With Halloween approaching, I thought it a good time to explore the subject of fear. As in, that immobilizing tightness I get in my chest in response to completely rational, empirically terrifying things, like the porch light coming on.
My oh-so-patient husband (who will be fitted for his shining armor on our next anniversary), valiantly checks all the doors and windows for me whenever something spooks me. (Did you see those headlights outside? I swear someone stopped their car in our driveway. Who would do that at eleven o’clock? And why are they playing music? That sounds like axe murderer music, honey. Don’t you hear that?)
And if he’s out of town, forget me sleeping. I usually don’t go upstairs until at least 1 AM, because, well, upstairs (where I have responsibly tucked my children in for the night) is way scarier than downstairs. And before I finally DO climb into my bed, I check underneath, I check all the closets, the kids’ rooms, and the bathrooms. (Not just behind the shower curtain but under the sink too. You know a psychopath could fit in there if he moved my Comet and Charmin around.)
So yes. I’m a big baby. But let me explain how I got this way. First of all, this is my dad.
You try growing up with that and see if you turn out normal. He doesn’t need to even open his mouth to be menacing. When I was growing up, he liked to torture me and my siblings by scaring the living bejeezus out of us. Example. He used to lie down on the couch and say, “I’m going to take a little nap. Just wake me up if I turn into a monster.” He’d lie there, fake-sleeping for a minute, then suddenly pop up with one eye open and his face contorted into this grotesque expression that could only belong to the living dead.
“Oh, that’s not so scary,” you say. “Quit being a baby and grow up!”
I was starting you off easy. He also had this witch mask that he kept in the attic…most of the time. I don’t remember the exact details of this mask’s appearance. I think it’s mutated in my memory a bit, but here’s the description to the best of my ability. It had green, frizzy, goat-like hair that stuck out from its head in chunks. Wrinkly, sagging skin that I’m pretty sure he melted off a burn victim. A long, big-nostriled nose complete with warts. And the wide, tiny-pupilled eyes normally reserved for serial killers and possessed people.
I didn’t like this mask.
Every once in a while–not often, but only once it had been long enough that I’d almost forgotten the last time and begun to feel safe again–he’d pull out the mask. He wouldn’t just come out and scare me with it like a (partially) normal person. He’d go outside and wait for my attention to get absorbed in something innocent, like a book or a tv show. Then, with the mask on, he’d lightly tap the window. The sound could’ve been nothing. Maybe the wind blowing a tree branch. A small animal, perhaps. If I didn’t notice, he’d tap again. Not louder. Still the same, quiet, innocent sound that could’ve been anything, so that when I turned to see “What is that behind me?”, well, you can guess the reaction.
It isn’t entirely his fault that he’s this way. In the Renzi family (my dad’s side) scaring your children is a beloved pastime. I think it may have started with my grandfather. He would dress up like a ghost and terrify my aunts and uncles (and presumably my dad, though I’ve never heard him admit to this).
One of my aunts has been known to hide under her kids’ beds, waiting as long as it took for them to come in and start getting into their pajamas so she could reach out a hand and grab their ankles. My cousins used to go to bed at night begging, “Mom, please don’t scare us tonight.”
My uncle tells the scariest stories I’ve ever heard at a campfire. At our last family camping trip, he had my daughter Emma shouting, “Bad! Bad! I don’t LIKE that story! Stop! You have to stop!” until I carried her out of earshot and reassured her that no bad bears were going to eat her.
But poor Emma. And Sophia and Raymond. Because their mom is a Renzi too.
I do the same, “Wake me up if I turn into a monster” bit that my dad did to me. Plus so, so much more. When Emma and Sophia were toddlers, they were really scared of the Grinch, particularly the song from the cartoon movie. So I sang it. Often. And in a deep, throaty voice that gets them jumping even if I’m saying “I love you” with it.
I’ve been known to put on a dead-eyed, slack-jawed face and amble toward them, arms immobile at my sides, emitting a low groan like a zombie who would love to feast on their brains. And since they’ve gotten into Star Wars, I’ve used this opportunity to impersonate Darth Vader’s loud breathing as I march purposefully toward them. I even downloaded the Imperial March for background music.
My mom shakes her head. “You’re such a Renzi!”
My husband shakes his head. “I hope it’s cozy in Hell!”
And Emma, Sophia, and Raymond? Well, they don’t know it yet, but they’re taking down ideas for terrifying their own kids someday.