After our Halloween trek, we would came back home and my mother would dutifully go through the pillowcases of goodies and make sure that nothing untoward had been put in there – no apples with razor blades, and any baggies of popcorn or other seemingly harmless treats that were not factory sealed were thrown away. This was the 1970’s and there were always stories of people putting LSD into homemade candy (although to be fair, what respectable druggie would actually waste perfectly good acid on a bunch of neighborhood kids?). We were only allowed to eat packaged candy and she would pull out the fun size Snickers because she swore that we hated them (when I finally tasted one I realized that my mother was really calling dibs on those confections under the guise of saving us from ourselves). We had so much the candy – it would last into the New Year since my parents would only let us have one or two a day - minus what they sneaked when we weren’t looking.
When I got too old to go out Trick-or-Treating, I took over the rite of giving out candy. I had been a huge fan of Shields and Yarnell and loved the robots that they created on their show. I would dress up as a Robotic mime in white face. I would stand outside on the front stoop of the house and when the children came up – I would robotically turn to them, nod, give them candy and then go back to my original position once they had moved to the next house. The funny thing was once the kids had gotten the treats, they were perfectly happy to move onto the next house, but the parents would stay behind to see if I was going to move. I would always end with my head down so I could blink and breathe without it being noticed. Their kids would be three or four houses down and still the parents would stay and watch to see if I would move. After a few minutes, I would pop my head up robotically and look right at them, shaking my head mechanically back and forth. They would gasp or scream and move on. It was not about scaring little kids - freaking out their parents was way more fun and I was able to do it bloodlessly without an entrail insight.
I guess that’s why I’ve never been a huge fan of slasher flicks. It me, you’re working really hard with blood and gore give people nightmares when some good old fashion editing and scary music will do the trick. Who can forget the shower scene in Psycho? When my mother saw it, she spent a year only taking showers if my dad was home. I love horror movies where the evil guy is perfectly normal vs. the guy in a hockey mask with issues – give me Norman Bates over Jason or Michael Myers any day. One of the drawbacks to having done movies and videos is that I’ll look at the technical aspects – the lighting, the point when the dramatic music comes up, where they might have put in computer generated image, etc. The Blair Witch Project did not scare me because I was too annoyed at the sloppy camera work. Nightmare on Elm Street with Freddy Kruger as the man of your dreams – really?! Maybe if he was buff and had an uncanny sense of style then the idea of him turning into a guy with bad skin and scissor hands would be scary. Frankly Freddie just seems to be trying too hard.
Now while I don’t really watch horror movies, I’ve always thought that Jigsaw of the Saw movies was a thinking man’s serial killer. If you’re not going to take your life seriously then why should he? So those that are careless with the gift of life have to fight like hell to save it. His methods are sick and twisted but those stories have more of a moral rather than “Hey kids, if you stay a virgin, there’s a real good chance a murderous psycho will allow you to make it to the end of the movie.” Jigsaw is more scary than the rest of them because in the back of your mind you are thinking about all the stupid things you’ve done and what if that guy had honed in on you before you got your act together. Now that’s some scary stuff.
I do remember being scared of the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. For as cheesy as those special effects were, those winged primates grabbing Dorothy and Toto used to really upset me. When I got older and found out how they did it, I wasn’t scared anymore although I don’t really enjoy that scene. I also remember having nightmares about my younger sister and I being in the back seat of a car and the motor would start on its own and start driving at a really fast speed. We’d be in the back seat, screaming for it to stop and it would go faster – I would wake up right before it crashed. I remember having this dream every few months for years – then when I learned to drive – it stopped completely. I guess subconsciously I knew that if the car went out of control, I could handle it.
So, I now try to see what scares me and overcome it. I really don’t like being in a dark enclosed space – it’s not a simple fear that is momentary – I mean I really hate the idea of being stuck in a small place with no light. My breathing starts to get shallow and my heart races. So every summer, what do I do? I make myself go to the public pool and I wait in line with a bunch of damp kids and get on the slide that is completely enclosed. That’s right – it’s dark, it’s small, it’s wet and I’m hurling in the dark. My panic starts to take hold as I’m twisting and turning blindly until I explode out of the slide into the daylight with such unexpected force, I get water up my nose every time. It takes few seconds to get my bearings and then I burst back up through the surface of the water gasping for air with what must be a look of shock and relief. I then get right back in line and do it at least two or three more times. Why you might ask? Because by the third time, it’s not so bad and I feel like I can handle things better.
Public speaking can scare the hell out of people. Because I do improvisational theater, I’ve never really had a hard time getting in front of people and speaking. I remember doing it in middle school and high school and never having a problem. I’m always amazed at the number of actors who are flat our terrified of doing improvisation and the idea of going up on stage without a script literally scares them witless. It’s not just actors, most people are afraid of public speaking – it’s one of the number one fears that people have. They’re afraid that they will forget what they need to say or their mouth will open and nothing will come out. They have been watching too many reality talent shows where the image of Simon Cowell savaging them in front of everyone is enough to make them sit quietly during meetings and say nothing because putting yourself out there is pretty scary stuff. When I teach improv to non-actors one of the first things I tell them is that if they allow ideas to flow – if they can relax and trust that they will think and speak clearly. It’s the fear, the idea that they will screw up that is the self-fulfilling prophesy.
I’ll have my new improvisers do an exercise called The Library where I will walk them through imaginary rows of shelves and ask them to pick out an imaginary book at the library. I’ll ask them what it looks like, what it smells like and how heavy it is. They start to imagine that they have a real book in their hands. I’ll ask them to give me the title of the book and flip through the pages; I will then say “Stop, now read me a page of the book and the name of the chapter.” At first, they will look like a deer in headlights, but I will ask them to look closer and just read the words, that they are right on the page. Then something clicks, the resistance falls away and they start reading like they see the text. After that, I ask them if they want to keep the book and they can sit down. The look on their faces is usually one of astonishment. I’ll ask how it felt and they’ll usually say that once they stopped fighting the exercise and just went with it – their perception changed and they could see all the information in the book. They faced their fear and it melted away and was replaced by articulate thought that was not going to let them down.
Lest you think I’m a total bad ass or a zen master that can just about anything, I will confess that I do have a huge fear of heights. I mean I really hate being up in high places and I really hate roller coasters. So last year, when the kids and I were offered free tickets to Six Flags, I almost turned it down. But since we’d never gone as a family, I decided it was worth it to go. Of course the first things the kids wanted to go on were things like Dare Devil and the Georgia Scorcher. Then there is Goliath, a $20 million ride that pulls you slowly up the 200 feet incline before it drops you 175 feet and kicks to its top speed of 70 miles per hour. As we start to go up I’m thinking, “Holy crap, I really don’t want to be on this.” I’m starting to panic, but I have no choice now and can’t get off. So after traversing 4,500 feet of roller coaster track, the ride ends and I make it out alive. We spent the rest of the day going on six roller coasters while I scream at my anxiety “suck on this baby!” as we loop de loop through another twist and turn. We went again for Fright Fest this year, this time staying after dark and dealing with roller coasters at night and zealous zombies who are pretty chill about photo ops.
Facing your fears is something I’ve had to do a lot in the last year. I’m coming up on a year since the layoff of a job that I had been working at for almost four years. It paid very well and had good benefits. When I found out that I was being let go - that fear of having everything crash in around me like a roller coaster started to creep in. I got a three month severance package but what if I didn’t have another job by the time it was finished? Unemployment would not pay the bills. What if Max was laid off too? Would we lose the house? Would be my family be homeless? Screw Jason, Michael Myer, Samara Morgan or Freddie Kruger, those fears were terrifying enough to keep me up at night. Losing financial security scared the crap out of me way more than taking a shower with Norman Bates, but I learned that I could handle it. I got another job in May, six months after losing my other job. We’re still digging out financially but we’ll be fine. I learned that my marriage is as strong as it ever was, and that my family will stick by me no matter what. I learned to look at what I feared the most in the eyes and I didn’t blink. I didn’t crumble and I didn’t give up. So to all you movie psychos who think you have the market on creating fear – sorry to disappoint you but this past year I’ve been there – done that and you are just not that scary anymore. So Jigsaw, if you want to play a game, I have one for you – it’s called Don’t Screw with the Blond or You Might Get Burned! - because this peri-menopausel cougar knows how to scratch her way back. Happy Halloween!