Somewhere I read that when you remember something, you aren’t remembering the event. You’re remembering your memory of that event. Memory is unreliable, changeable, colored by years and emotions. Some people don’t remember much about their childhoods. I remember a lot. Memories will bob to the surface every so often, triggered by a smell or a random turn of phrase. There are two versions of childhood me that exist in my memory. There is the Small Joan who was terrified of the flowered curtains in her own bedroom, because she could see faces in them at night. And then there is the Small Joan whose parents had to make sure all the doors were locked during thunderstorms, lest their very young daughter go running outside. According to a story my mother told me, I used to do this when I was about three or four years old. I still love thunderstorms.
I’ve tried — really, really tried — but I cannot pin down one single moment in my childhood when a switch flipped and I went from being scared of everything, to liking the scary stuff. When I was a kid it seems like I went to a billion sleepovers. My friends and I had them all the time. Of course, we would all sit around on our sleeping bags, hugging our pillows and telling scary stories. I have one specific memory of me in the bathroom at a friend’s house, sitting on the fuzzy toilet lid with both my feet pulled up, and my fingers in my ears, AND the door closed, all so I wouldn’t hear whatever story my friends were telling.
It’s possible that the reason I shut myself in the bathroom was because I’d already heard a few stories that scared me. I heard them all anyway, somehow, at some point. All the classics. The Hook, The Dead Boyfriend, Humans Can Lick Too, and also a barf-tastic tale about mayonnaise that I’ve never seen anywhere else. It was all over my elementary school, though. I think one of my classmates made it up. (If you’d like to read this gross story, I’ve included it at the end.)
At these slumber parties, my friends and I played Light As a Feather. I usually wanted to be the storyteller, or at least that’s how I remember it. That meant I would be telling creepy stories to my friends, about how each one of them died. But, there was one time I agreed to play the corpse. My friend Kris put her fingers on my temples and in her story, one day I took a shortcut through the woods. By the side of the path, I saw some wild mushrooms growing. So, I picked a few, and I ate them, and… that’s how I died. I remember thinking that was a stupid story. I’d never do that. I didn’t even like mushrooms. I still hate them. But, when Kris said, “When I count to three, she will become… light as a feather, stiff as a board… one…two…three…” — I felt myself rise from the floor, lifted up by my friends, light as a feather and stiff as a board. RIP me.
These two Small Joans must therefore be one Small Joan. Just one me. There is no single moment when I chose a path. I’ve always been scared of scary stuff, and I’ve always been drawn to it, too. I deliberately checked out scary books from the library, knowing that they’d scare me. I was traumatized by Scott Corbett’s The Red Room Riddle for years. YEARS. All the way into adulthood. I finally tracked down the book, and I now own my own copy, complete with the same groovy 1970s artwork.
Right there on the cover, it says “A Ghost Story.” So, it’s not like the book tricked me. I knew exactly what I was getting into. (I re-read it recently, and it’s still creepy!)
I’m exactly the same way now. People find out I’m into horror, and they’re like, “Wow, you must be really hard to scare, huh?” Nooooo. I get scared all the time. Every time I sit down to watch a scary movie or read a scary story, I hope I won’t be too scared. Lightly scared. Crispy, but not burnt. Because if I’m not scared at all, y’know, it’s a disappointment. And yet… there’s that creepy creep lurking inside of me who wants the pure elixir: the terror of a child at night. So, I come back again and again to that well, and I dip my bucket. Most of the time, all I bring up from the dark is reflected moonlight.
Every so often, though…
In 2002, I went to the movies and saw The Ring. I remember thinking it was PG-13, so how scary could it be, right? I was a full grown adult, and no lie — I stayed awake all night with the lights on after I got home from the theater. I was nine years old all over again, too terrified to close my eyes.
Thank God I’d had the smarts to make that deal with the scary things, way back when I was a kid: they could scare me all they liked for one night, and one night only. After that, they had to leave me alone.
For about a week afterward, though, I flinched every time I heard a phone ring. I’ve never watched that movie again. I cannot bring myself to do it. It was a good month or so before I worked up the nerve to watch another horror movie. Oh, you know I did. I couldn’t stay away. It’s like eating slice after slice of a delicious pizza, knowing full well that you ordered The After Midnight Mystery Delight, where the chef puts a cockroach in just one slice, hidden under the cheese.
That same year, I watched the Japanese trilogy of Ringu, Ringu 2 and Ringu 0, AND I read the Koji Suzuki novel the movies are based on. Was I scared? Absolutely. Why? Why did I do that? Why am I like this? I don’t know. I just am. I don’t plan to write scary stories, either. It’s just that eighty percent of the ideas I get for stories happen to be scary. I can’t help it. I sort of don’t want to help it. To be honest, I kinda like it some of the time. Actually, most of the time. Okay, fine. All of the time.
Some of us are just born spooky, I guess.
The Mysterious Mayonnaise
(I warned you before, but I’m going to warn you again: this story is GROSS.)
So, there was this lady, and she loved mayonnaise. She loved it so much, she ate an entire jar of mayonnaise every single day. One of her favorite things to do was lie in bed at night and eat mayonnaise straight out of the jar with a big spoon. When the mayonnaise jar was empty, she left it on the nightstand with the spoon in it.
One morning, after she’d eaten an entire jar of mayonnaise in bed, she woke up and the jar of mayonnaise on her nightstand was full. She was very surprised, but she figured maybe she had dreamed eating the entire jar of mayonnaise the night before. She took a big spoonful out of the full jar and ate it. Delicious!
By the time night rolled around, she had finished the entire jar. She set the empty mayonnaise jar on her nightstand, and she went to bed. The next morning to her shock, the jar of mayonnaise was full again.
Like before, she ate the entire jar of mayonnaise throughout the course of the day. But now, she was determined to find out what was going on. It couldn’t have been a dream two nights in a row. So, she turned out the light and settled under her blankets, and she pretended to sleep.
After a couple of hours, her bedroom filled with an eerie glow. As she watched through her just-barely open eyelids, a ghostly arm emerged from the wall above her nightstand. It was a disembodied arm, cut off at the elbow and, as it hovered over the empty jar of mayonnaise, it turned in the air so that the cut-off end, with two knobs of bone protruding, was pointed down at the mouth of the jar. As the lady watched in frozen horror, glowing ghost pus poured from the severed arm, and filled the mayonnaise jar.
When the jar was full, the ghostly arm disappeared.