Monday, February 24, 2020

On Fear: Part 1

Last year I wrote an essay about fear.  I wrote it in broad, general terms; I referenced my childhood, but not in terms of experiencing fear myself.  I suppose because I'm not someone who considers fear to be much of an "emotion" so much as a "sensation," akin to nausea.  Something that you experience in a moment and which then passes, giving way to more complex, forebrained emotions like grief or regret.  Fear is often re-contextualized.  Fear is the dread of not knowing, and once a thing becomes known, we attach to it another, more appropriate emotion.

As my journalism program comes in for a landing, one professor has been doling out more subjective and incredibly challenging quotes in an effort to expand our writing skill beyond what it was previously capable of.

This week's prompt:

Please write an 800 word piece on your most frightening personal experience. Make us feel it, empathize with you, identify with you.

I had difficulty with this but eventually hammered out two.  The first one is below and was in part inspired by an Ask Reddit thread about paranormal experiences.  Next Monday, I will post the other.

The Monster in the Back Yard

I read somewhere that most people’s earliest memories are usually something traumatic. The reasoning is that the intensity of primitive feelings like fear, anger, or pain help solidify the memory. Perhaps as a warning. Who knows? I’m not a psychologist.

“Traumatic” means something different when you’re a child, of course. The things we fear as children are usually laughable to us when we’re adults. Childhood anxieties over sharks and quicksand are replaced by the harsh adult realities of getting fired, or melanoma. Many children don’t have the life experience to appreciate what is truly frightening, and their fears tend to be physical manifestations, not abstractions. For example, a well-adjusted child is more inclined to fear a zombie than, say, losing a loved one to dementia.

Many people’s early memories are colored by fear that has been misinterpreted, and those fears loosen their talons on the psyche once the situation has been explained. Plenty chalk up their frightening childhood memories to paranormal circumstances like ghosts, when in fact, a more mundane explanation exists. But sometimes, fears evolve and grow with us. A child who fears zombies might see that fear evolve into fear of losing a loved one to dementia, because ultimately, it’s a very similar root fear: the loss of humanity.

My earliest memory was a frightening one, and it involved a monster. As an adult, I know now that my five-year-old perception was incorrect. However, the explanation for the events I witnessed is much worse, and it’s something I’ve carried with me my whole life.

I was five years old and playing in a pile of leaves in our backyard. The yard had a very tall brick wall at the far end; on the opposite side was a highway, and you could hear the constant whoosh of traffic beyond it. There were a few openings along the bottom of the wall, presumably for drainage. It was autumn, and I was shoulder-deep in the leaves when I heard it: an unearthly, demonic yowl, a noise I have never heard since, that momentarily drowned out the whisper of traffic and chilled me straight to the bones. It made my stomach drop and I very nearly burst into tears.

A moment later, something appeared in one of the drainage holes at the bottom of the wall. It squeezed through slowly, emerging into the back yard, a matted, sand-colored animal, its movements staggered and jerky like a puppet with a madman for a master. It slowly made its way toward the pile of leaves, where I had completely covered myself and was watching in frozen horror as it approached. It made a thin whining noise that was impossibly high-pitched as it moved, a noise that made my teeth itch and my hair stand on end.

“A monster,” I whispered to myself.

The thing got closer and I tried to stay quiet among the crunchy, rustling leaves, but this was an impossibility. It bore down on me, and I remained unable to move, paralyzed by fear.

It was only when it was a meter or two away that I saw it for what it was: a cat. This cat was like no other cat I had ever seen. It was enormous and its shaggy fur only added to the appearance of a much larger creature. Its movements, still jerky, were distinctively un-cat-like.

I grabbed the creature under the arms, as children do, and half-carried, half-dragged it inside to show my parents. The rush of adrenaline I had gotten had transformed from fear to excitement over my new pet.

It was only later in life that the reason for the cat’s strange appearance and movement was explained to me. Someone had thrown the cat against the brick wall from their car. That was the noise I heard. And the reason the cat was walking so strangely was because his spine was broken.

The cat lived for about two years after I had found him, and his strangeness no longer bothered me because it became familiar. He was an affectionate beast, although his size and uncoordinated movements scared other children. On more than one occasion, a friend would come over to play, and would balk when approached by the cat. And I would gleefully inform them that I, too, had thought he was a monster, but that he wasn’t, and there was nothing to be afraid of.

What I know now, with the advantage of hindsight, was that there was something to be afraid of. It wasn’t the cat, but what the cat represented: casual cruelty, and a slow and agonizing death at the hands of an uncaring universe, in which people who appear perfectly normal can perform acts of brutality so long as they are hidden behind tall brick walls where their actions cannot be witnessed.

There was a real monster that day. It just wasn't the cat.

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