When I was a little kid, I was afraid of the dark. I never would have admitted this at the time, of course. That would have made me look like a little kid and such a show of weakness would have been completely inconceivable. In particular, I remember the closet in my bedroom, located directly across from my bed and right in my line of sight, and how I had to make sure the door was closed every night when I went to bed. If, in some colossal display of negligence, I happened to turn off the lights and get into bed before I noticed that it was still open, then I was screwed. I couldn’t just close my eyes, because then they could sneak up on me with impunity. And getting up to close the door was right out; moving closer to them would have been playing right into their claws. Nope, I was trapped. For the rest of the night, I would be forced to stare at that hole in space, an event horizon from which light and hope could not escape and which harbored horrors that only a child could imagine.
A small measure of this still afflicts me even today, but at least now I can recognize it for what it is: an overactive imagination trolling a powerful survival instinct. I just happen to be in the (admittedly fortunate) position that my survival instinct hasn’t had much real life experience in what it should really be getting worked up about. In absence of anything useful to do, it goes with what my imagination keeps feeding it. In all honesty, though, there are worse problems to have. I’d rather have a fight-or-flight response that suffers a few false positives than be stuck with one with a dulled edge. We evolved a hair trigger on our thalamus for a reason: it only has to miss one cue of danger to get you killed.
As you can imagine, this means I don’t tend to react terribly well to horror movies. Restful sleep becomes a precious commodity for the next several days. The idea of going out and deliberately scaring yourself has never really made a lot of sense to me. I’m told there’s a bit of a rush to be had from the experience, whether from endorphins or good old adrenaline I don’t know, but I don’t recall ever experiencing anything like that. All I’ve ever gotten for my trouble has been a few sleepless nights.
Even that, though, has been enough to condition me as to how monsters work. There’s always something horrible out there. It could be anything, really. And it’s gonna kill someone, because that’s what monsters do. The first guy to die? He never sees it coming. After all, there’s no such thing as monsters, right? There’s no need to be on guard and no need to prepare because there’s nothing out there after you. It’s only over that first guy’s corpse and all those to follow does the last person have any chance to vanquish the horror and walk off into the sunrise, traumatized but alive. A triumphant victory for the sole survivor and for humanity as a whole, to be sure. But someone always has to be first and that guy never stands a chance.
Stories to the contrary, though, we all know there are no such things as monsters. It’s the armor that our rational minds clad themselves in every time the lights go out. The reach of humanity has spanned the globe with nary a discovery of werewolves, vampires, demons, or the even more exotic terrors borne of the human imagination. It’s a great big world full of… the mundane.
And that’s why we really keep telling horror stories, again and again. It’s not because we need to keep our survival instincts sharp; frankly, most of us will never need them. It’s because we want them to be true. We want the monsters and the darkness to be real because if they are then maybe the heroes and the light are real too. We want there to be wonder left in the world, something beyond the crushing banality that confronts us every day. We want to believe.
Or maybe that’s just me.