It may be a difficult thing to remember when you’re older and the genuine fears of the real world are always somewhere in the back of your mind, but it’s been well-studied that humans enjoy being scared. The rush of adrenaline and the ability to laugh about it later (assuming, of course, that the fear wasn’t justified by something horrible happening) is a wonderful rush and is the reason why horror movies/novels/video games/etc are such a big industry. It’s fun to be scared. It’s even more fun to be able to laugh and reminisce about it afterward.
When we’re young it’s even more fun because our imaginations are truly outrageous. As an adult we might get creeped out by a movie about ghosts, but afterward we’re pretty set in our beliefs that ghosts don’t really exist. As kids, we can go for years believing in a particular ghost story because we have amazing faith in the improbable. We’ll even make up stories and convince ourselves that they’re true. My friend and I used to spook ourselves silly with stories about how my house was haunted by the ghost of a previous owner, despite the fact that the house had only ever had one previous owner and he was still very much alive. It’s an amazing (and sometimes hysterical) trait that children have: the ability to completely make something up and then convince yourself that it is absolutely true.
I can remember tons of stories that used to be passed around when I was a kid, but one of the silliest was a tale we referred to as “the 21 Steps of Death”. You see, I grew up right along the Atlantic Ocean in Nova Scotia, Canada, and along the shoreline of my hometown are several “barracks” locations…that is, the old stone installments that were used by soldiers during the war. One particular area includes a three-story stone building that has been widely used by graffiti artists:
…and the accompanying underground bunker which is set off to the side of the building. The bunker section of the barracks is visible from the ground only by an open rectangle through which two sets of stairs can be seen. Unless it is high noon, with the sun blaring down on top of you, looking down upon those two sets of stairs shows you only darkness below. A frightening image for a child.
And so there were the tales. Those steps, they said, were haunted by the ghosts of dead soldiers. Whichever staircase you took, there were 21 steps in total, and as soon as your foot touched the 21st step you would be whisked away by the ghosts, deep into the earth, to join them in their eternal watch for enemy ships approaching the Nova Scotian cliffs. Every kid I knew growing up believed in this tale. Many times I can remember standing next to those stairs, looking down with my friends, everyone double-dog-daring each other to go down.
What’s really funny about this story is that the main plot point, the number of steps, was complete and utter nonsense. First off, how did we even come up with that number when no one was willing to try going down? Who decided that the number was 21? I’ll never know, but when we finally became old enough and brave enough to actually try going down the steps, we found that there were…18. 18 steps. Even if you counted the ground at either end of the steps, that would still only be 20, and if you counted both sets of steps it would be 36. So where did the number 21 come from? Who knows. Presumably the first kid who came up with the story thought that 21 sounded spooky, somehow. In the end it doesn’t really matter; the point is that for a while, before we became brave enough to debunk the myth, we had a creepy story to keep us mystified.
A kid’s view of the world can be literary gold, should you only take notice of it (or make the attempt to remember back that far). I can remember so many scary stories we had; stories about dark paths in the woods, stories about monsters on the cliffs, stories about what was buried in the empty lot behind my grandmother’s house. We had a story for every locale, every imagined fear, and every misunderstood circumstance. And that made childhood all the more awesome.
What scary stories did you and your friends have when you were kids? Were they in any way based on truth, or were they the completely made-up insanity of kid brains? If you have kids of your own, what kind of crazy stuff have they come up with? Please share!