the Reality of Fear

scared

Admit it, you love being afraid. But only so long as you can control the fear, channel it in just the right doses.

You love the idea of fear, the way it grips your heart, thickens your blood, and gives you a rush of adrenaline. Fear like this, it helps us escape life, if just briefly, get out of our own heads.

When I was married years ago, my (then) wife and I went on a double date with another couple, Adam and Mary, a blonde-haired and blue-eyed Mormon couple with three kids under five at home. We paid money to go to a haunted amusement park experience, something called Scarywood, one where all the lanes, alleys, and roller coasters had been decorated in frightening images. People in costume hid behind walls, jumping out to say ‘Boo’, and everyone screamed. Our friend Mary was tiny, thin and slight, and thus, perhaps, the easiest target for the teenagers in costumes, continually screamed and then would immediately scold the person who scared her. “Rarrrr!” yelled the ghost girl, the 15 year-old underpaid student in grey and white make-up. “Eeeeek!” yelled Mary as she threw her hands up, then she immediately got a stern Mom-look on her face as she pointed at the ghost-girl and exclaimed “How could you! Does your mother know you’re here!” And we all laughed and laughed and waited for the next person to jump out.

But was it funny? I think back to this isolated experience and the actual things we witnessed. A section of the park had dozens of fake clown corpses, hanging on ropes from the ceiling, and you had to push the bodies aside in order to walk through. In another section, a man stood over a fire and pretended to cook humans in a pot, then when you walked close, he rushed at you with a chainsaw as everyone in the party screamed and fled.

There is a multi-billion dollar industry out there capitalizing on these fears. Companies design realistic make-up to give children leprous sores on their faces so they can stagger around as zombies, they design realistic severed heads with bugged out eyes and knife marks on the neck where the red plastic blood drips out and the bones protrude, they build withered corpses to sit up from coffins as maniacal laughter plays from the ground.

Why do we love it so much, being scared, these chemical rushes in our bodies? Why is it customary to walk my children in the grocery store to buy a bag of apples and to pass an aisle full of plastic rats and spiders, vampire fangs and fake blood? Why do we put millions of our hard-earned dollars toward the latest scary movie franchise, about teenage witches and killer clowns and mass-murdering dream monsters and vengeful devil spirits? If I asked you to name 25 scary movies off the top of your head, you could. Easily. Because we have been making them for decades, and we love them.

I get that there is suspension of disbelief there, something that is just outside of reality and thus we remain safe, and that’s why I say we like to control the fear. We like knowing we can go home afterward and lock our doors and climb under our blankets. But we are titillated by reality as well. We latch ourselves on to serial biopics of serial killers and serial rapists, mass shootings and gruesome medical conditions. When we hear someone committed suicide, we don’t generally ask ‘Are you okay?’ first to the bearer of the news, instead we ask ‘How did they do it?’ We simply must know. And then we retreat to the safety of our lives again afterwards.

Real fear, though, that is something else entirely. Fear comes in all kinds of shades. Fear is associated with loneliness, love, anger, sadness, joy, depression. Fear is tied to worry, to unease, to suspicion, angst, panic, and dread. It’s tied to despair, stagnancy, apprehension, and excitement. There are clinical terms for fear of everything, phobias of heights, of teeth, of hair, of small spaces, of blood, of blades, of elevators. Fear of bathing, fear of babies, fear of falling sleep.

We say we love being afraid, but I don’ think we do. Real fear, the stuff that shuts us down, well, it’s really, truly scary.

Maybe I’ll make a scary movie one day about fear. Real actual fear. In this movie, an old woman sits in the park, and she invites people to experience their truly greatest fear for just $20. Anyone who pays her simply shakes her hand, looks into her eyes, and for one full minute lives their truly greatest fear. These wouldn’t be ghost hunts and werewolves, these fears would be deeply rooted in human insecurity, family and personal history, and in relationships, and they would be truly terrifying. One woman would be cornered in her room, like she was as a child, with her uncle closing in telling her that she could never tell anyone about what he did to her. One man might find out his mother had breast cancer all over again, and he would have to watch her suffer for years only to lose her. A father might go in to check on his baby and find her dead, suddenly, and they would never find out why. A young girl might go to high school and see a man with a gun enter and begin killing her friends. A woman may discover that her husband was lying to her, cheating on her all the time, and he never loved her, never found her attractive. A man might go bankrupt, be homeless, and die alone on the streets.

Real fears, the abject deep and personal ones, are not capitalized on. Fears of abandonment, bankruptcy, cancer, and trauma, of losing our loved ones, of being assaulted, of having our belief systems shattered, of growing old, of never measuring up or being enough. You don’t see these for sale in grocery stores.

I’ve learned to embrace my fears as part of me. They help drive me. They are deeply connected to every other emotion. And I will always have fear. My greatest fears change along with me, every birthday bringing with it a new set of things to be afraid of. And just like anyone, I can enjoy a good scary film, a nice suspense thriller, or a book that leaves me eagerly turning the pages to see what comes next. But real fear, well, the older I get, the less funny it all is. Most people are truly afraid of the things they have already experienced. And in that, I’m proud to say, I’ve faced a lot of my fears and walked out the other side, resilient. But there is still so much to be afraid of…

 

the Dark Side of Calgary

calgary.jpg

“Maybe I’ll go on a killing spree! Maybe there’s gonna be human flesh all over the pavement!”

The man was shouting at no one in particular. He was just kind of yelling into the sidewalk. He was in his late 30s, approximately, Hispanic, with a buzzed head and thick lips. He sat on the ground, wearing camouflage pants and a thick black coat, his back to a concrete structure, and he just yelled. He didn’t seem to see me walk by. I only paused briefly, and as he quickly scratched at a purple spot on his head, I determined he was on drugs and kept walking.

Encounters like this in big cities seemed relatively commonplace. Just in the last year, in San Francisco, and again in Seattle, I’d witnessed bizarre encounters like this on the streets. My boyfriend and I, during our travels, had seen one woman scream about the entire world being rapists while she scratched at open sores on her legs, and we’d seen a homeless man in a wheelchair masturbating in a stairwell right outside our hotel. Still, something about the human flesh comment left me feeling a little frightened this time around.

It was my final night in Calgary, Alberta. After a few lovely days of exploring various parts of the city, including the national park, the zoo, a couple of gay clubs, a shopping district, and a professional theater, I wanted to make my last day leisurely. Sunday had been full of church bells, slowly sipped coffee, and contemplation. I’d been writing poetry, thinking deeply about where I am in life, and determining what goals I want to work on next. The trip overall had been deeply healing. And this evening would be my last quiet night before flying home at the ungodly hour of 4 am.

I briskly walked away from the man in camouflage and noticed a beautiful courtyard park in front of a massive church just across the way. It was gorgeous in layout, with steel benches, curving sidewalks, and small manicured gardens in front of the large church. I hurriedly cross the street to check it out.

As I entered the park, I noticed the tall brown building against the dull grey sky. It had been grey my entire time in the city, but somehow it was perfect. This weather is what people think of when they think of Seattle, this gray overcast heaviness. But it didn’t bother me. I liked the drizzle, the clouds over the river. It was music to me.

I looked back down and realized that several different men were watching me from benches. It wasn’t a casual gaze, they were staring me down. I did my best not to make eye contact, but counted four of them, all of them clearly homeless and very likely high. Suddenly I remembered the building I’d passed a few blocks back, the one that had “JESUS LOVES” written across the top in giant red letters, and I realized it might very well be a homeless shelter. Had I wandered into the local version of Pioneer Park? Back in my home in Salt Lake City, there is a downtown park in a prime location that is generally very unsafe and full of homeless people due to its proximity to the shelters. This could be downright frightening.

I paused briefly at a small manicured garden full of what looked like cabbage plants. They were green, purple, and white, and came out of the ground in jagged spikes. I stared at the plants for a few moments, stunned by their strange beauty, yet still aware of the men in the park behind me.

Then I got scared.

“Fuck everyone! I fucking hate humans!” A woman stumbled from behind a group of trees as she yelled into the sky. Her hair was sloppy, pulled back into a shaggy ponytail, and she had far too much face paint on, bright blue over her eyes, pink on her cheeks, and red on her lips. She was slightly plump, likely in her early 40s (or maybe in her 20s but far older than her years). She wore a leather jacket over a black t-shirt that was cut low to reveal cleavage, a pair of jean shorts that had the legs cut off of them (likely with a pair of scissors), fishnet stockings with holes in them, and a pair of scuffed high-heeled boots. I immediately assumed she was a prostitute.

The woman tripped slightly and dropped a white container of some kind onto the sidewalk. “FUCK!” she screamed, then she bent down, nearly falling off her heels, picked up the object, and threw it across the street. “FUCK!”

She then took a leather purse from off her shoulder and threw it hard into a bench, where it landed in a pile on the concrete. “FUCK!” She slumped herself down onto the metal bench near her purse, unzipped her jacket pocket, and wrestled a cell phone and headphones out of her pocket. The cord was tangled up and as she unraveled it, she just kept screaming. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! I hate humankind!” Finally, she just dropped the headphones, put her phone on top of her purse, and just collapsed her head into her hands. She started sobbing her eyes out.

I stood there frozen for a moment, wondering what to do. Should I go to comfort her, ask if she needed anything? She shook with deep, silent sobs. I looked closer and saw needle marks up and down her legs under the fishnets. I was just remembering the men behind me and how I needed to leave when another man came from behind the trees, and I immediately wondered if he was this woman’s pimp.

He was bald with a spotty goatee and a patchy face. Shorter than me, he was missing teeth and wore a dirty white T-shirt and blue sweat pants over his white sneakers. He looked at the woman, then looked at me. He had a bizarrely playful look on his face.

“Hey.” His voice was almost calm. “Trust in JC, am I right?” I didn’t answer, and instead gave one last look at the woman. “Hey, that’s my coat, right? You take my coat?” I looked at the red jacket I was wearing, then back up, and simply shook my head. “That’s my coat.”

I almost answered, but instead just turned away and started walking quickly, not running, away from the cabbage plants, the crying woman, and the bald man. I crossed paths with the men with scary eyes again, and turned right out of the park. I kept walking fast, noticing the other people around me on the sidewalk, just regular civilians, realizing none of them had been in the park. I walked a full block before I turned my head around and realized the bald man was following me. He was only 20 yards back. We made eye contact and he playfully spoke again.

“Just trust JC.”

I went from nervous to downright scared now, and walked more quickly. Was he that woman’s pimp? Was he mad at me for having looked at her? Did I step into his territory? Was he mentally ill? Did he just really like my coat and want it? Or was he just high and curious? I walked faster.

Two blocks later, he was a bit farther behind, but he was still following. I was a mile from the Airbnb where I was staying. This wasn’t going to end well. I came on a new block and realized I was passing a business. I stepped inside without looking, and realized I was in an ice cream shop.

The shop was empty except for a small Asian girl working behind the counter. She greeted me, and I approached a bit nervous. As she described their unique ice cream methods, I felt myself begin to calm, and then I heard a tapping behind me. I turned around and saw the bald man standing right outside, tapping his hand softly on the glass. He was staring through the window right at me and wanted my attention. What kind of fucking Stephen King nightmare was this?

I turned back to the Asian girl, and told her how the man was following me, and how maybe we should be ready to call the police. She couldn’t be more than 17. She looked over my shoulder at the man, then smiled reassuringly. “This is a sketchy area sometimes. I don’t think he will come in.”

“No, but I have to go back out at some point.”

A few minutes later, I sat at the table, eating a scoop of mango ice cream that I didn’t even want, and tried to avoid the man staring at me from outside. There were no other exits that I knew of. How was I going to handle this? I opened up my phone and began to Google the Canadian police phone number. There was no way I was walking out there.

When I looked back up from my phone, the man was gone. I waited ten minutes, then wandered up to the window, wondering if he was around some corner. A mile was a long way to walk with someone after me, and I’d been mugged pretty badly once before (back when I was a Mormon missionary in Philadelphia). Instead, I summoned an Uber. The car pulled up within two minutes, and I rushed outside and jumped in, my heart thudding in my chest.

Twenty minutes later, I called my boyfriend to tell him what had happened. Knowing me far too well, he responded simply.

“Huh. That’s scary. I’m glad you are okay! But I bet this will make one hell of a blog post.”