Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Are You Afraid of the Dark?

I am 26 years old. I am still afraid of the dark.

When I was a kid living in Germany, my older sister had a slumber party, and I wanted to be included. That night, she and her friends watched one or two Nightmare on Elm Street movies. And then they turned out all the lights and went to sleep. I distinctly remember lying in my sleeping bag in the pitch dark, desperately wishing I could go sleep with my parents and being too terrified to move. I was literally paralyzed with fear.

My fear of Freddy Krueger has not lessened over time. If I see any kind of horror movie trailer, I always think of Freddy. If I start thinking of Freddy, my ability to do simple things is impeded. Like taking a shower. Or not running down the hallway after leaving the bathroom as though something scary might be chasing me.

When I had Scarlett, I decided that I didn't want her to still be scared of the dark in her twenties. I decided I would teach her not to be afraid of the dark. So from the time she was sleeping in her own room, she has slept in the dark. No nightlight. No door partially opened to let in light from the hallway. Just the dark. Until recently.

We've been having some trouble getting Scarlett to bed. She'll get in bed and say goodnight and seem okay, and then after I close the door, she'll start screaming for me. When I come back and ask her what's wrong, it's always that she wanted to tell me something. Like "sweet dreams." She'll do this many, many times before she goes to sleep.

So I started thinking, Hunh. Maybe she's afraid of the dark. Maybe you just can't teach someone not to be afraid of the dark. So I put a nightlight in her room, hoping it would help. And I didn't mention it to Michael.

Michael has always thought that you can teach kids to be scared of stuff. Like if they happen to see something scary, say during a movie, you shouldn't turn to them and go, "Are you scared? Come sit in my lap so you won't be scared." Because that teaches them the appropriate response is to be scared. He thinks you should insist that whatever it is is not scary, and in the case of movies, only pretend. I agree that it should work that way. I just don't think it actually does. I know Freddy Krueger isn't real. I know about movie makeup and fake blood and special effects. I know that when you go back and watch Nightmare on Elm Street films, they are very '80s, and campy, and not so realistic-looking compared to what moviemakers can do today. But afterward? The idea of a burn-ey guy with knives on his fingers who can be in the walls or mattresses? Scares the bejeebus out of me.

One time, when we first started dating, Michael thought it would be funny to scare me. He called me over to the computer and told me to try this maze. "You can't touch the walls of the maze, or you fail," he said. Okay. You moved through the maze by moving the mouse/cursor. It started out very easy. The walls of the maze were pretty wide, and the cursor was pretty small.

But then, on the third level? It got harder. The end of the maze became very narrow. Like the same width as the tiny cursor. I concentrated very hard. I leaned in very close to the screen, and I moved the cursor very slowly. I was totally going to beat this maze. And then? When my cursor did touch the wall? The screen changed to a giant close-up picture of Linda Blair in The Exorcist, when she's all scratched-up and bleedy and crazy-eyed, and it growled at me. And the volume on the computer was turned all. The. Way. Up.

I screamed. And then I started crying. I was crying so hard that I literally could not breathe. For a minute there, I just tried and tried and tried to suck in oxygen and nothing was happening. I thought I was going to die. In fact, it was this very incident that finally convinced me that if I did, indeed, ever come into contact with a psycho-murderer trying to attack me? I would die. I would definitely, absolutely die. It should be called fight, flight, or freeze-and-pee-your-pants. Because my defensive biological response is much closer to that third one.

In case you're wondering, Michael did feel very bad about that, and he hugged me until I stopped crying and repeatedly told me he was sorry. At that point in our relationship, you see, he didn't really know what kind of neurotic mess he had gotten himself involved with. Now, he has seen all of my crazy. Well, most of it. And he is still here. But I digress.

When Michael realized I had put the nightlight in Scarlett's room, he was kind of mad. He believes I have ruined her and she will always be scared now. He tried a few times to put her to bed without turning it on. But sometimes I would sneak back in and turn it on anyway. And other times she screamed for me and asked me to turn it on. So I guess she's kind of attached to it now.

But it hasn't cured the screaming. Sigh.

If you'd like to see this Exorcist maze yourself, click here. But be careful - you might find out that your response is much closer to that third option, too. And then you will need new pants.

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