Written by Jonathan Wojcik
Happy Nightmare Memories
Would you be very surprised or especially unsurprised if I told you I was once a cripplingly terror-prone child? That there was a time when the sight of blood - so much as a speck - would instantly drive me to tears? That almost anything messy and sloppy, from a drooling baby to a pie in a comedian's face, could make me dry-heave with reflexive disgust? That even the cold, raspy narration of a horror film's television commercial made me hide my face from the screen?
I never had to be forbidden from watching mature, violent programming... I would already run from the room when a Crash Test Dummies commercial came on. There were already things in Sesame Street that disturbed me. I was dead certain that a single accidental glimpse of a scary movie would scar my brain with images of sanity-ripping horror; that all R-rated films must surely be indescribable, hellish orgies of meaningless suffering that only adults were biologically adapted to view without spending the rest of their lives in a fetal position.
Forget even trying to look at Freddy Kreuger's scabby visage. Even characters like the Madballs and Garbage Pail Kids would nauseate me to look at until I was a somewhat larger child. I refused to watch He-Man, the Thundercats, G.I. Joe, Transformers or anything else the "big kids" were into, furthered by the fact that every "big kid" I knew rather understandably loved to take every possible advantage of my pathetic sensitivity.
Even through all this, I was already in love with monsters, aliens and gooper-ghosts, but my perception of them was decidedly sugar-coated. I hardly recognized them as "scary" beings, but closer to whimsical, imaginary animals, and even if one of them came close to unnerving me, I'd deliberately reinterpret it as a benign and innocent character.
I'd seen pictures of Giger's alien, for instance, but knowing nothing of its background, I called it "banana head" and drew pictures of it playing ball with E.T. and Yoda. Had I known it gestated in human torsos and ripped its way out, I might have died of sleep deprivation.
I had an action figure of Jabba the Hutt, but having yet to see a Star Wars film myself (my parents even thought it was the same thing as "Battlestar Galactica") I presumed he was a small, friendly baby slug-man, and I named him Brownie, and I played with him like he was a pretend puppy, so you can only imagine how it felt when I was five or six years old and finally saw a tremendous, grumbling "Brownie" feeding people to hole-monsters and sliming all over half-naked bondage slaves.
(Strangely intrigued in ways I didn't yet understand, but ultimately just freaking the hell out)
Weekly trips to the video store were like a free museum of dark mysteries; I didn't dare fathom watching any of those "grown up" horrors, but the cover art to films like Pumpkinhead and Critters 2 delighted me as a steady source of fuel for the imagination...even if that imagination was prone to turning on me.
What I'm getting it with all this lengthy exposition is that every single day, something innocuous scared me senseless...and every single night, I experienced nightmares intense enough to wake me up in a jolt, sometimes full-out screaming and flailing. Sometimes still seeing the spindly, grasping fingers or lidless white eyes following me into the real world for a few fleeting moments that felt sickeningly drawn out.
Was it the waking fear that fueled the nightmares, or the nightmares that made me such a nervous wreck to begin with? It's difficult to say which may have come first but I have a memory of one nightmare dating back very nearly to age one.
In this dream, I was being carried around in what was probably Sears, where I often had to endure hours of insufferably boring, grown-up shopping. This time, however, it was not my mother carrying me, but one of the headless maneqquins that you may have already guessed creeped the hell out of me on those real-world shopping trips. The plastic thing cradled my helpless, nubby baby body like its own child, and it rocked back and forth in an attempt to calm my crying and screaming while a store clerk mindlessly chatted with it, unable to see the thing as I could see it... unable to understand why I was calling for their help.
This sort of "helplessness" came up a lot in my nightmares. I had incredibly attentive (some would say smothering) parents, but most of my bad dreams involved being alone or being ignored. I can vividly remember another from my toddler stage, in which my fingers resembled tree trunks after a beaver attack - dull yellow where the flesh was "gnawed" down. In this dream, I was sitting on a tile floor and shouting for someone to bring me tape before my fingers broke off, which, of course, they immediately proceeded to do, while the faceless adults around me simply went about their business. Even in my most lucid dreams, when I should have had total control, my thoughts only jumped to all the things I hoped wouldn't happen, with the expected results.
Sometimes, I never even needed to be sound asleep to experience terrors that weren't really there. Frail and sickly, I suffered high fevers on an almost monthly basis, and was virtually never off one form of medication or another. Even in broad daylight, I might hallucinate vague, flapping shapes out my peripheral vision, or mundane objects taking on an inexplicably sickening new quality.
In one memorable night terror, I was found running up and down the halls like a trapped animal; to me, every path seemingly blocked off by a looming, black blob with a single bicycle reflector for an eye, their outlines largely hidden in the surrounding darkness, heads almost scraping the ceiling. For some reason, I believed they needed my help with something, but I found that nonetheless frightening.
...And then, like a drug addict, there were the times I would conjure these things deliberately. I know I'm not the only one who would cocoon myself in blankets and imagine there was something or other stalking about the room, hunting entirely by the sound of its victim's breathing or the slightest movement of the covers. For me, these were huge lizards, later adapting velociraptor-like characteristics from Jurassic Park.
There was a hairy, crab-clawed thing that could reach out from under furniture, but only about a foot, making it necessary to always jump in and out of bed.
In the bathroom, for whatever reason, there was an invisible window through which a family of skeletons - a mom, a dad, and a kid - would watch me take my baths and discuss whether or not they should "get" me.
I really miss those days.
As an adult, I still sleep like a trainwreck if I'm stuck sleeping alone. I've spent years at a time living relatively by myself, and every other night transformed into one short, stupid psychological thriller or another.
The problem isn't that I'm still having nightmares, but that the content has gone so downhill.
There are still nights, here and there, when I wake up thinking the ceiling is covered in deadly murderous coral polyps, or something, but more often I just hurtle from bed under the mistaken impression that I'm late for some non-existent job, that there's an imaginary knock at the door with urgent mail or even something as unrealistically bizarre as the whole government shutting down just to stop a health care plan that could genuinely improve the lives of several people I care about.
Is that what being "grown up" means? When you stop seeing shadow-demons slither out from sock drawers and start seeing jobs and politics slither out from sock drawers?