Sleep with the Lights On

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I’m normally indifferent to strange noises in my house, but after watching a scary movie I suddenly think every unidentified creak is an approaching race horse. I consider Seabiscuitto be a horror film because I’m freaked out by any animal with only one toe on each foot. Most “scary” movies aren’t that frightening on their own. If a monster pops out of a closet or an underdog thoroughbred comes from behind to win, I might yelp or pee my pants a little, but I have exactly the same reaction to bills. That’s why I wear adult diapers when I get the mail. It’s the twisted path my imagination takes hours later when I try to sleep that really frightens me. Humans have a hardwired survival instinct that makes us sense danger even when there is none. I’m more likely to live long enough to pass on my DNA if I’m unnecessarily paranoid when it’s safe than if I let down my guard when there really is a pony right behind me. Even truly awful horror movies succeed at reactivating my primal, subconscious inclination to be afraid of the dark. That’s why I’ll be watching Sesame Street until Halloween is over.
If people spent thousands of years riding around on me, I’d probably be filled with murderous rage, too.
Not all horror movies terrify me. I love zombie flicks because they’re less about supernatural scares than they are about applied logic. The shambling undead aren’t some invincible evil that always hovers just out of sight; instead, they’re obvious, slow-moving problems that are best solved with a shotgun. If you and the monster have an equal opportunity to kill each other, that’s not a horror movie; that’s a war, and those are awesome. Every man who watches a zombie movie spends the entire time thinking about what he’d do if he were lucky enough to find himself face to face with the undead. My current plan involves sniper towers and a moat. I just need to find a way to distract my wife when I put the backhoe rental on our credit card. If I had an adequate fortress finished in advance, the zombie apocalypse would be a safe, fun time to loot and ignore local gun control laws. That’s why I watch George Romero’s classics with my 3-year-old. Ghoulish hoards make for a good time suitable for all ages. Netflix should list those movies in the home improvement category for all the defensive upgrades they inspire.
I’d fill the moat with Jell-O. The zombies would sink in it and get stuck, and if there were none around I’d have something to snack on.
I watch zombies tear apart random pedestrians with the same detachment I feel toward a nature show about a lion that eats zebra. It’s nothing to get worked up about because it’s all part of the natural world. Ghosts are a different story. Movies about evil spirits make me want to sleep with a nightlight on, despite the fact I’m absolutely convinced all apparitions are entirely fictitious. People who claim they’ve experienced a real haunting are delusional, especially if they think a supernatural force moved their stuff around. With multiple people and animals in my house, I’d be more frightened if something stayed exactly where I put it. If someone else didn’t move the object, I most likely did it myself and then forgot about it. Years of drinking and parenthood haven’t exactly helped my memory. When the remote ends up in the bathroom, that doesn’t mean a ghost put it there. It indicates I took it with me to pee because I was afraid my wife would delete those 25 episodes of MacGyver. That mullet was well worth 99% of the DVR’s storage space.
It makes about as much sense to blame a poltergeist for your missing possessions as it does to fault an invisible one-eyed albino space bear. There’s exactly the same lack of supporting evidence for both culprits, making them equally likely. It’s kind of like when the History Channel refuses to believe ancient civilizations were slightly more capable than we give them credit for. Rather than making the wild assumption that the Incas were better at cutting stones than we thought, the network makes the logical deduction that all impressive stonework was done by aliens who came to earth, built a few random temples, and then left forever without leaving any trace of themselves. I put ghost stories in the same category of plausibility.
No one has ever photographed a ghost since they don’t exist. This is my best approximation of what one might look like.
This cold, dispassionate doubt disappears, however, when I watch a horror movie featuring ghosts. Most of the time, I have no qualms about walking through my 100-year-old Victorian home in the dark. Then I see a few minutes of The Shining and suddenly I won’t go into any room without both of my dogs by my side. If the legions of hell do confront me, I suppose my 12-pound canines might lick them until they get annoyed and leave. On an intellectual level, I know watching a movie doesn’t change anything in the real world. Ghosts still don’t exist. That doesn’t stop adrenaline from shooting through my body every time I hear a noise that sounds suspiciously like hooves.
Our house is an easy enough place for my imagination to run wild. On our first night here, a horrible storm and unfamiliar, dark rooms scared my wife and me enough that we refused to go upstairs. Instead, we slept on the dining room floor with the lights on and the TV playing all night, just like normal adults. It doesn’t help that doors in this house open and close on their own. It freaked me out the first time I saw it, but then I realized most of the rooms here are slightly slanted and none of the doors and door frames fit together quite right. Opening a door in one part of the house often creates enough of a pressure difference to cause a door somewhere else to close. It’s not supernatural; it’s physics, which is almost worse. Nothing scares me more than math.
I prefer children’s TV over supernatural horror movies because Big Bird doesn’t activate by biological fear responses in ways I’m powerless to stop. I don’t need creepy movies to inspire my dormant irrationality. I have my family for that. I grew up hearing stories about elderly female relatives who could see ghosts, a fact that doesn’t surprise me given the diminished mental state of anyone unfortunate enough to share my DNA. Instead of an exorcism, most of these people just need medication and a locked nursing home ward. Despite this questionable upbringing, I’m pretty brave when there aren’t any horror films around to put ideas in my head. I don’t have time to worry about imaginary beings. I need to spend my days focused on real threats, like zombies and really fast horses.