What’s Scary?

As a horror writer and someone with a natural inclination to delve into nightmares, I spent Halloween thinking about the concept of being scary.

I was sitting at home, waiting for our one trick-or-treater to show up, and my husband fell asleep watching television, so I thought I’d try to scare myself. It started with some innocuous Facebook scanning. I came upon a viral video of a baby that cries tears of joy when its mother sings a particular song. The baby actually smiles while crying, the way a proud parent might, or the way someone might cry at a wedding. Some of the people who commented on the video thought the baby was just especially empathetic to the mother’s emotions, but I didn’t quite think that was the explanation.

happy-halloweenMy cousin commented on the video, saying that the baby was “an old soul.”

That got me thinking. What is an “old soul”? The question led me to the whole idea of reincarnation, and I wondered about souls repeating their time on this earth. What if the baby still possessed memories it could not yet process, and the song triggered them? What if the song, or the ideas it conjured, or maybe the way the woman sang it, had special significance to a past life?

My skin prickled as I continued searching the issue.

I came upon a number of anecdotes of children making strange statements that allude to past lives that ended badly, suddenly, or violently. One girl told her parents during bathtime that she had to be careful of her lady-parts because they got her murdered last time, but it’s okay because she’s here now, and safe. Another video explains the experience of a British couple whose daughters died in an accident. The father was convinced they would come back as twins, and it happened—his wife bore twins. The couple, who had since moved, took the twins to the city where their deceased sisters lived, and the twins were able to point out locations of things they should have had no clue about. They even knew the names of their deceased sisters’ favorite dolls. In another anecdote, a four-year-old boy vividly described his experiences being shot in the throat as a soldier during the World War—and just afterwards, his abnormal and bothersome throat tumor disappeared, baffling the doctors. Videos like this, in which children know of people and facts from a past life, are prevalent in a simple search, and in the U.S. and Europe, the families in the videos are ones that had not ever considered the idea of reincarnation.

If you search for stories in and near Sri Lanka, where belief in reincarnation abounds, you’ll even more stories—of children knowing facts that they shouldn’t know, being able to navigate to places they’ve never been, being able to identify “themselves” in photographs, and having conversations with adults at a level of diction they shouldn’t be able to use at such a young age. Some children even refer to their parents from a past life as “my real mother” or “my real father.”

In all these cases, the memories so vividly described by the children disappeared by the time the children turned eight—and usually by age six.

Such mystery is the kind of thing that scares me—things that are inexplicable and provide us a glimpse of a world beyond the mundane. When there’s an element of humanity in a monster, the monster becomes—well, human. Frankenstein’s monster was able to arouse sympathy in the readers and was only scary to the crazy townspeople, not the reader. Dare I say it? Edward Cullen, a vampire, was anything but terrifying because of his human attributes (okay, not terrifying in the normal vampire way!). R2D2 and C3PO are robots, but they’re friendly and flawed—making them human and likeable. They are not scary. Heck, even Darth Vader becomes human in the end.

What scares us are things that offer a peek at the unknown—inhuman things, or things that challenge the archetype of humanity. Aliens from distant planets that can read minds, or stories of psychopaths and dolls-come-to-life with no human qualities or balance, but rather a one-track mind to murder. Stories of humans replaced by body snatchers—the idea that someone can look familiar to us but, indeed, not be human—these are the most terrifying of all.

It must be equally terrifying for a parent to discover that their own child seems to have a life foreign and unfamiliar to that of the family, or to a child. But there also must be something comforting about that—the possibility that if a life ends badly, there is the chance at another. And indeed, as some encounters show, the children express having had a choice about who their new parents would be.

To me, there is a more terrifying tale, one that offers no choice. Ghost stories that suggest the possibility of being trapped in a world of limbo, or stories of fate (like Oedipus Rex) that suggest our lives might be out of our hands. For me, that idea—that we might have no control in our lives—is the most frightening. In my horror novel Faulkner’s Apprentice, the protagonist struggles the whole time against the idea that forces beyond her control have already planned her destiny. Such a thought terrifies me. What makes us human is our ability to make decisions and control where we go—at least to some extent—in our lives. The thought that there are forces out there controlling us and pulling us down a certain path seems sinister to me. It’s why government conspiracy theories are so fascinating yet so terrifying. It’s why voting for the lesser of two evils seems so scary to me—the absence of true choice, of giving up my power to an elected official.

By the end of the night, I realized Halloween isn’t so scary after all. Choosing a costume, choosing candy, choosing what movie to watch, whether to carve a Jack-0-Lantern, how to spend my evening—these activities all affirmed my humanity, my freedom of choice. It was a pleasant evening that ended with a bit of left-over trick-or-treater candy. Yes, everything within my home and within my evening were things that happened by choice.

Yes, the terrifying things in this world are those that happen beyond my control, in closed meeting rooms and with sinister intent. But none of that had encroached on my night of research into the spooky. And to make sure of it, I went to bed without watching the news!