For me, it will always be the fright night, the one where Rich and I scared the living daylights out of every child (and many adults) in our Ohio neighborhood. It was definitive proof that when you get into a vendetta with a six-year-old, chances are you’ll end up going way, way too far.
It all started one Halloween when we fashioned a ghost out of an old bedsheet and hung it out the window, twitching it when trick-or-treaters approached our door. “That is so lame,” sneered one six-year-old. Rich bristled; I put on my thinking cap. After that, we upped the chill factor, going a notch higher every Halloween. The kid kept scoffing.
And then, the year he turned eleven, we got him.
Picture the scene. The kid swaggers up to our door and knocks. A headless figure with skeletal hands (me in a pair of Rich’s boots) opens the door and beckons him and his friends inside. In the candlelit entryway, scary music is playing, and there are cobwebs, bats, rats, spiders, and snakes everywhere. Saying nothing (after all, I’m headless) I point to the far end of the room, where we’ve placed the dining room table, draped in black. On it sits a large box labeled “Really Good Candy!”
“That’s Rich in the headless costume,” the kid says scornfully as he slouches toward the table. “Like we’re impressed.”
And then he lifts up the box and sees what's inside.
We'd pulled the two halves of the table apart, and Rich's head, poking up through the gap, is made up like a ghoul, blood dripping from one corner of his mouth. The kid screams and leaps so high I am sure we'll have to scrape him off the ceiling. When his feet return to Earth, he runs shrieking out into the night.
Word went around like lightning, and soon groups of trick-or-treaters were lining up on the lawn, waiting their turn to be terrified. That night we passed into neighborhood legend, establishing a benchmark for fear and horror that has stood for twenty years.
“The only way we’re going to get through this October,” I remarked to Rich, “is to think of it as a month-long haunted house.” Because let’s face it, we all know that horrifying things are going to keep leaping out at us at every turn. Between the pandemic, run-up to the election, wildfires, looming economic collapse, civil unrest, and climate change, I blanch and tremble every time I glance at the headlines. Clearly the best we can hope for is to stagger into the first weeks of November gasping for breath, nerves shattered, stunned to find ourselves still among the living.
They say in the future this year will become a catchphrase; we’ll say things like “How was my day? Beyond horrible. A total 2020.”
To distract and entertain us as we soldier on, our local newspaper is holding a contest to see who can write the best six-word memoir of the pandemic. If you’re not familiar with the six-word-story genre, it is usually (probably inaccurately) attributed to pals betting Ernest Hemingway he couldn’t write a novel in six words. He allegedly scribbled this on the back of a napkin:
For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.
Whether or not that ever happened, countless other writers have stepped up to the challenge.
It’s behind you! Hurry before it
- Rockne S. O’Bannon
Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?
- Eileen Gunn
Machine. Unexpectedly, I’d invented a time
- Alan Moore
The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.
- Orson Scott Card
T.H.C., L.S.D., D.U.I., C.P.R., D.O.A., R.I.P.
“Male?” “It’s an older driver’s license.”
The New York Times recently challenged readers to write six-word memoirs about the pandemic.
Eighth hour of YouTube. Send Help!
— Leela Chandra
Bad time for an open marriage.
— Rachel Lehmann-Haupt
Social distancing myself from the fridge.
— Maria Leopoldo
Cleaned Lysol container with Lysol wipe.
— Alex Wasser
Afraid of: snakes, heights, opening schools.
— Michelle Wolff
Numbers rise, but sun does too.
— Paloma Lenz
I wondered if I could come up with a six-word story that captures the essence of 2020. Here is my best effort; you be the judge.
Aughhhh hhhhh hhhhh hhhhh hhhhh hhhhh!
Janet Leigh screamed her way through this famous shower scene in Psycho. After that, she said, “I stopped taking showers and I only take baths. And when I’m someplace where I can only take a shower, I make sure the doors and windows of the house are locked. I also leave the bathroom door open and shower curtain open. I’m always facing the door, watching, no matter where the shower head is.”
Yes, there’s plenty of angst going around these days. And maybe that’s not all bad. Frank Herbert, author of Dune, once said, “People need hard times and oppression to develop psychic muscles.” If so, by now our collective mental brawn could rival young Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physique.
I keep reading articles suggesting we reduce our stress with meditation, communing with nature, and switching to decaf. And that’s all excellent advice. But I’m taking a different approach: embracing the mood of the times and steeping myself in ghost tales and horror movies throughout the month. Because really, which is worse — reality or the Hollywood version?
I’m already compiling a list, starting with oldies likeTopper and Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy, progressing through such spine-tinglers as The Birds, Poltergeist, and The Sixth Sense, and finishing with Black Mirror and the reboot of The Twilight Zone. I’m strictly rationing the amount of news I absorb each day (twenty minutes max!), but I figure this programming will keep my mood in perfect sync with everyone else’s. Except I have the luxury of knowing I can fast forward through the worst parts or shut it off all together if it gets to be too much.
When I was growing up, Halloween was about learning to brave the unknown and handle scary encounters with strangers dressed as monsters. Ohio neighbors told me that after the head-in-the-box year, their trick-or-treating kids walked up our long, dark driveway dizzy with fear and anticipation — and considered it the highlight of the night. But most kids won't get those kinds of thrills in 2020. CDC guidelines warn against activities such as trick-or-treating, haunted houses, costume parties, and hay rides. Instead, responsible parents are organizing small pumpkin-carving and cupcake-decorating parties. This year, we’ve already learned enough about handling scary moments.
Once I came to grips with the idea this October was going to be a horrorfest, I actually grew more cheerful. I like to face things head on. When I was little, my mom went overboard trying to shield us kids from the harsher realities of life, and all too often I felt a worrying disconnect between what I observed and the prevailing narrative. I learned that “I’m delighted your grandmother is coming for a long visit. It’ll be fun!” was code for “Nightmare! Where’s the sherry?”
We have plenty of fright nights (and days) ahead, but on the bright side, the year only has three more months to go. And the odds we'll survive October are pretty good — considerably higher, in fact, than those of the clueless teens in Friday the Thirteenth, anyone falling asleep during Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or customers of the Bates Motel. We are a very resilient species, and we live, learn, and grow through hard times. As a six-word memoir by a writer known as mcavanagh puts it:
Fell nine times; got up ten.
What six words reflect your 2020 experiences? What are you anticipating in the weeks ahead? How are you clinging to hope and sanity? Let me know in the comments below.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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