Scary Thoughts

The kinds of places I hang out, online, dictate my reading.  It’s not that I like to be scared, it’s just that I’m honest.  Besides, even when hanging out in person was possible I didn’t do much of it.  So I became aware of Peter Counter’s Be Scared of Everything: Horror Essays.  Like me, Counter’s a blogger (among other things), but unlike me his blog is themed horror.  (This blog has an element of horror but is very roughly themed religion.)  Counter’s book is a fascinating collection of thoughts.  Some of the essays are funny, some are sad, and a few are downright profound.  It’s clear that what gave Counter his crisis was watching his father get shot.  Even those of us who grew up not knowing our dads can see how that experience would traumatize a life.  My own traumas were less focused than this, but we learned the same lesson—it pays to be afraid.

When I was young I never met a phobia I didn’t like.  As I grew older and left home, I came to bring them under control.  You can only get so far in life hiding under your blanket, secretly afraid you might suffocate.  I learned that if I wanted to be a minister—something that never happened—I had to overcome my fears.  Being a parent did it even more.  In order to try to teach your child not to be afraid, you find yourself doing things like scooping up bugs in your bare hands to show that they won’t hurt you.  Like putting a brave face on a truly scary situation.  Like carrying on when everything you’ve built crumbles around you.  Counter’s essays don’t shy away from the difficult things in life.  He’s right: there are many.

I was a monster boomer, but I only really came back to horror after losing my long-term teaching post and longed for career.  Horror helps you cope with trauma.  It gets a bad rap, but mostly from people who don’t understand its therapeutic value.  I don’t like being scared.  Horror, however, reminds me of that cozy childhood feeling of watching monster movies and knowing when it was over the threat would be gone.  Only it never was.  Not really.  Sleepless nights and their febrile dreams may’ve been triggered by the movies, but the realities happening behind the scenes were their real source.  I couldn’t know that at the time, and most of the time I’m not conscious of it now.  Still, I read books like Be Scared of Everything and I think maybe I’m on the right track.


In a recent post on BBC Health, James Gallagher discusses ancient Assyria. What can ancient Assyria have to say about modern health, beyond the occasional liver model used in haruspicy? Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, of course. As Gallagher notes in his article, PTSD was diagnosed after the Vietnam War. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t in existence long before then. In fact, it stands to reason that if people experience it now, they likely experienced it during traumatic events then. War is among the most horrific and tragic activities in which humanity engages. Men, in the days of Assyria, sent to kill other men in the hundreds, and thousands, could not have walked away from the battlefield unchanged. There are those who seem not to suffer, but the majority of us know that, no matter how just the cause, it is simply wrong to kill others. On a massive scale it can only be worse.



Multiple stresses, I would contend, go undiagnosed. I have known those who’ve experienced significant loss—a job, for example, in an economy that makes future prospects dim—who begin showing the same kinds of symptoms. They are, of course, not diagnosed with PTSD, but are simply told to either buck up or go see a shrink. “Pull up your socks,” as they say in the UK. I wonder, though, if it is that simple. People throughout history have been capable of inflicting great stress on one another. Sometimes it becomes so normal that we don’t even recognize it. The forcing of loss and resultant terror of future deprivation is a daily affair. The civilization we’ve been is so complex almost to demand this kind of horror. We may not be sent to the battlefield to kill others, but we are daily faced with situations that cause us great pain, often for prolonged periods. And we wonder why people aren’t satisfied.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I have no doubt that the level of stress faced by those who survive war is severe. I don’t make light of it. Being a pacifist, I do believe there is a solution to war that involves education instead of fighting, but I don’t in any way suggest that those who suffer aren’t suffering in reality. They are. Sometimes they can no longer function in society. We institutionalize, cut funds, then send them out on the streets. This is nothing new. As Gallagher points out, soldiers in antiquity weren’t professionals. All healthy men, apart from the one-percenters of the day, served in armies on a rotating basis. One thing, however, has not changed over the millennia. War today remains as unnecessary as it was then. If we could turn our attention to improving the lot of the 99 lost sheep, the one already found might, to its surprise, be much better off if all were accorded ample care.

Danger de Nuit

I am on a boat—maybe it’s the Titanic. Far from land. For some reason, vaguely unclear, the ship is sinking. There’s panic—people are running and flailing, trying to save themselves. I’m frozen with terror as the icy water encroaches. I can’t swim. I prepare to die. So goes a nightmare I had several times in association with a former place of employment. Nashotah House felt traumatic to me with forced liturgies and daily reminders of my inferior status. The terror of the nightmares was very real, and the day I was fired did nothing to improve them. As a child I was plagued with phobias and frequently experienced horrific nightmares. They still come once in a while, but since I’ve left the employment of the church, they have become, gradually, less frequent. Nightmares are just dreams gone bad, and I’ve always been a dreamer.

Last month Time ran a story on nightmares. The subject of nightmares has now caught the attention of the military because of cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. When the military decides to show its humane side, it doesn’t fear backing it with big bucks. Soldiers confess to frequent nightmares after witnessing the atrocities of war. (One psychologist said that many at Nashotah House seemed to be suffering from a similar phenomenon.) Theorists now suggest that nightmares might lead to mental illness, and sleep deprivation, as we all know, can lead to bad judgment. Not a good thing on the battlefield. Or behind the wheel of a car. Or, in a recent real-life nightmare, while flying a jet.

In many ways nightmares seem like minor annoyances—they don’t physically hurt anyone, and they end when you wake. Time probably wouldn’t have reported on them if it hadn’t been for the military angle. This seems a paradigmatic situation. A common problem goes ignored until it affects the military, then it is deemed worth research funded by tax-payers. I am well acquainted with nightmares. As a child they became part of my identity. I am heartened that serious research is considered worthy of federal money. It seems, however, that perhaps a better way to end battle-induced nightmares would be to stop the horrors of warfare. When war ends, some nightmares will cease. Of course, I’ve always been a dreamer.

Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?