I’m scared of just about everything, which meant I had to do some major editing when compiling this list of scariest life moments. I decided to leave out the serious traumas (car accidents, earthquakes) as well as the more frivolous daily fears (spontaneous human combustion, cell phone-induced brain tumors). I opted for the anecdotal, and I hope this makes for an entertaining—if not exactly scary—read.
Presented in roughly chronological order, 10 scenes of terror from my life:
1. Not Your Mother
2. Carnival of Horrors
3. A Bloody Mess
5. A Well-Earned Slap
6. Oh, God, It’s Everywhere
7. Send in the Clowns
8. Your Money or Your Life
9. It’s Not Over
10. Is This Real Life?
1. Not Your Mother. I don’t remember where we were going, just that I was young and on a boat. I wandered through the crowd looking for my parents, not lost enough to be anxious but definitely approaching that state. And then I saw my mom, leaning over the edge of the boat. Well, I saw her hair, and that was enough—I felt safe. I approached with confidence. “You know what’s fun about this boat?” I asked her. (I don’t remember what was fun, incidentally. I just remember what happened next.) She turned around—she, not my mother—and asked, “What’s that?” But I didn’t stay to answer. One look at her foreign face and I shrieked, bolting from the scene as fast as my little legs would carry me. I imagine that poor woman spent the next hour mired in self-doubt: “Was it something I said?”
2. Carnival of Horrors. But that wasn’t the only time I mistook a stranger for my mom. We were riding through the fun house at a French Canadian carnival. It seemed like a fine idea at the time, although in retrospect, everything about this bizarre outdoor amusement park should have sent me running. The ride was pitch black inside, which made it equal parts boring and terrifying. Halfway through I heard what sounded like gagging, the awful noise of my mother in distress. “Mom? Mom!” And then that reassuring hand on my head, mussing my hair. Except that wasn’t something she ever did. Later, after we made it through, she told me about the hands around her neck. We didn’t know who had done it—we never found out. But he’d used his other hand to run fingers through my hair.
3. A Bloody Mess. I scare easily—that’s my only excuse. And it all happened so fast that it’s hard to sort out whose fault it was. (Not mine, is what I’m saying.) I was on the floor when Abram jumped on my back. I threw him off out of instinct, not anger: there was something on my back, get it off, get it off! I didn’t see his head hit the table, but I saw the blood, and I remember thinking, “He might die.” I didn’t know much about how the body worked, but I knew bleeding from the head was a very bad thing. His babysitter was there, yelling at me as I cowered, washing the blood out in the sink. In the end, it was only a little cut. The head bleeds a lot, I learned. I didn’t kill anyone—I didn’t even do any serious harm—but holy crap, those few minutes when I was sure I had.
4. Trapped. There’s something inherently scary about being in a foreign country when you’re a kid. Well, if you’re me. I didn’t like not knowing the language and the fear that I’d get separated from my parents and not have any clue how to find them again. I’d probably just stay in Italy and get adopted by an Italian family—a strict, child labor-loving Italian family, most likely. That didn’t happen, but I did have a close call in a bathroom in Venice. Was the door jammed, or was the lock just confusing? The details don’t matter. All I know is I was stuck in that tiny stall, listening to the people around me jabbering on in Italian. How could I ask for help? And would my parents wait for me if I were trapped there for too long? It was then that I noticed the space under the door, just large enough for me to slide out through. They hadn’t left.
5. A Well-Earned Slap. Everyone remembers the first time they got hit, right? I haven’t been in any real fights, ever, but I was slapped in eighth grade, and my God, I deserved it. That didn’t make it any less awful or disorienting. I was defending a friend’s honor, which somehow involved pretending to spill an energy drink on a girl I didn’t like very much. (What was I doing drinking an energy drink? What was I doing defending anyone’s honor?) My victim was on me so fast—a sharp “Don’t fuck with me” (out of the mouths of babes!) and a hard slap. Having never been hit before, I wasn’t even sure what had happened. My glasses were gone. Everything was a blur. And my face stung where she’d hit me. The more the realization dawned in me, the more scared I felt. How could anyone hit me?
6. Oh, God, It’s Everywhere. This one’s going to sound funny to you, I just know it. And yeah, OK, it’s not exactly as scary as the others, maybe, but I thought I had ruined my high school experience. In the aftermath, I was sure I’d never have any friends again. And all because of a stupid bottle of please-shake-well chocolate milk. Shake well, but make sure you haven’t already opened the bottle. I, of course, realized that after I’d dispersed its contents all over where my friends were eating lunch, drenching one girl’s bag in milk that would soon be sticky and rancid. I wasn’t sure if this was the kind of thing you were forgiven for, not when the girl was screaming in my face. I tried to disassociate, so I averted my eyes. And all I could focus on were the splashes of chocolate milk, dripping into puddles all around us.
7. Send in the Clowns. Every so often, I find myself scared by things that are actually supposed to be scary. And I mean, Knott’s Scary Farm—you kind of know what you’re getting into there, right? I was with my high school’s Model UN team following a completely embarrassing conference (I knew fuck-all about The Netherlands), and the idea of screaming through some mazes sounded like a good time. And it was, to a point. I guess I wasn’t prepared for the immediacy of it: there’s a difference between watching something frightening on a screen, and getting chased by a clown. Seriously, if you’ve never been chased by a clown, it’s not an experience I can recommend. Even knowing, on some level, that I was in no real danger, I screamed my way to a sore throat that lingered for a week.
8. Your Money or Your Life. Another experience I would not recommend—getting mugged. I was reluctant to include this here, because it’s a legitimately awful thing that happened to me. But no real damage was done. Well, no physical damage. And it taught me a few important things about real-life horror. The first was that my body shuts down when faced with physical harm. There were five muggers, enough to kill me I’m sure, but soon after I got hit in back of the head, I forgot all of that. My eyes closed, I fell to the ground, and my mind went blank. The second thing I learned was that pissing yourself in fear is not just an expression. As my lower half turned to jelly, I felt my bladder empty, and I thought, “Ugh, gross. What a way to go.”
9. It’s Not Over. The scariest thing about The Ring is that moment when you realize the movie isn’t over. It’s this intense, stomach-clenching dread that doesn’t really work once you’ve been spoiled. But the first time, if you can think back to that—it’s fucking awful. I saw The Ring in a college summer course on the horror film, at an age when I wasn’t easily disturbed by movies. And frankly, I don’t think The Ring would have affected me the way it did if I hadn’t made the absurd decision to start my morning with a NoDoz caffeine pill. I felt fine, mostly, until the movie was over and I walked upstairs to use the bathroom. My body was shaking, my heart was thumping in my ears. And I thought, “What if the movie isn’t over? What if it’s still happening?”
10. Is This Real Life? I probably could have composed this list entirely of weed freakouts, but we’re going for diversity here. So I’ll just share the one time I smoked hash out of a bong (completely legally!) at a pot dispensary/hash bar on Melrose. I didn’t see the harm in a single hit until the room started spinning and I forgot how to walk. Somehow I managed to walk into the main room, searching in vain for a door out. The rest is a blur, but I found myself curled in a ball in the backseat of my car, afraid to move, afraid to call for help. I finally texted a friend who was already on his way, and he eventually talked me down to a state of relative calm. What I didn’t realize until he showed up, however, was that my sense of reality was still off. And the fact that he’d once played a villain on a series I watched didn’t sit well with me.
Happy Halloween, gentle readers. Be safe. Be brave. And always carry an emergency supply of Xanax. Nothing’s spookier than a panic attack.