curse and I have no idea what happens next.
I know this all sounds silly, like the ravings of Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning, but this means there’s still time. Time to perfect my craft, to get my name out there, and to make something of it. Time for love, terrible remakes of great movies, and a chance to tinker with virtual reality.
That 16 year old prophecy didn’t come true. If there are such things as psychics, I don’t have their gifts. That, or I was actually having a mid-midlife crisis and 64 is the number I should be watching out for. Better yet, maybe I was having an eighth of life crisis, and I’ll live to be 128, at which time I’ll be cryogenically frozen to be thawed out when death isn’t even a thing. Yup, that’s the option I’m going with.