By Kay Whitlock
Editor’s Note: Fear—one of humankind’s primal emotions. Nothing rouses fear like perceived darkness and the unknown. From the shadowy recesses of the imagination to the deep of the woods, fear can distort our thinking and our reality, beguiling us to see phantasms and monsters that aren’t there. It can send us running in the direction of safety or entice us with the call to danger and adventure. But once you engage your fears head-on, without aggression or arrogance, you learn more about yourself than you could ever expect and begin to experience perceived darkness on new terms.
Writer and activist Kay Whitlock has spent much of her life inquiring into and writing about the roots of fear and the systems/structures of oppression, violence, and injustice that stem from it. In the third part of her four-part series, Kay’s fears usher her into the realm of the horror story.
This is a mother’s worst nightmare: that without her knowledge, her child, willful and self-propelled or dragged by malevolent others, will somehow vanish into the great Out There, Into the Dark, where Unspeakable Things Lie in Wait. But just before dawn, we always returned home, squeezing noiselessly through the gate and coming in the back door, carefully tiptoeing up four creaking stairs and into my bedroom. There we listened anxiously into the silence for sounds of my mother’s wakefulness that never came.
Mom arrived home from work dog-tired on Friday nights and always seemed to be sleeping deeply on our return, perhaps lost in her own seldom-realized dreams of adventure. Affable Trixie barked only and briefly at strangers or menacing dogs while the cats remained focused on their own comfort. My older sister undoubtedly would have snitched; she and I ratted each other out given the slightest opportunity. But she was always away, spending those nights at somebody else’s house. And my father was never home. He worked the graveyard shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., monitoring gauges and machinery at a pump station for the local water works.
It’s tempting to offer up my dead-of-night traipsing about as a modestly triumphalist tale about “facing and thereby conquering my fears.” But that’s not true. And anyway, however attractively packaged, conquest is always the wrong paradigm, with its simplistic, self-serving storyline of inevitable victory of “the light”—goodness and enlightenment—over barbaric, savage, evil, and death-dealing darkness. Or I could simply say that my experience reveals the wonder and beauty of darkness, disproving the nightmare with which it is so often associated.
But the truth is much messier and far more interesting.
The darkness remains, for me, a carnival-like repository of dread and a shapeshifting source of wonder, knowledge, and beauty that cannot be glimpsed in daylight. In some inchoate way, I have always known this; it’s probably what led me outside. Yet even this explanation feels a bit twee, a perky both/and insight standing in smug opposition to the stern rigidity of either/or. As if the whole supply of possibilities could be contained in that mangy space between such reductionist bookends. Committing to the borderlands that constitute The Dark is a tangled undertaking. The journey does not lend itself to the kind of self-congratulation and pithy sloganeering so beloved by New Agers, self-help gurus, and workshop facilitators; so endemic to organizational fundraising and commodified spirituality; so intrinsic to the crusades and campaigns of demagogues and politicians.
For one thing, that something else wandering about in the darkness is real, unsettling, and it refuses to slink away. When we don’t consciously engage it, someone always bears the terrible brunt of its consequences.
In order to go adventuring in the dark when I was young, it was necessary to leave the house in which I lived.
So long as I stayed within the cocoon of purported “safety”—which is to say, within the familiar, well-defined parameters of home, family, church, and school—my fear was lumpy, undifferentiated, and usually displaced. I could not permit my apprehension to be lodged in what was familiar and commonplace, even though that is where much of it belonged. Symbolized by The Dark, which held Evil and all of the dreadful, unspoken things that could happen to me, fear was comprised of artful, indistinct, and unforeseen sound and movement. The things that suddenly thump against the doorframe, creak unexpectedly on the staircase, scrape and scratch at the edges of closed windows, and exhale softly as they lie in shadowed wait just around the corner.
I employed various stratagems to keep this sense of impending doom at bay. Hid my most cherished thoughts and dreams. Tried to appease angry people whether or not I had anything to do with their rage. Ceaselessly apologized for shortcomings (real and imagined) and, indeed, for my entire existence. Made myself useful to people more popular than I. Sharpened my mind like a knife and conjured great fogs of words to disorient my enemies. Tried, impossibly, to become so good that I could exist beyond reproach. On rare occasion, my pent-up imagination, always theatrical, demanded release and unexpectedly popped like a cork, but everybody explained those moments away as aberrant: “That’s so unlike her.” Any relief these methods provided was temporary; none of them freed me. And so, with no conscious awareness of what I was doing, I began to move toward whatever it was that promised to annihilate me.
Already an avid reader, TV watcher, and moviegoer, I fell easily into the gravitational pull of the Fearful Darkness through story. Sure, it was scary—but also a huge relief. Tales from the astonishing imaginations of Shelley, Wells, Stoker, Poe, Conrad, Conan Doyle, Bradbury, and Jackson, and movies like The Bad Seed and Invasion of the Body Snatchers provided emotional recompense for my fears without actually exposing me to danger. But more than that, hinting at intricate, multilayered understandings of reality, these stories produced fantastical images and symbols that struck a nerve, even if I didn’t fully understand them. I know now that it was never terror I yearned for so much as truth, no matter how slant it was served up.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941 version) told me that goodness and the capacity for violence co-exist in the same person. Other stories revealed that the outward appearance of morality and happy conformity could easily mask lies and the ability to inflict great harm. The menacing aliens in The Martian Chronicles turned out to be us, not them. The monster might be a product of someone’s well-intended but misbegotten machinations, or a symptomatic eruption of society’s folly—Frankenstein, Godzilla, and Them! come immediately to mind. They wreak havoc not because of some intrinsic devotion to depravity but as a result of human hubris; they are Good Intentions gone monstrously wrong. King Kong and The Creature from the Black Lagoon are able to love, but persecuted and abused, they lash out at their tormentors in pain, fear, and rage. In these narratives, traditional storylines of innocence and guilt, good and evil, who is harmed and who harms become hopelessly ensnarled. They can’t be separated out into eternally distinct categories of Good Guys and Bad Guys; it can all turn on a dime.
This discomfiting truth is embedded in many of these classic tales. And every shred of truth turns out to be as disposable as whatever it is that we fear. The monsters of our own creation—and our complicity in their emergence—are almost inevitably disavowed by means of cruel treatment and violently destroyed. No evidence remains that they existed; no set of tracks will be traced back to their creators. We don’t want to remember. The impulse to safety only for self always permits the administration of incalculable pain to others in order to underscore its own vulnerability. But none of the violence deployed to kill the monster produces the absolute security so desperately sought; that is impossible. Many tales of terror end with a somber (and prescient) suggestion that even victory over what scares us is only temporary. Who know what bides its time, still lying in wait, in the shadows, Out There?
Telegraphing the message that the world is far more mysterious and unpredictable than I’d been taught and that safety was never assured, even in the most ordinary and customary places, unnerving stories opened doorways into larger theatres of imagination and exploration.
Stay tuned for the final installment in Part 4, in which Kay comes face to face with…
To be sure you don’t miss an installment of ‘The Haunting: On Fear and Seeing Differently in the Dark’ series, you can follow Kay (@KayJWhitlock) or Beacon Press (@BeaconPressBks) on Twitter or follow/like Beacon Press on Facebook. You can also subscribe to the Beacon Broadside blog email.
Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski, the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana. Follow her on Twitter at @KayJWhitlock.