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When I was 5 years old, I thought our apartment was haunted by the spirit of a girl exactly my age who’d been pushed down the stairs and killed by her parents. I thought I slept in her room. I thought she lived in my closet and made the room cold at night.
A year or two later, I believed the spirit of my father’s little sister, who died when she was 7, would try to drown me in the shower. I looked behind myself dozens of times every time I shampooed my hair. I would wash as fast as I could and leap into my towel.
These were scary years. Dead children aside, our family went through several changes. When I was 3 years old, my mother drove the two of us across the country, from Phoenix to Buffalo, to meet the man who would become my father. When I was 4 years old, my mom and new dad married. We moved to nearby Hamburg, N.Y., where it was not uncommon for it to snow 6 feet in one day.
I have one of those hyper-distinct memories of walking behind my father as he shoveled a path. It was like being in a dream or an ice-cube tray. I felt absolute trust in this tall man clearing away the freezing, wet snow. That was the moment I knew I loved him.
When I was half-way through first grade, we moved to Kenmore, another suburb of Buffalo, land of duplexes and Dairy Queens. I felt persecuted by my new teacher, who did not appreciate my creative math skills.
I was bad with numbers, couldn’t tell time with analog clocks and I couldn’t do a cartwheel in the big, echo-y gym, where everyone else threw themselves upside-down so easily. They looked so happy on their hands. I cried on the shiny floor with all the meaningless, painted-on lines. I had trouble making friends.
The following summer, I took swimming lessons at the community pool and one day my mom insisted I approach this one little girl, the daughter of a woman my mom had been talking with. This girl, Angela, who was terrifically alive and hilarious, became my best friend for the next five years.
But I didn’t stop being terrified of death.
Maybe it was the books. I loved reading. I read about a dozen Stephen King novels during elementary school: “Carrie,” “Pet Sematary” (sic), “Firestarter,” “Cujo” – I read “It” three times. I liked the nonlinear narrative. I liked that it was about kids, even though a terrible monster was trying to kill them.
The book that really got to me was “Shadowland,” by Peter Straub. It was the only book I regularly had to put down because I got too freaked out.
Today, I no longer read these kinds of books, nor can I stand movies like “The Ring” or “The Grudge,” although I went through a phase a couple years ago where I would torture myself with this stuff – I even saw that movie with all the talking static – remember that one? “White Noise,” I think it was called – at the theater. Afterward, I was 4 years old again, afraid of the dark. When we got home, I ran from the car to the house and turned on every light.
I used to like that feeling, maybe because it was so familiar. Now, I think I’ve been scared enough. I would rather watch dance movies, where the message is always the Santa Claus-ish, “Just believe.” And the thing you’re supposed to believe in is never some creepy ghost but instead, your own best self.
Anyhow, when I was 13, we moved again, this time to Attica, N.Y., land of the Attica Correctional Facility, land of rapists and murderers chained to lawn mowers, trimming around the tombstones in the cemeteries. Everyone’s dad, except mine, worked at the prison. Mine worked in Buffalo, an hour away, and I would worry every night in the winter, as he forged paths on unplowed back roads with his pickup truck. This was my new fright, now that I had traded in Stephen King for the Sweet Valley High series.
Sweet Valley High books are as non-threatening as they sound. They are short, fast-paced stories of high-school crushes and first cars. Nobody ever dies and you get the sense that if someone did die, they would stay dead.
I think I lived my horror-life backward.
I was supposed to start un-scared. Apartments shouldn’t have been sources of perpetual stress until I had to pay for one. And I should have read kids’ books as a kid – started with stories about Sweet Valley’s pleasant Wakefield twins (each 5 feet, 6 inches tall and a perfect size 6 – a detail included in every single book and the most horrifying thing about them), only later moving on to the adult fiction about rapid, man-eating dogs and child-eating clown-spiders.
Or perhaps the literary man-eating dogs should still be in my future – and I can wait to think about ghosts until I become a one. A nice one, I hope.