“I’m the Oogie Boogie Man.”
— Nightmare Before Christmas
Recently Gill and I were awakened in the dead of night to the most unearthly noise coming from just outside our bedroom window. It sounded like a badly injured owl, a crying baby, a bleating goat and a midsized demon all rolled into one. It was a chilling, blood-curdling sound that continued for several minutes. Neither one of us dared get out of bed see what the thing was on other side of the blinds. Roxie, our cat who usually insists on bearing witness to everything, jerked to attention but also refused to look. Eventually whatever it was flew or crawled or hideously shambled away and hasn’t been back since.
This strange, late night visit from our goat-demon-owl-baby reminded me of a similar occurence from my childhood. At four years old I was awakened from a vague yet deeply unsettling Little House on the Prairie dream to a sound like I’d never heard before or since. Just outside my bedroom window and prowling around in our backyard was a horrid creature that was wailing, moaning and howling in an ungodly manner. It was a bone-chilling, unholy sound. It sounded like an evil, evil banshee that wanted to reach in through my window, wrap its cold, bony hands around my little ankles and drag me back to hell with it. Can you imagine being all of four years old, still having no reason to doubt that monsters are real, and then wake up to one trying to get you? I was scarred for life.
My parents heard it, too, and my poor dad was sent out into our yard, which had now transformed from where my sister and I played My Little Ponies to the dark, cavernous dwelling place of a hideous beast, to…well, I don’t know what he was supposed to do, actually. I guess that’s just what dads do. Anyway, so there my dad is, timidly creeping around in the dark, clad only in boxer shorts and white-knuckled terror, and hoping he doesn’t find anything.
Something curious happens when you find yourself in this position. You can’t see anything, and all you hear over the sound of the blood pounding in your ears is a rustling and then a scampering and suddenly all of your firmly held beliefs about what exists and what does not vanish, and you’re left with only the ghastly images your frantic brain conjures up about what’s out there, waiting to meet you in the dark.
Because it’s what we don’t see that scares us the most. This is why so many horror movies are cheesy and unintentionally funny: they show you the monster. But it’s not your monster. It’s the writer’s monster and the director’s monster and the makeup guy’s monster. Sometimes they get it right. Sometimes Hollywood comes up with something that strikes a chord with most people, that puts them right back in their childhood bedroom at 2am, swearing they just heard footsteps coming down the hall. But mostly it’s all bad acting and Karo syrup.
The scariest movies, however, don’t show you anything. The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity were two such wildly successful movies that scared the hell out of a lot of people but cost, like, a couple thousand dollars to make. The makers of those movies discovered the happy irony that not showing their audience the monster will scare them the most. And will also make a ton of moolah.
You know what scares you the most. When you’re alone in your house at night and you think you see a shadow outside the kitchen window, what is it? Is it a demented madman escaped from the asylum come to hack you up with an ax into a million pieces? Is it a slender green alien with an oversized head and bulging eyes come to abduct you and perform painful experiments on your human body? Is it Dracula? The Wolfman? Your mother asking why you don’t call more and demanding that you stand-up-straight-do-you- want-to-end-up-with-a-hump-like-your-grandmother-or-what?
You know what scares you the most. And nothing anyone shows you could ever measure up to what your fear-addled mind can produce.
So, what were those horrid creatures outside my bedroom window the other night and when I was a little girl? Dunno. Probably just an owl and a roving tomcat.
But I can’t tell you for sure. I never saw them.