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 this four-part series, she whisks us to the start of her fascination with fear…to her childhood in her southern Colorado hometown.
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut . . .
—Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House, 1959
As a child, I was the classic scaredy-cat; in some respects, I still am.
And yes, I’m afraid to admit it. It’s embarrassing, and I hate to embarrass myself, especially in public. But it occurs to me that, in part, I write so much about fear and its structural forms in public and private institutions because I have so often been afraid.
It’s not my dilemma alone. Along with many individuals and families, the lives of entire societies may in some measure—and never to good end—be distorted, manipulated, even dominated by fear. The inevitable results are varied combinations of repression, displacement, brutality, and tragedy. How is it possible, then, not to be done in, led astray, or paralyzed by fear, but rather be usefully transformed by it in more imaginative ways?
In lieu of an answer, I have a story to tell.
In the 1950s and 1960s, as a child growing up on the southern Colorado plains just east of the front range of the Rockies, I was tormented by frequent, sometimes repetitive, nightmares and an abiding fear of the dark. I imagined disturbed men with vacant eyes crouched by outside doors, looking for ways in. Occasionally I sleepwalked, sick with apprehension when I awakened to find myself standing outside in the front yard or in some other part of the house, having unconsciously opened and closed doors to get there. I lived in heart-thrumming dread of the unlit emptiness at the bottom of the narrow stairs to the cold basement and the gloom that pooled each night outside my bedroom window.
Much of my fear was anchored in my family’s struggles with our individual and collective demons and disillusionments—and with the confusion produced by whiplash shifts between happiness and hurt. There were other factors, too. I was haunted by whispers of “what happened to Bobby Greenlease.” A six-year-old boy from Innocent Child Land—probably a local kid I thought at the time, but actually from a well-to-do Kansas City suburb—Bobby was kidnapped in 1953, held for ransom, and killed anyway after it was paid. My folks made it clear that careless, disobedient kids might well suddenly vanish into strange cars, the ether, and death. And just like Bobby Greenlease, we would have brought it on ourselves.
Fear didn’t have to be plausible to colonize my imagination. It had only to promise something bigger than me, surprising, and awful; to reinforce my secret terror of inconsequentiality by shattering anything that made me feel safe, special, or good. Sharks, for instance. Long before Jaws began its relentless swim across America’s movie screens, and despite growing up in a landlocked, semi-arid, overgrazed prairie, I dreaded the unseen presence of sharks. I told anyone who would listen—a rapidly dwindling audience—that most shark attacks occurred in less than three feet of water (not true, but I thought it was then). A budding Cassandra, I repetitively sounded the same warning: Danger is Always Closer Than You Think and Will Almost Always Drag You Under When You Least Expect It.
To illustrate: one summer night my dog Trixie, her nose pressed to the window screen, awakened me with frantic barking. Groggy, I tried to hush her and found myself staring into the unblinking eyes of a peeping Tom standing outside the window, only inches away. Screaming bloody murder, I sent my father and the perpetually splenetic man next door—a pest exterminator—into the driveway in their boxer shorts, both brandishing guns. Police never found the guy, probably because he’d already taken up permanent residence in my psyche. Even now, whenever I am alone at home and look out a window at night, I half expect to see his eyes looking back at me.
Even so, roughly between my eleventh and fourteenth years, I arose from my bed well after midnight on occasional Saturday mornings in the late spring and summer. Throwing off the pajama top that covered my t-shirt and still wearing jeans, I shoved my feet into red canvas Keds, and sneaked out of the house. A chum spending the night—not always the same girl—was always in tow; once there were three of us. And for two or three hours, blessedly unsupervised, we disappeared into darkness.
In the wee small hours, everything is in some way familiar and evocative of what is already known. Yet nothing is the same. The earth relaxes and reimagines it all. The darkness reveals unseen aspects of itself that are rendered invisible or incomplete in the light of day. The terms of daytime logic are often so narrow; there is incessant effort to whittle things down to size, to manage them, to set them in orderly rows and arrange them at predictable right angles. But in the dark, things are not managed; they are only encountered. Nothing is linear, fixed, or certain. Shapes and textures constantly transmute into that which is almost...but not yet...recognizable. Under the slow movement of granite clouds in a moonlit sky, everything rearranges itself in almost imperceptible ways. These are the trickster hours, necessarily disrupting the ways most of us usually experience the world.
Trees no longer simply line the streets; they loom, huge and indistinct, and their branches vanish into a vast, indigo web. But who or what created that web? Houses—stucco, vinyl-sided, wooden, and brick—recede into the gloom, save for an occasional muted light behind a curtained window, almost invariably only one. Who is awake at this hour, and why?
Such earthy forms of alchemy stir curiosity and invite intriguing questions that are never spoken aloud, either by children or adults, or even fully formed in the moment: What is this? Am I seeing what’s really here? Or only what I want to see? Is there something out here that I am afraid of or refuse to see? Deep shadow is often disorienting; it feels intensely alive and vital even as it amplifies loneliness and uncertainty. It provides hiding places for whatever a person would rather not know while simultaneously offering the possibility of examining what is tucked away in those places, out of sight and out of mind.
But I did not understand that then.
Stayed tuned for part 2 of this series, in which Kay Whitlock takes us with her more deeply into the darkness and shadow of her hometown streets.
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.
About the Author
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.