For the past couple of months, I've been working on a project with Cemetery Dance Publications; writing personalized horror stories for folks who want to see themselves as the main character. This involves taking them, their families, and their every day lives, and pretty much placing them within the worse nightmare imaginable... implementing their own fears and phobias. This has been a challenging project to say the least, since I have always had to depend on my own personal list of fears and horrors to use as fodder for my tales of Southern horror. Going beyond my comfort zone -- writing-wise -- and using the terrors of actual living and breathing people (versus purely fictional characters) has been an eye-opening exercise, but one I wouldn't have missed for the world.
Lately, I've been thinking about my own fears and phobias. Sometimes they bob to the surface -- like a bloated body from the bottom of a deep lake -- within my fiction. Other times they remain buried, waiting patiently for their turn on the page. Today I sat down and jotted down a list of my worse fears, just to see how many I had. As it turned out, I ended up having more than I first thought. Here they are, in no particular order....
1.. Fear of Snakes: This is a common enough fear; alot of folks suffer from it. But I loathe the things. It doesn't matter if they're poisonous or harmless, alive or dead... they completely freak me out. Part of my snake phobia originates from some of my Grandmama Spicer's snake tales, told to me at an early age. Tales of eighteen foot rattlers that reared up out of the mud of a logging road like a cobra, of multi-colored serpents slithering along the rafters over head before dropping upon unsuspecting sleepers, and that goosebump-raising tale about the girl who drank from a stream and ending up housing a snake within her body into adulthood (which Grandmama claimed to be a true medical case). I later turned that tall-tale into story called "Miss Abigail's Delicate Condition". My grandfather, Pappy Spicer, seemed to be constantly vexed by snakes during his long life, having been bitten several times by copperheads. One time he was taking his morning constitutional in the outhouse when a chicken snake fell off the rafters and landed slap-dab in his lap. That's enough to scare the crap out of anyone!
2. Fear of Heights: I've always had an extremely bad case of vertigo. I can't go three steps up a ladder without getting the shakes. And I have trouble looking over the edge of a cliff or bluff, even if there's a fence or barrier there to prevent me from plunging to my death. I attribute this phobia to an incident that happened in the 5th grade. Me and another classmate had climbed to the very top of the jungle gym, when the school bully prevented us from climbing down, chucking rocks at us, nearly causing us to fall several times, until the recess bell rang. Since that day, I can't stand to be away from solid ground, especially if my footing isn't 100% rock steady.
3. Fear of Burns: I am mortified of being burned. Whenever my children get too close to a stove eye, a clothes iron, or a pot of boiling water, I nearly get hysterical. This phobia also has it's roots in my past. When I was two and half, I was visting my aunt's house. I was playing, while my aunt and mother sat in the kitchen and drank coffee. On the stove sat one of those big ol' silver coffee perculators. Carelessly, the electrical cord was stretched across the kitchen doorway and plugged into an outlet on the opposite wall. I was dancing around and singing a song about a choo-choo train and, when it came to the part about blowing the whistle, I reckon I just had to grab something and give it a yank. And you guessed it... the thing I yanked was that power cord. That perculator -- full of hot coffee -- came crashing down on top of me. It missed my head by inches, but scalded my left arm. I don't know what degree burn it was, but it required skin grafts to repair the damage. That horrifying episode fortified my fear of hot things (although my scarred arm did help teach me the difference between right and left at an early age.) It also played a big part in my writing of "Dead Skin".
4. Fear of Spiders: I've always had a phobia of spiders. Like snakes, they don't have to be poisionous either. If they have eight legs, that's a good enough reason to avoid them. Down here in Tennessee, brown recluse spiders are common (or fiddlebacks, as we call them) and there's even a jumping spider that lurks in the woods that will literally chase after you if you don't put some spark in your step. I remember when I was little, me and my brother, Kevin, would play in the garage next to a wall that was half concrete block and half drywall. In between the two sections was a thick strip of tar paper. We liked to play in a particular spot and played there all summer long. Later on, my father tore the tar paper loose and, underneath, was a nest of black widow spiders. They had been lurking there all along, directly over our heads! My spider stories include "The Web of La Sanguinaire" and "Housewarming". (By the way, take a look at that hungry little gal below. Doesn't that give you the creeps just looking at it?)
5. Fear of unfamiliar places: I've always had a bad feeling about places I've never been before, especially while traveling. Whenever we get off an interstate exit, there's a sense of potential danger at being at a place in time where there's no one but complete strangers around. It's not so bad at exits where there are a dozen fast food joints and hotels, but at the exits where there might be a single gas station or a country store (if you're lucky) the atmosphere seems downright threatening. I remember when I was about seven, we took a road trip. We didn't take the interstate back then, but traveled the rural highways to take us from point A to point B. My father stopped at this little country Texaco station and was short-changed by the station attendant. When he went back inside to confront the man -- a lanky, grease monkey of a redneck -- the mechanic started cussing and bullying him. I mean this fella was downright mean, yelling and waving his arms. I remember cowering in the back seat, thinking "He could kill Daddy! He could kill us all and repaint our car and sell it and nobody would ever know what happened to us!" I still think about that unnerving pitstop when I'm traveling with my family. My story "Exit 85" sort of sums up my fears of stopping at places where folks don't want you around... or do, for all the wrong reasons.
6. Fear of Clowns: My fear of clowns isn't as intense as it once was. I guess that's something that has diminished with age. When I was a kid, though, about the only clown who didn't make me want to pee my pants was Bozo. Since the horror genre has capitalized quite a bit on the evil or killer clown, it's apparent that a whole lot of people possess this phobia. Clowns are just plain creepy. Don't forget, Pennywise was a clown. So was John Wayne Gacy. And remember Jimmy Stewart in The Greatest Show on Earth? The movie where he played a fugitive in floppy shoes, who never takes his makeup off, even between shows? That's what freaks me out. Anyone could be hiding behind the grease paint and red rubber nose. It could be a good, decent guy... or it could be a child molesting cannibal. How could you ever tell... until it was too late?
7. Fear of folks who are missing part of their body: Yeah, I know... awful ain't it? I mean, I have nothing against people who were unfortunate enough to lose an arm or a leg or other appendage for one reason or another, but I still have this irrational fear of being around them. Maybe it's just the awkwardness of being in their presence and wondering what happened to them. You just can't go up to them and flat-out ask them what happened to their missing part. Oh, there are some who will tell you way more than you want to know... about how they slipped and fell into a buzzsaw and sliced off their arm, clean as a whistle. Others don't want to discuss it at all... perhaps for a good reason. I've worked in enough factories during my lifetime to come across three or four folks with missing hands or fingers. One thing about machines... right when you think they'll do one thing, they'll call you a bald-faced liar and do just the opposite. And sometimes that involves maiming and mangling. One of the fears of a woman I just wrote a story for was a fear of prosthetic devices. She was a nurse and one night in the ER she came across a patient with a prosthetic face. He had lost most of his real face to a flesh-eating fungus and was forced to wear a fake face to cover it up. When I read this on her questionaire, the image of the man with the prosthetic face took command and totally motivated the plot... which turned out to be one of the creepiest stories I've ever written, in my opinion.
So, for a horror writer, I reckon a good long list of fears and phobias might be a big plus. I know I put mine to good use. Of course, my list lengthens every now and then... especially when I watch the evening news. I'm always amazed -- and mortified -- at the amount of cruelty and evil some folks can dish out to their fellow man, and they can be mighty creative at it. As long as they shock society with their sick shenanigans, we writers of dark fiction will never be at a loss of something horrifying to write about.