When I was a little girl I had a strange habit of putting things that frightened me in the freezer. My mom would open the freezer door in the morning to grab some Eggo’s and a stack of cold books would tumble onto the kitchen floor. In third grade I permanently scarred myself when I discovered the demented world of Very Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. The stories weren’t that scary. They were mainly filled with bad puns and cheap scares. What frightened me to my core (and honestly continues to haunt me to this day) are the accompanying illustrations by Stephen Gammell.
When I finished the first book, I moved onto the second, and the third. I couldn’t get enough of the shitty stories and their terrifying illustrations. Every night I would read the stories by flashlight and then run towards the freezer certain that I was about to be ripped to shreds by screaming banshees with wispy, withered, bloodied arms made of vines. I would throw the satanic books in the freezer, slam the door, and run back to my room. I would wrap myself in the comforter, making sure my neck was covered because that’s the most vulnerable part of your body when you’re sleeping. Cenobite hell demons don’t care about your feet…they go straight for the jugular. Even though I no longer hide things in the freezer I still sleep with my neck protected from anything or anyone that tries to murder me in my sleep. Would you want to wake up with an unprotected neck while this lady stares at you?
Recently, I spoke with a therapist about my childhood fears and explained to her that even to this day I think about Grammell’s illustrations and start to feel panicked and sweaty. I recited the stories from the books almost verbatim to the therapist, as a kid I had read them so many times that I didn’t even need to read them anymore. I had them memorized at age nine. My mom had to physically remove the books from our house because I was losing my hair and sleep over them. I was obsessed. My therapist explained to me that this is called ‘mastery’, or self-efficacy. She told me that children who are in car accidents will take toy cars and recreate the accident over and over again as a way to work through their emotional problems surrounding the accident. I was memorizing the books as a way to manage my fear. If I knew what happened on page 22 while I was on page 21 then I was smarter than the book, I knew what was coming and there was no element of surprise, nothing left to terrorize me.
Not even you, demon hell spawn.
After my mom removed the books from my house I became even more obsessed with them. I visited the school library every chance I had to visit my disturbing friends. I knew my life was unraveling and I had to stop. I decided that the books were for babies and I needed something else to occupy my nightmares. The next logical step in my progression of deep rooted child psychological damage? Visiting the ‘crime library’ section of my local bookstore to browse through anthologies of crime scene photographs.
Just your typical fourth grade behavior.
When I finished the last photo book titled, Crime Scene Babies, I moved onto the biographies of Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Green River Killer, and the Zodiac. By the end of the school year I knew more about Ed Gein than I did about long division. My parents never questioned my love of serial killers. Maybe they thought I was going to become an 11-year-old serial killer FBI profiler prodigy? I wasn’t dismembering neighborhood cats or writing in my own blood. I was actually pretty well adjusted, popular, and outgoing. Plus the 90’s were a loosey-goosey time parenting wise. 80 percent of my friends had suffered “Creepy Crawler” mini-oven second-degree burns due to lackadaisical parenting (and exposed heating units.)
Nothing says fun like molten plastic burning through your skin!
Then, one day, on my way home from school, something incredible happened. On the way back to our house we hit a wall of traffic in front of our local ice cream parlor. Only, it wasn’t normal traffic where the cars are neatly lined up, honking at each other’s bumpers. This was the kind of traffic you see in a disaster movie. Cars were turned in every direction. People were climbing onto the roofs of their car pointing and gasping. My housekeeper put the car in park and we all got out to see what was happening. This was the 90’s and things were pretty loosey-goosey as far as riot control goes. In the intersection next to the ice-cream parlor was a circle barricade of cops pointing their weapons and screaming “PUT THE KNIFE ON THE GROUND! DROP YOUR WEAPON!” Dozens of school children and their parents were motionless, jaws dropped to the floor staring into the center of the circle. I was too short to see what was happening. I climbed on top of the car and screamed.
Keep that image in your head while you read the next paragraph.
In the center of the circle was a man. Naked, with paper white skin except for the bright red smears of blood covering different limbs. He had a mane of unkempt flame red hair and was holding a giant, rusty, blood soaked machete. He staggered around the circle of cops, laughing manically and slashing his arms and chest with the machete. It was at once the most awful and amazing thing I had ever seen. When my housekeeper climbed on the top of the car and saw what I saw she grabbed me and told me to close my eyes. She pulled my off the roof of the car and forced me into the back seat.
I was silent for hours. I was trying to process what I had just witnessed. I’d never seen a naked man before. I’d never seen that much blood before. I’d certainly never seen a naked man covered in blood with bright red pubic hair before. The next few days were so surreal. I was up all night with nightmares, I couldn’t shake the image of a naked Ronald McDonald-esque man slicing himself open with a machete while laughing.
After the incident I stopped reading Jack the Ripper biographies on the playground, opting instead to get pegged in the face repeatedly during dodgeball. I was no longer intrigued by stories of mutilated 19th century prostitutes. I had spent so much time mastering all the things that frightened me, preparing for the moment when I would be confronted with something unnatural and revolting. No amount of mastery could have prepared me for psycho bloody fire crotch man.
It’s amazing how something so traumatic can slowly dissipate from your mind. Eventually I stopped seeing his face in my dreams. Over the years he became another page in a crime scene book from my childhood, tucked away into a corner of my brain. Sometimes he pops into my mind when I’m flipping through the index of my most troubling childhood memories. He’s in between ‘parent’s divorce’ and ‘first time I ate okra’ in terms of trauma.
In all my crime scene books, biographies, and Very Scary Stories the tales had endings. The bad guys would end up in jail, or murdered by an angry family member. Save for Jack the Ripper, I knew these monsters could never escape their cells or graves to come and find me. But I never knew what happened to the bloody red head. Did he kill himself in the intersection? Did he lose so much blood that he passed out and was taken peacefully to prison? Did the cops have no choice but to shoot him? Is he alive and well and working at a Quizno’s?
I’ll never know. When he crosses my mind I’ll always feel my hair stand on end and remember the way his crazy eyes darted nervously from side to side. Tonight, before I go to bed I’ll place him in the giant walk in freezer in my head, where he can’t hurt me, or my Eggos.by