When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I was just starting to get into scary stuff. I had always been a bit of a wuss (it took me about twenty tries to get all the way through Pinocchio because Monstro the Whale scared the bejeezus out of me), but at about this point in my life I was just starting to appreciate the thrill that came with being scared. I was starting to read books like the Goosebumps series, and on Friday nights I would watch Are You Afraid of the Dark? on YTV. Often I would freak myself out, sometimes even giving myself nightmares, but I also loved the feeling of being scared, the giddy thrill.
At this time in my life my grandparents still had their cabin out in the middle of the woods. It was a modest cabin on a nice lot of land, and often our entire family would go out for days on end; we would cram aunts and uncles and cousins and family friends and sometimes even pets into a three-bedroom deal with one toilet and now that I’m thinking of it, was there even a shower in that cabin? It was crowded and half falling apart, and often we would arrive to find that a bat or a small family of mice had taken up residence while we’d been away, but it was awesome and we all loved it.
To one side of the cabin property there was a small mobile home, an older model with only one bed. It was permanently parked there and sometimes a couple of the adults would use it to create more space when there were too many of us staying at the cabin all at once. As kids, my cousins and I loved this little trailer because there were just enough trees between it and the cabin that we felt like we were in our own area, free from our parents, camping all by ourselves out in the big, bad woods. We would have little adventures in that mobile home, and because I was starting to get into this idea of purposely scaring yourself (see how I brought those two subjects together?), I would often imagine that when we were in there we were surrounded by monsters or wolves or zombies. It gave me a little thrill, even though I knew I was perfectly safe and that my parents or my grandparents or my aunts and uncles were very near by.
One particular night, some of my cousins and I were playing in the mobile home. As previously mentioned, I was about 8 or 9, which means that Tommy was the same; Leah would have been 11 or 12, and that would make Matthew about 5 or 6. The four of us were hanging out in the mobile home, all piled together on that one bed, and for the life of me I can’t remember what we were doing in there, but we were having a blast. It was getting dark outside and we were just enjoying having our special little place in the middle of the woods.
Then Matthew said something about seeing someone walk past the window above our heads. We completely ignored him because he was the young one, and the young ones never get listened to, am I right? A few minutes later he said the same thing again and I remember we were all like, “Matthew, shut up, geeze. Don’t be a baby.”
We continued on, ignoring the young one, as older ones tend to do, and then suddenly Leah heard something…a scratching noise. If I’m remembering correctly she ignored it the first time, but the second time it happened she shushed us all. And we heard it too. Every couple of seconds, a scritchy-scratchy noise against the side of the trailer. It brought to mind images of something with claws – coyotes were common in that area – pawing at the outer walls, trying to find a way in.
Here’s where nervous denial began to set in, because earlier in the day another of my cousins – Billy, who is the same age as Tommy and I – had gotten mad at us for some reason or another and stormed off. We anxiously assumed that it was him, trying to screw with us. Leah shouted out a couple of times for him to cut it out, that he was being a jerk. There was no response except for further scratching, which was now growing in intensity and seemed to be coming from multiple directions at once. There was no way Billy could be scratching the right side and the left side of the trailer at one time, we reasoned. Now we were getting really nervous.
The childish imagination is an amazing thing. All of a sudden there were a thousand possibilities running through our minds. What was out there? Why was it bothering us? Could it get in? Why did it want to get in? Where the heck was the rest of our family? Surely one of the adults would have noticed if something had approached the mobile home…right?
It seemed like hours passed as my three cousins and I glanced nervously from wall to wall, window to window, from one to another. And then the scratching suddenly…stopped. We glanced at each other, and for whatever reason our gazes all gravitated toward the same thing all at once: the door knob. I’ll never forget the three things that happened next…
Leah nudged Tommy and asked, “Did you lock the door?”
Tommy gulped and replied, “I think so.”
And then the entire trailer shook with an earth-shattering BANG! as if it had been hit by a semi truck.
To say that we reacted poorly might be a bit of an understatement. I have vivid recollections of Leah and I screaming for our grandfather, while Matthew cried for his mother and managed to shimmy his way up on top of my and Leah’s heads, and Tommy turned white as fresh snow and very nearly passed out. The decibel levels in that trailer nearly reached critical mass, and I’m sure each of us came as close as any young child ever comes to having a full-on heart attack.
A moment later the door opened to reveal our grandmother – who was practically in stitches – and our aunt, lamenting that she’d broken one of her nails whilst scratching the trailer. It took my cousins and I half a moment to realize what had happened, and half a week to forgive our relatives for nearly sending us all into coronaries.
But here’s the thing: as mad as we were at the time, and as difficult as it was to calm the panicked racing of our childish hearts, it has been one of our favorite stories to recount for the past decade and a half. The tension was so real, the terror so visceral, that I’ve never had any problem picturing the event just as it happened, even though it was years and years ago. I’ve even occasionally dreamed about that night, complete with the heart-stopping panic that accompanied it. That’s the power of fear, and it’s moments like this particular event that make me want to write horror. I don’t want to gross people out, or give them cheap SUPER-LOUD-NOISE! jump scares like so many of the horror movies of today. I want to scare. I want to make people’s skin crawl. I want to make my readers feel uncomfortable sitting in the dark by themselves. I want to make people feel the way I felt as a little kid, sitting in that trailer in the middle of the night, thinking that god-knows-what was about to break through the walls and steal me or eat me or rip me to shreds. I want to give readers that visceral thrill of pure, cold terror.
I think that’s an important part of an artist’s life: wanting to share your experiences, in whatever way you can. My inner child remembers the wonder of fear, the racing heart and ice-like chills, and I want to share that with the world if I can. If one reader someday tells me that I scared them out of their wits, I’ll feel like I accomplished something great.
Do you have any scary memories that stand out in your mind? Scary tales that you can look back on and laugh at? Did you like scary stuff as a kid? Do you enjoy it as an adult? Please share!