Let me introduce you to your nightmare

Monday morning my back was kind of sore, and I realized it was probably from going through the Georgetown Morgue the night before with Paul, Ulysses and Carol. I think I spent the whole time in a very tense, crouched position, hence the sore the next day. So it was a little bit like slam-dancing to Schoolyard Heroes at Bumbershoot — my inner 14-year-old-boy loved it, but the rest of me is probably way too old for this stuff.

The Georgetown Morgue (say it three times in a mirror and the Demon Coroner appears) had a lot in common with the Haunted Hotel we went to with our niece a few years ago when World Fantasy Convention put us in San Diego over Halloween. I hadn’t been to a haunted house since I was a teenager. They had implemented a lot of technical innovations and design changes — like one room that very effectively emulated a rattling subway car — that made it way more effective than the ones I remembered.

The morgue wasn’t quite as sophisticated as the hotel, but it still had some of the same major design changes: narrow passages, more intimate scenarios, plastic flaps and other occlusions that had to be pushed through to make our way to the next room, and shaking or otherwise unstable floor surfaces.

The haunted houses of my youth had hallways that were often two or three people wide, and the scenes — the mad doctor, the undead woman in the coffin — at a bit of a remove, as if you looked in on them as a display, rather than being forced into their world. But both the hotel and the morgue put you right into the room with the action, with the actors barely inches away.

Needless to say, the modern approach is a lot more effective.

In addition, the modern houses were more maze-like, where sometimes it was a bit of a puzzle how to proceed to the next room. (In both houses I somehow ended up at the front of the party.) I’m mildly claustrophobic, and while most of the morgue was far too spacious and full of circulating air to trigger any discomfort that way, there was one point where I panicked ever so slightly when I thought at first there was no way out. (There was a way out, of course. It involved squeezing through a hall filled with poofy white pillow things that I didn’t at first realize weren’t a solid surface. I was staring at them thinking, “Do I have to climb on top of that? It’s almost as tall as my head! How athletic do they expect haunted house patrons to be, anyway?”)

I had a great time, but I’m afraid I’m not the most gratifying of customers for the actors. I don’t scream, and if you REALLY get me, I’m liable to burst out laughing. I think it’s funny that you freaked me out. I’m glad that you did. Delighted, in fact. That’s why I’m laughing. That’s why I’m here. Good job, haunted house person!

(Observe this timely Cracked.com article about what it’s like to work in a haunted house.)

The signs outside the morgue warned us about the usual things — medical conditions, pregnancy, claustrophobia — and also “damp conditions.” We had a bit of a laugh over that. What could they mean? What damp conditions were considered worthy of note compared to the damp conditions outside? Do they make you wade through a swamp to get out? (The answer is no. All I could figure was that there were a few places where, if you freaked out so much you stepped right into a prop, you’d be ankle-deep in fluid meant to emulate blood or ectoplasm.)

Was it scary? That might seem like a weird question. I just confessed that I spent the whole time so tensed up that my back was sore the next day. And I was genuinely full of adrenaline the whole time — it’s basically one extended full body jump scare. But I think of actual fear as a slightly different emotion from all that. Fear coils ice in your bowels. Fear is the feeling you get when you think the car is going to crash.

Recently, a Chapman University study yielded a list of top five American fears:

  1. Walking alone at night
  2. Becoming the victim of identity theft
  3. Safety on the internet
  4. Being the victim of a mass/random shooting
  5. Public speaking

Except for identity theft, none of those things are a thing that an adult person should reasonably be afraid of at all. Only number 4 is even deadly — unlike riding in an automobile, which most adults do every day with no trepidation. Or sitting. Sitting all day every day is surprisingly harmful.

In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker talks about how a lot of what people call “fear” is really fretfulness or worry — a thing we more or less choose to do. Two of his case studies in the book were women who talked about being “afraid” to walk to their cars alone at night, but in one case, the woman was really talking about how she was unhappy to be living in Los Angeles, and in the other, the woman was really talking about what an incredibly dedicated employee she was. If you’re female, though, you’re expected to be afraid to be alone at night in urban areas, so that’s a go-to narrative for all sorts of things. Apparently it’s catching on among men too, if the above list is any indication.

In de Becker’s view, fear isn’t chosen. It’s a gut-punch of emotion — we sense that something isn’t right, and not always in a way we can immediately explain. So what happens is that we often dismiss our real fear if we can’t apply a socially approved narrative to it, while simultaneously wasting a lot of emotional energy being “afraid of” (really, being fretful about) things that don’t pose any particular threat to us.

At the morgue, to pass the time in line, we reminisced about nightmares.

The earliest nightmare I can remember having was in kindergarden. In my dream, they were taking the whole kindergarden class and putting us through a machine that gave us Spock ears. In the dream this was the most horrible thing that could ever possibly happen. But when I woke up, I was just confused. It seemed ridiculous, and I liked Mister Spock.

As an adult, I can dream-analyze kindergarden me and say the dream probably had something to do with conformity and my sense that I didn’t fit in at kindergarden. But I still don’t know why it was Spock ears. I think it might have been vaguely mashed up with some other cartoon I had seen where people went into a machine that turned them into some kind of goblin thing they called a harpy?

(Wait, I just found it I think! Jack and the Witch, a Japanese animation that KTLA liked to run around Halloween time starting in the early 70s.)

To this day, I’m still disturbed by imagery where people become part of a machine or a machine becomes part of people.

I wonder — to what extent are things innate, and learned? Do I like creepy Victorian parlours because I grew up going to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion all the time, or did I always like the Haunted Mansion because of some innate affection for creepy Victorian parlours?

I rarely have full-blown nightmares, in the sense that I’m terrified while having the dream, but I do have a lot of dreams that involve things like the zombie apocalypse and global thermonuclear war and trailer parks that have secret doorways to hell. I have all the usual anxiety dreams about losing my teeth and having to take a test I forgot about and being in public somehow not wearing any clothes. But my worst nightmares always involve me failing in some way to take care of another living thing, like one really disturbing dream where I opened my sock drawer and it was full of puppies that had died because until that moment I forgot I was supposed to be taking care of them. I woke up crying. I won’t even tell you some of the horrible things I have dreamed involving human babies.

Why do we try to scare ourselves on purpose, anyway? Sometimes I think we might be rehearsing fear, attempting to invoke it, so that we can get better at dealing with it. Or maybe the evolutionary equipment that enables us to run away from tigers can start to feel empty or restless if the tigers never show up. Whatever causes it, humans are weird — we eat spicy food, run marathons, do Bikram Yoga — obviously the desire for certain types of self-punishment is built into the species.

As far as we know, we’re the only animal that has to spend most of our adult lives coping with the specter of death. Halloween is a way to introduce kids to this concept, easing the blow by combining it with two of their favorite things: candy and playing dress-up.

Last night I had a dream about Jay Lake. It wasn’t a nightmare. A bunch of us were gathered in a trailer that used to belong to him, and we were planning some fan-related activity and doing prosaic things like making lemon tea, and all of us were just feeling his loss very keenly.

I woke up and ran into this New York Times article about Halloween traditions encroaching on the traditional Mexican Day of the Dead, which ends with the conclusion that Day of the Dead is still going strong.

I believe it is.

To the beloved departed — I miss you. We all miss you. Happy Halloween.