Have you ever been out in the woods late at night and seemingly out of nowhere, you feel a sudden gust of fear sweeping up your spine? What is it about the dark and being outside that can give us such an urgent and imposing sense of the creeps? When this happens to me, my rational brain kicks in with it's self-assuring logic: “Calm down, there's nothing in the dark that's not there in the daylight.” “Stop being a baby,” my inner voice says, but nothing the brain argues ever diminishes the urgency of the fright. The Ancient Greeks attributed these late night, outdoor attacks of the heebie-jeebies to the arrival of the God of the Woods who had come sneaking up to see who was trespassing in his domain; our contemporary English language still pays its respect to this deity, the satyr known as Pan, by referring to his terror as “panic.”
When we are in the grip of panic, our nervous system's response of pounding heart, sweating brow, and gasping breath has nothing to do with the realness of the threat; in other words, the body doesn't care if the brain says the source is a false alarm (“Stop freaking out! There's nothing there!”). Once the fear has taken over, the body hits the mute button on the voice of reason. In these moments, it is as if the “hardware” of our brain is not responding to the “software” of our mind. No matter what messages the consciousness gives itself, the physical engines of the brain keep secreting the hormones that holds the nervous system on red alert. Dr. Wayne Dyer, author of The Power of Intention among other motivational books, offers the word “fear” as an acronym for “Fantasy Experienced As Real.” The problem, of course, is when we experience the fantasy as real, our bodies do not distinguish between a real threat and an imaginary one. Once we have crossed the line where our emotional responses take over for our rational ones, we simply have to ride that affective roller coaster until the ride comes to an end and we can feel our minds in control again.
So why do we do it? October is the month when Hollywood cranks out its best horror films, and commercial “haunted houses” open their doors to people who are willing to pay good money to have the bejeezus scared out of them. There must be something fun about getting our bodies to crank up the “fight or flight” response, but what is it? Aristotle suggested that perhaps putting ourselves through emotional episodes of pity, fear, or sadness provided catharsis, a poetic rehearsal of these emotions that allows us to purge these tensions we store within us. Perhaps our most beloved modern horror writer, Stephen King, explains that inviting a little insanity into our lives keeps us from being overwhelmed by it. King writes, “The potential lyncher is in almost all of us (excluding saints, past and present; but then, most saints have been crazy in their own ways), and every now and then, he has to be let loose to scream and roll around in the grass.” This is how we keep our internal monsters under control; we put them on a leash and let them drag us around just long enough to convince ourselves that we have a handle on the situations that vex us.
As a Boy Scout in elementary school, I remember going to campouts on weekends in the fall and listening to ghost stories around the fire. As an adult reminiscing roughly forty years later, I know now that ghosts do not haunt houses nearly as much as their stories haunt our imaginations. One particular story that supplied a gross of nightmares (that is to say 144 of them, right?) before I hit junior high was the story of “Headless Henderson.”
Henderson, we were told around the fire (just twenty minutes or so before we were told we needed to go to bed), was a Boy Scout from another troop somewhere who was awkward and unpopular (which I assume allowed all of us listening to the story to immediately identify with him because who doesn't feel awkward and unpopular when you're ten?). Henderson, so the story went, was constantly screwing up and was the butt of many a practical joke (although many of the scouts in his troop felt sympathy for the poor guy, no one was really willing to befriend him). One night at an annual massive Jamboree (a multi-troop meet up and campout), Henderson decided to screw up his courage and make one final fleeting attempt at popularity. For weeks prior to the Jamboree, Henderson practiced a magic act that he could perform at the talent show held on the last night of the campout. Henderson begged and begged his parents to attend because for once in his miserable life, he wanted his folks to see him do something that would be accepted by his peers. The parents in the story, of course, could not commit to being there, but told him they would try to make it to his big performance. The night of the talent show there was a terrible storm and Henderson kept waiting for his parents to show up, but they never did. He repeatedly asked to be pushed back on the show's agenda so that in case his folks did show up late because of the weather, they could see his performance. Finally, all the other acts were over, and Henderson could wait no more. He had to go on to do his act. Henderson walked out, and although at first there were some rude comments from the audience, Henderson proceeded to perform his magic act and his fellow troopers were stunned. Henderson wasn't just good; he was great. His last magic trick was so awesome, the entire audience jumped to its feet in a loud, boisterous applause. The scouts from his own troop began chanting “Henderson, Henderson,” and soon the entire audience was chanting along. Henderson finally had his moment of approbation.
Just as he was taking in the enormity of being accepted by his peers, Henderson noticed a glowing, white sphere floating over the back of the audience coming up over the treeline. “What is it?” he wondered as he noticed it for the first time. “Could it be the full moon? Had it been there all along?” The white glowing orb seemed to be growing larger or coming closer. Soon everyone in the audience was aware of it as the white glowing mass as it floated over their heads, and the chanting and cheering transformed into sudden silence. It wasn't the moon. It was the ghostly head of Henderson's mother who had died in a tragic car wreck on the way to see her son's performance. When the ghostly head of Henderson's mom reached the stage, and the boy saw the phantom of his mother's severed head, he fell to the floor into a psychotic seizure from which he was never to recover. When the highway patrol discovered the mangled remains of Henderson's parents' car, they discovered his mom's body, but NOBODY EVER FOUND HER HEAD. It was rumored, they told us around the camp fire, that Henderson's mother's head still appeared from time to time at scout camps looking for revenge from any Boy Scouts who had ever said anything unkind to another Boy Scout (which we, of course, understood to be every single last one of us).
After hearing that story, there was no such thing as a flashlight bright enough to stave off the phantom of that floating mother's head in our imaginations. The next day when the sun was out, we could attest that we were not really scared by the story, after all what could a floating, ghostly head actually do to a guy, nibble off an ear? But, in the darkness, lying in our sleeping bags, nobody got up to use the bathroom no matter how many hot chocolates we had ingested before going to bed.
The point to all of this, rhetorically, is that everyone (children and adults) can all be made to modify behavior out of fear regardless of whether or not the fear begins in a realistic threat. This is an important consideration to keep in mind when we are debating with others over a course of action to take. While our experience of a threat may be real, the reasons to respond to a threat may not be as rational as our psychological motivations may be. In other words, as I have stated here before, a threat may offer a good motive to do something, without being a good reason to believe something.
October offers the best time of year to discuss ghosts and monsters so keep coming back for more spooky talk next week. Keep thinking rhetorically.