Fears and the Nightmares We Share
Personal Essay & Interviews
“Can you keep the hallway light on, Mom?” Night after night I’d ask my Mom the same thing as she tucked me in when I was young. “Sure sweetheart,” she assured me after I said my prayers and received her nightly kiss on the forehead. She left and kept a slight crack in my bedroom door. A few seconds later I’d see the hallway light shined in, never too bright, but just enough to keep the boogeyman away.
One night, during a typical Louisianan thunderstorm, the electricity went out. I was lightless; defenseless against the evil and terrifying boogeyman I heard so many stories about. It was my first night alone in the dark and my tiny prepubescent heart raced out of my chest. I shut my eyes tight and tried my hardest to go back to sleep, but the crackling sound of thunder and sharp burst of lightning kept awake the entire night. For a few seconds at a time, the shadows of my stuffed Kermit the Frog and Elmo formed large, monstrous creatures on the wall across from my bed. I was terrified and crawled under my Sesame Street covers for the rest of the night. The stuffed animals I once called friends had become nightmares, scarring me for years.
Being a kid and being afraid of the dark has gone hand and hand for generations. Children, my younger self included, are afraid of what they can’t see and what they don’t understand; dark rooms, strange sounds outside, the “boogeyman.” Fears can spawn from anywhere and anything at a young age or even in our journey through adulthood. These fears attach themselves to us like a nagging parasite looking for a host to thrive on with no signs of ever leaving. Everyone is afraid of something, no matter how big, brave, and bold they may act on the surface.
Fear is “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, or pain, whether the threat is real or imagined.”
I spoke with a few people about their fears and my conversation with Nicole (name changed for the purpose of this interview) was one that stuck with me the most. “Poodles. I have never liked them; from the way they look to the way they are presented in movies,” Nicole said shaking her head. “I think the fear started when I was a child. My Dad has a scar above his left upper lip and out of curiosity I asked him what happened. He told me a story about how his Father, my Grandfather, had a poodle named Jerry. My Dad and Jerry never got along. He told me it was a mean, nasty old poodle and that it was always growling. One day my Dad came home from work and found Jerry peeing on the coffee pot. He was furious and chased the poodle down. The dog flew under the bed and my Dad chased after it with a broom because he finally had enough. He must have poked the broom underneath the bed too many times because the dog jumped out and bit my father’s lips, which lead to him getting 7 stiches, his ‘badass’ battle scar. After he finished his story he told me to watch out because poodles were mean animals and I guess that story has stuck with me ever since. I am now 19 years old and still hate poodles, I won’t jump away and scream when I see one anymore but I will definitely keep my distance out of fear.”
Nicole and I continued to talk for a few more hours and our conversation began to get a bit deeper. “My other fears are time, age, and death,” Nicole said solemnly. “I understand it’s a weird combination, but I start to panic when I think about the three. Every year since I’ve turned 5 years old I’ve cried on my birthday; not because I didn’t get my favorite toy, have a cool birthday party, or because my best friends were out of town and couldn’t hangout with me. It’s because I am completely 100% afraid of death and aging. I sometimes think about the future before I go to sleep and it always ends in me overthinking and stressing about my future. I ask myself if I’ve left an impact on this earth, if people would come to my funeral, and would they have good things to say about me. Then the waterworks start. I’ll end up crying myself to sleep. I don’t want to age because I’m afraid to see what I will look like when I am older and if I will even recognize my child or teenage self. The overall thought of death intimidates me. Where do we go after you follow the light? Is there a heaven? Is there a hell? Will I see my great-grandmother again? That is my biggest fear - not knowing my future and knowing that I cannot control what the final outcome will be.”
Sarah, another interviewee, shared her fear of heights and falling with me. “My parents forced me to go to summer camp right before my sophomore year of high school,” Sarah said with an upset tone already forming in her voice. “On the last day there, the counselors made us all do a high ropes course through the trees. The instructors on the ground told me that at any time I could get off if you got scared, but I guess they forgot to tell the group leaders that once we were more than three stories high. Every time I looked down I thought I was going to die. My parents send me to summer camp and I was going to die! Through each checkpoint I gripped the harness with every fiber of my being. My life flashed in front of me after each passing tree. I was dripping sweat by the end of the course. Our last obstacle was to free-fall on to a safety net. By this point I was already in the middle of my first panic attack; I remember saying ‘fuck it’ and jumping, but the next few minutes after were a blur. I’m pretty sure I passed out mid-air, and woke up thinking it was all just a horrible nightmare. My parent never heard the end of it when I got home.”
From my childhood fear of the boogeyman, to heights, poodles, and the existential fear of life’s biggest questions, we all come across things in our lives that frighten us and keep us awake at night. We may overcome the fear of one thing, but another is usually waiting right around the corner. With that in mind, we should never hide from the things that frighten us. We should embrace them and understand why we’re afraid of them in the first place. Learning about the things that scare us is one big step in discovering more about what makes you, you. Our fears and the nightmare we share connect us in a way that emotion or daydream will never be able to match; and the only way to face them is if we turn off the hallway light.