Threats to my family’s safety and health are what scare me now. And paranormal activity. That spooks me. Strangely, (or not) the things that scared the pants off me as a kid, mostly involved my mother. This was literally true for my brother.
One of mom’s favorite things to do was tease her hair into a giant, gnarly mane, remove her false teeth and burst out roaring at Ken, with her arms raised and hands all clawed. He would sprint outside screaming in his Fruit of the Looms. She’d be sure to surprise him in his skivvies because, while it was funny to see him terrified, it was hilarious to see him standing humiliated on the sidewalk. I’d be inside watching this over-weight, gummy maniac chuckle at the screen door while saying, “Come back in, sweetheart. It’s just your mother.”
At least two of my brothers were tormented by my mother’s velvet clown painting. They truly hated it so, of course, she made a game of agreeing to put it away and then randomly hanging it around the house. As I played quietly I’d hear a boy scream, followed by a woman’s cackle. I was very young and could see the creepiness of the painting but my discomfort was born of my big brothers’ fear. They were the older, tougher ones. It was unsettling when they were afraid.
Years after my parents were divorced I spent two weeks with mom in Pecos, Texas. I was twelve and traveled the three hours to get there in a truck with some guy my mom knew but my dad and I had never met. Why no one deemed that scenario scary baffles me still. The man turned out to be harmless but the visit did not. One afternoon I told my mom I wanted to watch the Exorcist, which was showing on HBO. Of course I had no idea what the movie was about but she wouldn’t turn it off because I’d said I wanted to watch it. For months, after I returned home, I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing Linda Blair in various stages of possessed.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d had some experience as Satan’s spawn. There’s a photo of me in an early Halloween costume, I’m a year and a half old and wearing all white, with black whiskers painted on my cheeks. There are some feathery ears on my head and around my neck hangs a sign that says, “Rosemary’s Baby.”
They don’t show this in the movie but, apparently, the antichrist sired a kitten.
For the short time I was under the same roof with my mother and all of my siblings, I existed in the relative safety of being the baby, too young to understand the things that scared my brothers and sister. I was often confused and worried, picking up on tension around me, but it wasn’t until I was grown that I understood more about their real fears. My oldest brother told me about a time he’d gone with our mother to drag my sister from a friend’s house where she was hiding. Sabrina had been trying to escape our mom for some time. Jimmy painfully admitted that he hated to see what was happening to her at home, but the survivor in him said, “better her than me.” As they arrived at the friend’s house, Sabrina flew out the back door and Jimmy was ordered to go after her. They ran, jumping the rock walls that fenced all of the backyards in our town. She crossed a street and disappeared behind a house on the next block. When he climbed the wall in that yard he looked down to see our sister crouched against it on the other side. She stared up at him, panting, but they didn’t speak. He lowered himself down and took the long walk back to tell everyone that he’d lost her.
Occasionally at night, back in those very early years, my mother would instigate a game of Murder in the Dark. We’d turn off the lights and draw the curtains to make the house as dark as possible. Someone would have pulled the “x” from a bowl of torn papers and that person would be the murderer. The rest of us would hide under beds, behind furniture, and in closets until the murderer came creeping around. You’d freeze and try not to breathe but, inevitably, you’d hear a whispered, “You’re dead” before they’d slink away. At some point, the lights would be turned back on for a trial where the murderer would defend him/herself. I didn’t really understand anything beyond the hiding, but I liked the game because I always got paired up with someone. I was so desperate for family unity and it brought us all together. Snuggling up in a dark hidey spot with my mom or a big brother protector felt consummately safe and cozy. We’d squeeze each other extra tight as we felt the killer’s breath upon us. I would advocate multiple rounds of the game in hopes of being rubbed out with each member of my family. Eventually, interest would fizzle and everyone would disperse but, while it lasted, Murder In The Dark was a tender reprieve.