By: John Carlson—
A good scare always gives me perverse pleasure.
That explains my love for Halloween, with its flying witches, flickering jack o’ lanterns, and moon floating behind ominously scudding clouds. This is even though, at heart, I am a true chicken.
My younger sister, Patty? Not so much. Remember back when the movie “The Exorcist” came out? She was in high school then. As long as that movie was in the theaters, her social calendar was booked. She would accompany friends afraid to go by themselves to see what, at least back then, was generally considered the scariest movie ever.
The music was spooky. The story was spooky. And as for its young star? Viewers were first confronted on screen by that sweet little girl named Regan. But only forty-five minutes into the movie, Regan was spooky, too, walking around like an upside-down spider, breaking necks and spewing priests with green stinky stuff. Plus she had a complexion that a gallon of Teen Formula Proactiv-Plus couldn’t clear up. And why? Because without even knowing how, she’d pissed off Beelzebub. The really scary implication was, if a sweet kid like Regan could do that, any of us regular jerks could do the same, and get possessed by Beelzebub, too.
But watching all this, my kid sister only laughed.
Patty must have seen “The Exorcist” twenty times. What’s more, the people who asked her to accompany them were not, for the most part, girls. They were guys. Even some big guys. Back home, she’d regale us with tales of how these he-men-in-the-making, sitting beside her in the theater, cringed and hid their eyes while emitting squeaky little sissy noises.
Her stories always cracked me up. Nevertheless, I had grown up emitting squeaky little sissy noises, too. Recalling one late October night in fifth-grade, I had watched “The Mummy’s Ghost” at my buddy Kenny’s house. It was dark outside by the time the movie ended. Terrified, I sprinted the entire way home in what seemed about two seconds. That’s because it was about two seconds, Kenny’s house being approximately nine feet from mine. If I had encountered Boris Karloff on the way, I would have flattened that geezer like a road roller.
Of course, you outgrow these things, they say. By the time I made it into ninth grade, I was heading outside alone every morning, delivering The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Spring and summer weren’t bad, because the morning sky would be lightening by 5 o’clock or so. Winter wouldn’t be bad either, because up where we lived there would always be snow on the ground, reflecting the cheery glow of the street lights.
But autumn? Autumn sucked.
For one thing, the mornings were black as coal. Worse was that the brittle leaves would be down. It was amazing how those dry leaves, blown along sidewalks or across streets, sounded like sharp claws on critters one would rather not meet, scratching … scratching … scratching …
The most athletic thing I’d ever done was bounce a paddle ball three times in a row before whacking myself in the face with the paddle. But if the Cleveland Browns had watched me deliver newspapers on early autumn mornings, I’d have been the first 14-year-old running back drafted in National Football League history. I figured I ran a forty-yard dash in about 3.9 seconds, with a heavy bag of Plain Dealers slung over my shoulder. The last three houses? Sometimes I’d be back home with the door locked before the papers I’d thrown landed on their porches. Not bad for a kid whose training table included two twin-packs of Twinkies a day.
By the time I got to college I was as big a chicken as ever, but other guys my age were chickens, too, so I felt right at home. I remember one night when my roommate came back from a date, scared out of his wits. Clint Eastwood’s movie “Play Misty For Me” had chilled him to the bone, so he headed to the showers to warm up. Naturally, it occurred to me that a humorous thing would be to sneak into the john, hastily wrap myself in toilet paper, then pop into the shower room moaning “Aarrrrgggghh!!!!” It turned out Allen thought it was funny, too. I could tell by the way he screamed as his knees buckled. For some reason after that, I always suspected he hated my guts.
Later, of course, I became a grown man, married and started a family, figuring my chicken days were finally behind me. Then that jerk Stephen King wrote his novel “Pet Sematary.” It was about dead people and pets returning to life, though they were somewhat the worse for wear, and in really foul moods. It scared the living crapola out of me.
Reading the novel late one night, I was sprawled on my living room couch. My wife Nancy was asleep in our bedroom, ten feet away. Our kids Katie and Johnny were asleep in their bedrooms, ten feet the other way. The doors were locked. The night was quiet. All was right with the world. But before long I started hearing strange noises behind me, so I looked over my shoulder. Read another page. Looked over my shoulder. Read another page. Looked over my shoulder. Read another page, and so on.
This went on for about a half-hour, by which time I was on the edge of panic. Suddenly, out of sight sitting directly behind my head on the couch’s armrest, my cat, Janet Guthrie, emitted one of those hisses cats do, just to remind humans we don’t amount to didly-squat.
I never knew I could hop that high, let alone bound off the couch, around a corner doorway and dive into bed alongside Nancy without my feet touching the ground. One thing I did know, though: From that moment on, I was no longer a cat person.
But that was way back then. Now that I’m an actual old guy, and the scariest thing I can think of is running out of MiraLAX, I am ready for whatever terror Halloween brings me. Maybe. I guess. I hope.
A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three. John’s columns appear on Muncie Journal every Friday.