Fear, uncertainty, and discomfort are your compasses toward growth.
– Celestine Chua
Have you ever checked the shower curtain for hidden murderers?
When you’re all alone at night and the landline rings, does your heart race à la Ring?
Do you avoid looking in the bathroom mirror at night, and God forbid, saying his name thrice?
To this day, I won’t let my feet dangle off my bed when I sleep.
Better to be safe …
The slasher scene that is branded in my memory comes from the original Nightmare on Elm Street. A teenage girl, innocently soaking in the bathtub, is sucked down the drain into the hell of Freddy’s world. I’ll never forget a bath I took in 5th grade. The preview for the sequel flashed on the television screen (we had a small t.v. in our bathroom). I jumped out lightning fast, dripping wet and scrambling down the hallway.
It’s not that I hate on psychological thrillers. It’s hair-raising fun to turn the lights low, jump at every off noise, look through the cracks in my fingers, and let out blood-curdling screams. It’s safe fear, and the reason why so many of us head to the theaters for scary movies. When your skin is laced with goosebumps and your breath is missing from your lungs … those are dollars well spent.
I’m not overly fearful. I hustled through miles of cornfields heading to campfires in the boondocks. I came of age in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Granted, I grasped my besties’ hands for dear life, shrieking when our guy friends jumped out of the corn stocks, saying Malachi, Malachi.
But Freddy Krueger, that monster … he messed with my brain … long-term.
Or maybe it was just Donna.
I was unsuspecting. She came into our lives the summer after my stay-at-home mom starting working again. I don’t blame her for returning to work – hell, I’m a working mom.
On a bright summer day, in lieu of the neighborhood pool, Donna turned on HBO. She was dialed into her eighties-ness and itching to watch Nightmare on Elm Street. I was not a scary-movie virgin. I’d seen Ghostbusters, Jaws, and Gremlins with my dad. I was not a scaredy-cat.
But I was only 9 and this was a whole lotta wrong.
I remember the gore, the blood, the body in the bag. I blacked out none of it. It was horrifying.
Donna wasn’t particularly bright, but as soon as the movie ended she knew she mucked. She quickly backpedaled, making the situation much much worse. Her words shot to my soul and nailed the coffin shut: “Don’t tell your parents, or Freddy will get you when you are asleep,” she said.
My peaceful sleeping (and dreaming) shattered in that moment.
The movie targeted sleep, something everyone has to do … sometime. Whether I wanted to or not, I had to go to bed. Eventually, I would fall asleep.
Yet, Freddy’s purpose is to stalk you in your sleep. And when you see him, well, you … die. That’s right, you die!
Sleeping … you know the daily routine you spend 6 to 8 hours doing to maintain wellness and sanity. I was petrified of closing my weary eyes. What if he showed up in my dream? What if Donna was right? I dared not to chance it. At least not … alone.
There’s a major difference between scary and psychologically-scarring movies: In scary movies, you jump and scream at the images. The fear may linger a few days, months even, but then it’s over.
The other kind, well … those effects are not temporary.
My fear was far more serious than jumpiness at a slammed door or the need to use a nightlight. My phobia was a steadfast and continued avoidance.
Of sleeping. Alone.
For ten years, I begged my sister to sleep in my room. “I’ll teach you French,” I persuaded my nine-year-old sister. “Yes, you can wear my new rugby to the basketball game,” (even though I just bought it yesterday at T.J. Maxx). Anything, so she’d sleep in my room. The nights she shot me down, I’d crawl into my parent’s room and curl up on their fainting couch, or army crawl onto my sister’s lower bunk bed, praying she wouldn’t notice.
I tried to brave it alone. I swear.
I’d make it until around midnight (that witching hour!) and the wind would force a few tree branches to hit my bedroom window. The image mirrored Freddy’s razor fingers. His deformed face, the striped sweater, would pop in my mind’s eye. The tree branches looked like razors to my fear-filled mind. My heart would pummel out of my chest and I’d tear into my sister’s room, picking the lock with a hairpin I used to curl my hair.
Some nights I’d start to tumble into la la land, but before I succumbed, the haunting chant would run through my brain. If you’ve seen the movie, you may remember. If not, it’s a doozy.
One, two, Freddy’s after you; three, four, better lock your door; five, six, grab your crucifix; seven, eight, never stay up late; nine, ten, never sleep again.
As soon as the chant started I’d panic, and flee my room to the safety of others.
My parents knew something was wrong … very wrong. They tried everything to no avail. I was relentless. I was tossing a frustrating wedge in their marriage. I knew my behavior launched fights, but I could not divulge my inability to sleep alone.
Donna marked me, and I was not going down because of it.
Naturally, my parents were concerned when I left for UW-Madison for college. It was 3 hours away. My safety net was vanishing. What rash decision would I make in the middle of the night? Or rather, what frat boy would I sleep with so I wouldn’t be alone that night?
But college passed without a hitch. There was always a friend around at night – roommates, dormitory neighbors, my cousin. And I was a pro at making damn sure I was never sleeping alone for the night. I evenly manipulated situations to ensure someone stayed with me – even when I lived in France my entire junior year of college.
On an alternative winter break in Washington D.C. my senior year, I opened up to two girls over double v + t’s. The time had come to free myself.
They sympathized with their own damaged-goods’ stories.
It felt good.
I returned home and told my best friend.
The weight was lifting.
I thought talk therapy was enough. I don’t need real therapy, I told myself. I’m working this out, organically. After all, I was not scared during the day, only as daylight faded and bedtime approached.
Boy was I wrong. It’s like telling a hoarder to just clean up, an anorexic to eat. I was over the edge.
Two months after I graduated college, I moved to Dijon, France. I had a job with the French government to teach English for a couple years.
That first night in France ripped me apart. The chair was pulled out from underneath me. I was alone, for the night, in a dorm room. Everyone I knew and loved was an ocean away, and I had no coping mechanisms. I had no one to sleep near for the first time in my life. I was petrified, panicking. I slept maybe an hour.
Tu vois, I landed in France with no housing. I had one week to find an apartment, as the dormitory was available for one week only. All of the apartments I found were single rooms. On the outskirts of town.
My fear folded on me.
I panicked BIG.TIME. and left for home within the week.
My parents were dumbfounded. It was time to fess up to my parents. It was the first time I spoke of Freddy to them. My mom was outraged and horrified (Donna was recommended from the local high school), but in a sense, relieved. She finally understood the root of my fears.
It’s fine, I announced to my parents. I’m going to move to San Francisco.
No. No, you’re not. You’re going to stay in Green Bay and see someone. My wings were clipped. They grounded me to my hometown. I did not protest (much) because I knew I was not functioning normally. I was haunted. My irrational fears were crippling my eyes-open dreams. Freddy was tearing at my in the daylight hours.
In my early twenties, I met a therapist I could trust. Why? She had Tootsie Rolls and a non-threatening approach. And she reeled me in with her personal horror story. She revealed how in the middle of the night, while she was sound asleep, she woke to someone standing over her, about to hit her with a hammer.
That really happens? I was floored. At that moment, it dawned on me, Freddy is in my head. All of this is in my head. He does not get to have my head. I am responsible for what I keep in my head. Nothing had happened to me – in reality.
She set me on a course of systematic desensitization, a graduated exposure therapy. First, I sat on my parent’s front porch alone at bedtime for five minutes and slowly, ever so slowly, graduated to spending an entire weekend alone at my parent’s house.
Her method worked, breaking Freddy’s chains.
In the end, I lived alone (slept alone, mostly – I was often with my husband, then boyfriend) in Chicago for two years.
I still get goose-bump glimpses and have lingering night terrors, but the crippling fear of Freddy is dead.
Do you have an horror-movies that have stuck with you?
P.S. My mom fired Donna one week after I watched Freddy, one week after she started. Donna had hit on my dad in a brazen way. Apparently, she made other poor choices.