The Fearful as Shadow
Return to Table of Contents
A strange thing happened to me when I was seven years old. I can remember it better than what happened, say, five years ago, even though it's been more than forty years now. I grew up in the nineteen fifties and early sixties in Savannah, Georgia. Helen, my mother, was from Savannah, but my father Louis was from Charleston, South Carolina, a hundred miles up the coast, and we used to go there for weekends. I remember one trip indelibly. My parents took me to the old town museum, the eccentric, P.T. Barnumesque one that figures so much in Harlan Greene's Why We Never Danced the Charleston. I was led up the steep stairs and then into its cavernous main hall. There, to the left of the entrance, was one of the museum's major attractions: a display of Egyptiana, left over from the 1920s King Tut craze for all things Egyptian.
At that time it was the only exhibition of Egyptology in the Deep South and my parents managed to pulled me through it, until, finally, we came to the star exhibit, a mummy. I stood thoroughly frozen. I can still remember it: the carved case with its hieroglyphics, its sides replaced with tarnished rods to show the top and ancient underside; then the thing in it. This man . . . a corpse bound in cotton strips, some sheared off to reveal the grim face. Beak nose. Teeth slipping through hide-dark lips. Then, the feet; the wrapping undone at the toes, showing toenails as hard and black as iron, as the flint-dark rods that supported the top of the case. I ran from my father's hand. My mother caught me and made me return to this creature, this long shriveled, nauseating worm turned into a man, turned into the face of death itself; as real as its dried toes, poking through the nightclothes of this long sleep. "It's just a mummy," Helen explained. "Just an old mummy."
I began to throw up. My father rushed me downstairs to the basement men's room and I threw up the egg custard pie from lunch at Morrison's Cafeteria, then the rest of lunch. Daddy was sure that the pie had not agreed with me. He splashed some water on my face and then brought me upstairs again, without taking me into the dark main hall of the museum. I was put into the car, with my head out the window. I retched several times on the drive back to Savannah, then was put to bed. I woke up the next day with a secret that consumed me: I was terrified of something.
It was so huge, vast, and ugly that I could not talk about it. I could tell no one that I had looked right into the face of death, and, without saying a word, it had spoken to me. It had said that that protective curtain between life and death, that remains down for most kids so that they can feel comfortably safe from their own finality, had somehow risen for me. I could not, as most children did, laugh and joke about mummies, dead things, and Halloweeny gross-outs, because I had experienced something at that museum in Charleston, and it had frightened me: truly.
By the age of three, I had lost both paternal grandparents. They had been taken away from me in death; I heard nothing more about them. I had a faint recollection of my father's mother and the house she lived in. Then nothing. Death was something my parent's World War II generation believed that children were not supposed to be included in: certainly not Jewish children in the South, where so much had to be covered up. Bitter race relations; sexuality; the European Holocaust; even the clayish soil under us was still bloody from the Civil War.
So the curtain rose, and that fear in me ascended to flood level. It spilt all over my life. I could not bear cemeteries. Anything to do with death terrorized me. But Egyptian things were the worst. Even into my mid-twenties, I was afraid to wander into the Egyptian sections of museums. Reading about ancient Egypt would make me physically sick. I was delighted to find that my tenth grade world history book began with Greece, and avoided Egypt. Greece, I could deal with. What soon-to-be-gay kid couldn't? But Egypt still gripped me by the throat, returning me to a fear I could barely unlock. Sometimes, though, the fear would play tricks with me. I would find myself attracted to what most upset me. The splendid royal gold and lapis decorations of Egypt I found immensely beautiful. Finally, by my mid-twenties, I began to realize that I was really dealing with my own heightened sensitivities towards death itself. My then-lover's friend, a specialist in Middle Eastern art, informed me that in Egypt they did not display mummies openly the way we did in America. "They're considered corpses," she said. "You don't 'tastefully' display corpses."
Then, suddenly, as if it had only been waiting inside me, I wrote a poem. I was twenty-eight. One night I jumped out of bed and wrote, "Thoth," a homage to the beautiful, ibis-headed Egyptian god of magic and writing. "You have embalmed me with your beak and cock," I wrote. "Stoking each cache with your cracked spice./ How I lie in your winding sheet/ a whiter corner in your light."
I could never approach anything like that before, and now, unexplainably, this horrifying, magical act of embalming the dead revealed a sensual, forbidden aspect to it that had waited, just beyond my own revulsion and nausea--even though mummies would remain objects of great power and complexity for me. But my revulsion towards all things Egyptian suddenly reversed into one of the most intense attractions in my life. I began to seek out Egyptian collections, books, anything that I could learn about the culture. I started to use Egyptian motifs in my writing, and to understand how, within revulsion and fear, there is a huge, latent erotic power. Sometimes the power is right under the revulsion, as in adventurers who get a thrill out of their own fears; they are terrified of heights but start sky diving. Cowering men find themselves with an erection under their sky diving suits. Sometimes the power is overtly mixed in with it, so that you can see the attraction and revulsion together. Bull fighting, where spectators "hate" the gore and blood but go, looking for it. And sometimes it is simply off to one side, waiting. Homosexuality in America certainly has that role. It "terrorizes" a country that is in constant "homosexual panic," while at the same time relentlessly looking for queers and deviates under every rock. When one is found--a married high school principal, for instance, caught in an Internet sting trying to meet boys--people are "shocked." "He looks like everybody else. He was so nice--we've known him all our lives."
Americans are not the only ones with this huge desire to scare the hell out of themselves. Many of the classic tales of horror, such as "Dracula" and "Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde" are European. But American commercialized horror, with its clumsy "stick-in-the-eye" violence, tries to bulldoze the subtle, erotic attractions of horror to the side. One of these attractions is compassion: that the audience will start to find the "monster" compelling; even beautiful. Since "monster" comes form the same root word as "demonstrate," as much as we want to turn away in revulsion, we also want to look, in curiosity, even delight.
But the other attraction is passivity: at some point the "victim" capitulates and allows himself the delights of the dark. In classic vampire stories, he becomes a convert to the vice of the "unspeakable." In sexual terms, this means that he allows his own seduction, which he has been trying earnestly, for the most part, to orchestrate. In the acceptable, closet case story, there is the "Boy, was I drunk last night!" defense. (Meaning: I got drunk to do it!) In the classic horror story, it's: "The monster overcame me, and then I had to submit to it."
This "I didn't want to do it" refrain is a constant aspect of horror--"I did not want to go into that dark, deserted house," the "victim" cries. But by doing it, he gets to chase his own fears all the way down to the very end . . . and find: yes, what he has always wanted. This may be the terribly feared, but strange, passive comforts of death. Or, some forbidden sexual experience that will lay out for him his own personality. Simply enough, it is that old locked door in his own house that he's always wanted to venture into, but was told by Mommy and Daddy never to try.
Innocence is very important in horror, in these stories of the dark. Count Dracula must have the virgin. It is important for a taboo to be trampled on unwillingly. The worldly, cynical man does not allow himself to experience all the subtleties of a real journey into the Unknown. It is for this reason that one of the common themes in horror writing is what I call the "Defilement of the Guest," the innocent who goes in good faith into the dark house and then finds--well, what he really always wanted. One way or another. I have been called a "gay horror writer" (London Gay News said I was a "hero to gay horror fans") as well as a science fiction writer, but the truth is I consider myself more a Symbolist than anything. Like the old Symbolists, I use dreams and the unconscious as the starting points of my material. And from sheer experience, I use my own fears. if I write something that turns me on and scares the poop out of me at the same time, I know that I am on to something. The fact that I had so many childhood fears is wonderfully rich material to start. Although I feel that that heavy curtain that drops for most kids between them and death rose for me, another curtain that, I think, shields kids from their own sexuality also came up.
I remember, as a child, being thrilled by naked flesh: either my own or other boys'. I also knew that this was as forbidden as my other terribly hidden fears. "Regular" little boys were not scared of death; if you'd read Tom Sawyer you knew that. And they weren't attracted to Greek statues, to almost naked Indians in movies, to the wind blowing over their nipples when they took their shirts off. I learned, as many other boys did, that within the ultimate excitement there is a deep fear. In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolfe refers to the heroine, Clarissa Dalloway, as a "monster" of attraction. I remember as a young man being so turned on that my ears burned, the same way they might under extreme fear.
I have written about this twisted helix between Fear and Attraction many times. One gives way to another, unless total violence stands in the way. In the past, that was often necessary to stop the "fascination with the abomination." You had witchhunts, Inquisitions, torture, murder, anything to separate the erotic power within fear: to make fear win.
But perversely, fear does not really want to win. When it does, there is no game or play left within human life. Homophobes will have to keep ferreting out the evil queers, no matter how "pure and safe" we become. Children will have to be protected from what they want more than anything--which is to release their own curiosity. The terrible thing about fear is that it is also afraid of itself, and when it does win, the result is pure misery. Playing in the dark makes you realize how much light there is within the darkness, and how attracted you are to what penetrates in there. Much more attracted than you would be, if there were no darkness at all.
Perry Brass is author of numerous novels that explore the numimnous and mystical through "the dark side." Brass's novels can be ordered through White Crane Journal. See FYI.
Last update Dec 15 2000