Keeping it real

One thing that always seems to surprise people, even the ones who are closest to me, is how easily scared I am.

Especially by things that aren’t real.

© Jenny Reiswig

© Jenny Reiswig |

I’ve been struggling with this a lot recently. It’s like those childish fears, of things that go bump in the night, never left me. And it’s not a momentary shiver either, or something that I can rationalise and then not worry about anymore. I am often utterly convinced that if I were to look out the window at that particular moment, I’d see several zombies or White Walkers pressed against the glass.

And it scares the crap out of me.

I know that I’m not the only one who is frightened of things like this, because otherwise we wouldn’t have scary movies. It’s a fear that speaks to a lot of people. Where I seem to be different from most people is that my fear is so disabling. I’ve never managed to get past the water cup scene in Jurassic Park. I had my best friend in stitches because I “watched” Arachnophobia from behind her sofa. Shaun of the Dead, even though it’s hilariously funny, had me scared out of my mind for weeks. Not helped in the least by my then-boyfriend, who thought that pretending to be a zombie whenever we were in the bedroom together would help me get over it. Or just to give himself a good laugh, I don’t know.

I didn’t think it was funny. I was unable to see that him pretending to be a zombie wasn’t real.

I have the same problem with dreams. I tend to have very vivid dreams, and the times that I’ve been truly upset with someone because of something they said or did to me in a dream are too many to count. Rationally, I know it was a dream. But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels just as real as zombies outside my window and bloodsucking spiders underneath my bed.

In a way, it’s probably related to perserveration. I can’t let the thought go. It takes hold of me, takes on a life of its own.

Again, it’s not that irrational fears are something abnormal. It’s how crippling they are. I want to be able to watch TV shows without turning off the sound, without covering my eyes, and without nightmares afterwards. I want to be able to climb up the stairs without fearfully looking over my shoulder and feeling my heart beat in my throat. I want to be able to get into bed without suddenly thinking that my feet will get bitten off if I don’t pull them up.

Swiss Family Robinson – a Japanese cartoon that had the family being chased by wolves in the dark in one episode, leading to me being afraid to get out of bed at night for months.

Even though it all sounds so childish, the fear feels real. Far too real.

I have been laughed at and made fun of, even by my nearest and dearest, for being so afraid of things that are fiction. At best, I get empty reassurances that it’s not actually real and there’s no need for me to be scared. But neither of those are any help. They weren’t helpful when I was a child, and they aren’t helpful now that I’m an adult.

Maybe I should just keep a poker next to my bed. Screw what anyone else thinks.

 But monsters were easy, at least. She’d learned how to deal with monsters. She picked up the poker from the nursery fender and went down the back stairs, with Twyla following her.
 ‘Susan? Er… what are you doing?’
 Susan looked at the poker and then back at the woman. ‘Twyla says she’s afraid of a monster in the cellar, Mrs Gaiter.’
 ‘Actually, that’s a very clever idea,’ said someone else. ‘Little gel gets it into her head there’s a monster in the cellar, you go in with the poker and make a few bashing noises while the child listens, and then everything’s all right. Good thinkin’, that girl. Ver’ sensible. Ver’ modern.’
 Susan sighed and went down the cellar stairs, while Twyla sat demurely at the top, hugging her knees.
 A door opened and shut.
 There was a short period of silence and then a terrifying scream.
 Susan pushed open the door. The poker was bent at right angles. There was nervous applause.
 The party went back up the hall. The last thing Susan heard before the door shut was ‘Dashed convincin’, the way she bent the poker like that…’
 She waited.
 ‘Have they all gone, Twyla?’
 ‘Yes, Susan.’
 ‘Good.’ Susan went back into the cellar and emerged towing something large and hairy with eight legs.

– Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

51 thoughts on “Keeping it real

  1. I have a disorder that includes hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations — auditory and/or visual hallucinations upon falling asleep or waking. It is particularly triggered by sleep deprivation and ironic, because I will lay down, exhausted, start to drift off to sleep, then hear “demons whispering in the closet” and I am too terrified to sleep, even though I *know* they aren’t real.

    So the sleep deprivation gets worse and the hallucinations get worse and I am stuck in a downward spiral.

    I can identify with others not taking the fear seriously. People act like its no big deal to interfere with my sleep because THEY haven’t got these issues, so why should I? It doesn’t matter that its neurological and I can’t help it. It doesn’t matter that I explain the huge toll it takes on my health. All that matters is that it seems irrational to them, so I should just get over it or snap out of it or something.

    But things like fear? You don’t just “snap out of it.” It doesn’t matter whether the object is real or not: the fear is real.

    • Oh man, hallucinations sound even worse. There’s just no way you can tell yourself it’s not real when it’s simultaneously triggering adrenaline release all through your system. Never mind relax enough to sleep. I feel for you.

  2. When I was little I crept out of bed to ask my Mum for an extra blanket one night and found her in the TV room watching an alien movie. I think that I was sixteen or so when I finally managed to convince myself that the alien wasn’t under my bed and that it wasn’t going to grab my ankles if I got out of bed to pee or get a drink of water. I came up with all kinds of rituals to protect myself from the alien and to allow myself to be able to get up at night with out getting grabbed. Basements and closets were the same and I understand you completely when you talk about zombies at the windows, except for me it is the ghosts from ‘The Turn of the Screw’.

    • I always have to have the windows covered if it’s dark outside. Sometimes I walk at night and can see right in someone’s house because their curtains are open and they can’t see out. I always wonder how they can stand to walk around like that with everybody looking in at them, including all the “monsters” they can’t see.

      • I feel more comfortable with the curtains closed as well, but I need to have them open during the day because of the light quality. So my executive functioning issues get in the way: when I close them, I forget to open them in the morning and wonder at the end of the day why I feel so tired and drained, and if I keep them open, I start avoiding those rooms at night. It’s hard to explain to others why something so simple as closing the curtains in the evening and opening them again in the morning is a problem for me.

        • I can see where that would be a problem. Because of my hypernychthemeral syndrome, light in the window isn’t bright enough. I use several therapeutic light boxes for around six hours per day. Then I have to make everything dim later, while the sun is still up, so for convenience, I just have all my windows completely covered except for little peepholes to check the weather. My entire day revolves around the carefully timed therapies my brain condition requires.

    • Oh yes, me too. I don’t watch horror or thriller movies at all. Which is sometimes hard to explain to others, especially when they insist the movie is funny or not that scary. That’s how I caved on watching “Shaun of the Dead” with my boyfriend.

      I should have known better. I mean, I got nightmares from “Watership Down” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. I simply can’t handle anything even the slightest bit scary. I don’t like being “thrilled”.

      • Yes! I stick to period films based on novels that I have already read, comedies and English mystery series (the tame ones). Even dramatic suspense can get to me and leave me wiggy or weepy for days.

        My parents would have shaken their heads if they had ever seen me crawling over the foot board of my bed, walking only in the bright patch from the streetlight to the wall switch, all before the count of three, so that the alien under the bed didn’t get me and the thing in the closet would be scared off by the light so that I could close the closet, (I often forgot) then go pee. Getting back into bed was the real challenge. When I was sixteen I left home to go to a better school and I told myself very firmly that alien’s only lived under the bed at my parents house. When I got home for Christmas break that year I found that the alien had gotten lonely without me and left, but basements and dark windows late at night still make my skin crawl.

        • Parents should not be shaking their heads at coping mechanisms, no matter how convoluted they may seem, or that you “should have grown over it already”. But yeah, I know. Reality isn’t always like that.

          (Also, your last sentence made me feel sad for the alien all of a sudden. Maybe the zombies as well are just lonely and looking for a cup of tea and a nice chat, instead of wanting to eat me).

  3. I used to get these strange imaginings/fears a lot if I stayed in a strange place, especially after dark. Whereas a familiar place did not prompt these fears.

    Now I am a lot more OK with strange places – my outlook is different these days and I think that has something to do with it.

    • I’m glad that you found a way to deal with strange places!

      It seems that for me, the imaginings increase in familiar places. My house is my safe spot, the one place where I go to recharge my battery when I can’t cope with things. I feel incredibly comfortable here. But it’s also the only place where I get these irrational fears. When I’m at other people’s houses, or outside, I don’t have them. It’s almost as if when I’m outside and interacting with people, my system is already overloaded with real anxieties, so there’s no room for my brain to come up with unreal stuff to feel afraid of.

  4. It’s funny, my Mum is a retired librarian with a bit of a sci-fi fantasy obsession (which she passed on to my brother and I) but she never mentioned Terry Pratchett to me so I had to call her after I read the quote above and ask why, as the name was completely off my radar. But my mum’s sense of humour is very Canadian (she doesn’t get Monty Python for instance) so even though, as she told me, she ordered all of Terry Pratchett’s books for the library, she never brought any home for me to read. I don’t think that she got his humour and didn’t think I would either. I’m going to have to head to a book store though. I love having a new author to check out and it’s especially nice if it’s an author who already has lots of material out.

    As for my alien, even though I was genuinely afraid as a child, looking back it does feel almost like a missed opportunity for friendship.

    • Hogfather was the first book of his that I read, actually. My mother bought it for me because it was the only book in English they had at our small local bookstore.

      He has a sense of humour that I think appeals to my autistic side. A joy in language, making fun of puns (instead of just leaving it to the pun to be funny), exploring meanings of words and double meanings that “everyone knows” but nobody can explain (often the main characters challenge people to explain their hidden biases, which of course leads to a failure of epic proportions). And there’s a lot of “why do humans act as illogically as they do?” but with a lot of warmth and compassion.

    • There’s a children’s story about that somewhere in my books.
      Lenny checks under his bed – and the blue-ish, pig-nosed thing underneath screams “A MONSTER!” You see, for them, we are the monsters. And they become friends – and the story ends something along those lines: “And if there’s a monster coming, there’s two of us now.”
      While I found most of the other stories in there rather boring, I absolutely loved this one and have read it to my nephews repeatedly.

  5. First: YAY Terry Pratchett! I like you even more now! Have you seen the Hogfather Movie?
    If you see someone read a book you like, it’s a book recommending a person, yep!

    *smiles sleepily* Just getting over a stomach bug and very sleepy, but I wanted to give my two cents.
    I make a point of not watching horror movies either. But one thing I was horribly afraid of as a child came from a children’s TV show about nice, friendly trolls. They showed a nightmare one of them had. One of the boy-trolls dreamt that one of the girl-trolls was evil, the change signified by yellow eyes.
    And then, when I went to bed, I realized that the mirrored image of my lamp in the window looked just like that troll, yellow spots for the eyes included. Since then I had to have that window covered, to years later, until I moved my bed to a spot where I wouldn’t see it anymore and finally moved out. When I got in there and the roller shutter is closed – my mother uses the room mainly for storage – and I could therefore see the image – it still gave me a shudder. By now she has replaced the lamp, though.

    And I still have the covering-my-eyes-during-some-TV-shows-thing, too, and have been ridiculed for it, so I am offering virtual hugs. Though it’s not for “scary” parts with me – more for the embarassing ones. “Fremdscham” – feeling embarassed at someone else’s embarassment.

    And have you ever considered fighting fictional beings with fictional weapons? When my nightmares got out of hand, I must have been around six, my sister gave me a book called “Das Traumfresserchen” – said Traumfresserchen (Rough translation little-thing-that-eats-dreams) well … eats dreams. Bad dreams. And there’s a little poem in there to call on it. It worked for me. Still works, to be honest. My also autistic boyfriend, by the way, got even more nightmares by the thing – the imagery is pretty dark. And Michael Ende’s books have been translated into a lot of languages, so maybe it is available somewhere? Or something along those lines?

  6. Found the book, of course, right after I hit “Post Comment.”

    The Dream-Eater is the english title. Haven’t, however, found it for sale on amazon or ebay.

    Now I find myself challenged to write something to fight other fictional beings, not only dreams, but also the monsters under the bed and in the closet and stuff. Well, I’ve been meaning to get my calligraphy out, and I have so far only written german poetry, so it would be a nice challenge to do it in english, and a story around it and stuff. Maybe I’ll do it =)

    • You should! I’d love to have a weapon to fight the monster that’s JUST OVER MY SHOULDER. He moves around so I never see him. My cat stares at him ALL THE TIME though. Arghhhh.

      • Already thinking on it. *has a few sentences written already* Curious question – how do you know it’s a “him”?

        • Good question. I don’t think I’ve ever associated women with something to be afraid of.

          Although… recently I’ve imagined my female cat getting so annoyed with me for the lack of attention she’s getting, that she will swell up to the size of a grizzly bear and claw my face off while laughing maniacally. So there’s that.

        • I was more expecting an “it” in relation to monsters of yet unidentified gender … and uuuh, that catty image IS creepy. Especially the laughing part.

        • In my experience, all cats do it to a certain extent. I think they only do so because they’re uncomfortable with prolonged eye contact. But it’s still seriously creepy!

        • My cat is not uncomfortable with eye contact. We have prolonged sessions of eye-gazing. I would rather look into his eyes than those of just about any human and he seems to feel the same about me. We are soul mates, my cat and I.

        • I have those too with my cat, but he does clearly indicate when he’s had enough by looking at a point just beyond me. It doesn’t make the contact I have with him less enjoyable after that, it just means that we’re done looking into each other’s eyes for the moment. 🙂

        • That sounds very likely! Poor cat. I’m so glad s/he’s found a soulmate in you.

          My cat has a very mysterious history. I’m piecing together parts of it from how he responds to things. Like how he is now super affectionate with me and seems to trust me with his life (he immediately became calm at the vet’s when he recognised my smell, even though he was hissing at everyone only seconds before). He was picked up from the street and he does seem to have reflexes that are consistent with a period of street life (very anxious about cars and motorcycles, stays away from people he doesn’t know), but he’s far too healthy and affectionate to have lived on the streets his entire life. He’s also absolutely terrified of fire, even cigarette lighters and tea lights, but he doesn’t have any burns.

          Our entire relationship from the moment I met him at the shelter has been that he sets the pace for how close we can get, and that seems to work amazingly well. I really feel he values me as a friend, not as just a caretaker.

  7. Funny, thinking about gender in monsters. When I actually stop and give it thought the male monsters from my childhood were more nebulous and just sort of stereotypically creepy in their frightfulness, but the female monsters (the ones in the basement) were more calculatedly evil in my imagination. I’ve been thinking about my childhood allot lately and now it occurres to me that my monsters took on some of the qualities that I associated with the kids at school. It probably says something about my general state of anxiety as a child, but to this day I’m still easily spooked. I could use a magical poem too.

    • Yeah, but scientifically speaking, what should the poem DO? Call to another, “good” monster to defend you? Or repel monsters?
      The repelling monster-thing kind of has the danger of one feeling like one isn’t strong enough to “cast a strong enough charm” so to speak. Should a spell like that be time-based? Like should you be able to say “until x o’clock” or “x hours”? Or should it be based on conditions, like “until I wake up” (for the monsters that come when you sleep) or “until sunrise” (for the monsters that only come in the dark) or something?
      Should the spell make yourself stronger (like the good old “You have no power over me”-Labyrinth-.thing) or should it work like a shield AROUND you?
      Or would some outside help be more useful?
      I like the idea of something self-empowering.

      … Basically a lot of late-night rambling 😉

      • Maybe several poems! Everyone has different fears and different needs. With the lonely alien in mind, I’m actually going to try and be nice to my imaginary monsters, see if that works for me.

        • Well, of course it would only get rid of those with malicious intent 😉 The nice ones can stay.

          And I need to have a stern talking-to with the Dream-Eater.
          I had a perfectly nice nightmare all laying out for it, and instead of it eating the dream, I actually had to dream it. *sigh* And woke up a minute before my boyfriend’s alarm clock rang, so cuddling until I am asleep again is not an option.
          He just went off to work, and I cuddle with my plush rabbit, but I don’t quite dare to go back to sleep yet.

    • That is a fascinating analysis!

      Would make sense that a lot of my fears revolve around things unexpectedly turning evil, when I had and still have such a hard time with unexpected anger or social snubbing from others, never quite understanding what I did wrong.

  8. I can hear Jennifer Connelly’s voice ringing through my head at the very mention of Labyrinth.

    Funny how similar late-night rambling is to mid-day brain fog. I’ve a sudden urge to listen to David Bowie. 🙂

        • Very true. It’s still a bit like comfort food or a safety blanket to me. Lot’s of fond memories. I watch it with my kids now.

        • It always was on a certain channel around Easter, and I always tried to catch it on time. The first time it ended up on my screen, it was the Escher Room scene, and god, was I scared, but strangely fascinated, and it was never nightmare material for me, either. I have since rewatched it quite a few times – and read tons of fanfictions. You have no idea what kind of things people come up with to have Sarah and Jareth end up together =) Yes, it is somewhat comforting. Ever read the book it was based on? I am considering doing that.

  9. My understanding was that the novel was done after the movie, but no I have never read it. I do however love Brian Froud’s art work even though it can be a bit unnerving, and he did the art direction for Labyrinth. You probably know that.:)

    • No, I am absolutely sure it’s the other way around, because there was a mention that the boy was named differently in the book, but Toby – which is the little actor’s actual name – would not listen to anything else, so they changed that up.

      Nah, actually, I can be pretty clueless about the people behind a movie. I need to remember them for something but the movie. I know Peter Jackson did Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit because … well, there is a picture of him knitting on set all over Pinterest, and one where he is dressed in pink and walking next to Saruman and Gandalf in costume and someone cracked a joke about Peter the Pink being the wisest – and shortest – wizard in their order. And that’s it. I know I HEARD the name Brian Froud – or rather read it – when reading about the background of the movie, but even that is something I don’t do so much for some reason, especially concerning movies. I know more about what happens behind the scenes of TV shows, but even there, not that much.

      • Interesting factoid, (if you’re like me and you like interesting factoids) Toby, the baby in the movie was Toby Froud, Brian Froud’s son, and his wife, Wendy, is a doll maker and worked on set and was the person who made Yoda. We’ve hit on one of my perseverations. I love fantasy art.

        • I love interesting factoids, too, which is why I remember that Peter Jackson knits 😉 She made Yoda? Cooool. And it’s all your fault I went to reread a lot of my favourite fanfictions! =)

        • Just don’t try to watch any of Peter Jackson’s movies from before Lord of the Rings. you will not like them. Scary space aliens and gore. 😦

  10. @ -unstrangemind-Thanks for the heads up on Peter Jackson.

    @Svenja-Interesting that he knits. Maybe he needs something to do with his hands.

  11. I have a phobia. An unusual phobia. Of a normal object. The phobia is mostly controlled (I mean, I can act in a way that seems almost normal (only a bit quirky) around most examples of the object, unless I am very overwhelmed or the object is a particular example that my brain categorizes as particularly unsafe). I still feel anxious around many of those (not all, I never feared all objects of that category, I actually quite like some, but the ones which I do not like make me anxious) and sometimes have to avoid the object or resort to a few minor rituals that make me feel safe when having to face that object. But were I to explain the kind of fears I have, I believe people would make fun of me. Because the object is associated with a (very rare) danger, people would understand if I said “I fear some Xs because I fear that will occur. But in some instances it is not that. It’s a very different, very illogical, very impossible fear. So even the people who know of my phobia do not know what’s behind it.

    Fear is strange. Sometimes there’s some bad circuit in our brain and we have very illogical fears. People should not make fun of that. We know it’s illogical, but the fear feels real.

    • “But in some instances it is not that. It’s a very different, very illogical, very impossible fear.”

      I like how you’ve worded that. It conveys to me that you’re not afraid of the actual danger it might pose, but something intangible. Which of course is exactly the same thing as other “unreal” fears that we’ve talked about here, despite the object being a real thing.

      When talking about it to people, do you use the fact that your fear is about a real thing to solicit empathy from others, like a sort of common ground? Because most of the time I feel I can’t mention the kind of fears I have either, but for me it’s both the kind of fear and the object. I’m wondering if that makes it easier or harder to talk about it.

      • I don’t talk about it at all 🙂 Unless it’s with my family members who knew me when I was much less able to control this phobia and had some strange behaviours in public because of it (when I was a not-so-small child) or when I (rarely) face one of those objects that inspires me more fear than usual. My brain sort of categorizes this kind of object in degrees of “unsafeness” according to certain characteristics, and when it reaches a certain threshold of unsafeness, I really have a hard time dealing with the object and need physical contact (someone must lock arms with me and not let go until I can let go), so there was once that I had to tell an University colleague that I had that phobia.

        Probably the fact that it is a physical thing helps with soliciting empathy, but I’ve never thought of that until now. As I said, I don’t usually talk about it.

        The intangible part of the fear is actually something impossible, physically impossible. Let’s make an analogy: suppose I had a fear of snakes (I don’t). People would think I feared they would bite me or constrict me, but what if sometimes, instead of that fear, I feared that when facing a snake I would turn into a cloud? It’s that kind of impossible fear.

        • Funny that you brought up snakes. Your first comment put me in mind of my grandmother’s fear of snakes, which didn’t seem to be linked to anything a snake could do to her in reality, but instead to some sort of intangible dread. However, a fear of snakes is perfectly acceptable in my culture, so nobody really talked about it except to comment on how “over the top” my grandmother’s fear seemed.

          Which in turn actually brings to mind the reaction most people have to intense food dislikes. Like, it’s perfectly acceptable for me to say I have a vinegar allergy (even though that’s not true, but it helps to explain), but if I say the smell of it makes me throw up, it’s suddenly weird and “over the top”.

          It all seems so arbitrary. The way people react to us having those fears or dislikes, I mean. Not the actual fears.

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