Monday, October 30, 2006

Scared to Death

By Nancy Martin

Every summer, my parents took my brother and sister and me to our summer house on a Canadian lake that is so far from civilization that some weeks we never saw another human being. It was--and still is--a beautiful place. The large "cottage" had been built my our logging relatives over 100 years ago, and it is located in a forest of fragrant pines only a few steps from a lake that is very clear and very, very deep. (Did you know that one measure of the purity of water in a lake is the size of the leeches?) Due to logging in the area, the bottom of the lake is crowded with trees that had been submerged when whole rafts sank in bad weather, became lodged and turned--essentially--to stone. It makes ideal habitat for fish.

The decomposing logs have also turned the lake black.

One year after my grandmother died, my grandfather came with us to vacation. He was a gentle soul and really more of a berry picker than a fisherman, but he decided to try his skill at trolling for bass. For several mornings in a row, he got up before dawn, climbed into a leaky boat and puttered out into the deepest channel of the lake to drop his line. As the sun came up, he was a small, solitary figure shrouded in morning mist.

My mother and I were in the habit of getting into the old canoe for a pre-breakfast paddle around the lake to look for birds, bob cats and (for me, anyway) the occasional Boy Scout troop that might be camping in our wilderness. Later, I realized our morning canoe excursions were a way for my mother to stay within rescue distance of my grandfather without embarrassing him.

One morning, as we padded around "the point," a tree-studded penninsula of land (where--according to family lore---our great-great grandfather had sat in a sauna every afternoon drinking whisky and avoiding his Bible-reading wife) we heard my grandfather's wavering voice in the distance, calling to my mother.

"Baaarrr-bra! Baaaar-bra!"

We skimmed across the lake to reach my grandfather, who was so shaken he could barely hold onto his fishing rod. He had hooked something and tried to reel it in, only to discover a hideous black monster coated in slime had clamped onto his lure.

I took one look at the hulking thing and choked down a scream. It was a primordial throwback--some kind of mutated sea creature--stinking of putrefaction and surely evil. My grandfather was nearly fainting with fear.

My mother ordered me into the boat with him in case he collapsed.

And she set about disentangling his fishing line from . . . well, what turned out to be an ancient trea limb he'd managed to drag up from the bottom of the lake, encrusted with black goo and bubbling with decay.

It wasn't anything to be afraid of. And yet, I'm sure my grandfather never recovered from the fright. He died within a year, of a heart attack.

Researchers believe that some people can be so terrified by an experience that they are literally frightened to death. (Which is a feeble effort to turn this post into a Halloween blog!) In the fight-or-flight syndrome, a bad scare can send so much adrenaline coursing through a person's veins that he can die.

Later that summer, my mother took my siblings and me across the lake to the "diving rocks"--huge granite cliffs that we climbed and dove from. When we'd had enough diving, she told us we were old enough to swim back to the cottage---across that deep, black channel of water where my grandfather had been so terrified. We were strong swimmers, so the distance (about a mile and a half) didn't worry us, or the speed of the current or the cold temperature of the water.

But I reached the middle of that channel, and my imagination began to conjure up the denizens that might lurk in the depths below me. I imagined demonic creatures with fangs and fins with claws. Surely at any moment, one of them was going to surge up from the blackness and devour me.

It's the first time I remember being truly frightened for my life. Yes, it was all in my childish imagination, but the physical response was the same as if I'd been menaced by a monster alligator in the Amazon river. My heart felt as if it might burst. My hands and feet froze like blocks of ice. I couldn't suck any air into my lungs. Stars exploded before my eyes until I nearly blacked out.

As a writer, I've used that memory dozens of times. Trying to transplant our feelings into the minds of characters is work we do every day.

I'm betting this group of writers can remember the first truly terrifying experience of your lives. How about sharing?


Annette said...

When I was a little kid, I remember one horrendous thunderstorm with driving rain and vivid lightning and thunder that shook our house. I'd always been afraid of storms, but this time, the lightning struck the transformer on the pole outside my bedroom window, traveled into the house and caught the thermostat in the kitchen on fire. I remember the sickening smell of electrical smoke to this day.

I gathered all my stuffed animals by the front door, ready to evacuate. Mom sent me outside to wait for the fire department, thinking I would stand on the sheltered porch (out of her hair as she bravely fought the flames), but instead, I went to the end of our driveway in the pouring rain, sobbing hysterically and watched for the fire trucks. What passing motorists must have thought, I can only imagine.

Anyhow, the fire was contained to the thermostat. And the stuffed animals never had to leave the house. But I still use the panic I felt that day in my writing, too.

mike said...

The summer I turned 6 my family moved from the city into a long-vacant but sturdy 160-year-old stone farmhouse in a secluded valley in York County. The house was built for the ages--its outside walls were almost two-feet thick, giving us deep window sills on which to display our toys or, in my case, my books and my treasured glow-in-the-night cross. Still, solid as it was, the house was creaked and groaned and we all saw doors mysteriously close on their own (thus the magical cross, whose dim glow offered me some solace at night). I was also a precocious reader, with a fascination for the fantastical, whether the Bible, Jules Verne, the Grimm brothers, or Hamilton and her Greek myths (all of which I read by the age of 12!). My head was full of all kinds of potential horrors. So, you can imagine my terrified reaction when my brother locked me in the darkened attic one night. He ignored my pounding on the door, but my screaming--something right out of a B movie--convinced him to open the door. I never forgot those minutes (well, probably seconds) of terror, and I don't think I've ever forgiven him.

mike said...

Nancy--You had me hooked right from the start: I absolutely abhor leeches! My last swim in a creek on the farm where I grew up ended with me scrambling up onto the lawn with several bloodsuckers (as we called them) clinging to my legs. Yech! 45 years later and I still hate the sight (or even thought) of them.

Joyce said...

Now I KNOW I've led a boring life. I don't remember ever being that terrified of anything! Unlike Annette, I love thunderstorms--and I love watching tornadoes on the Weather Channel. Maybe I should have been a storm chaser!

I'll keep thinking though. There's got to be SOMETHING scary that happened to me...

Tory said...

It's not exactly what you asked about, Nancy, but what your post made me think of was a Grade B made-for-TV movie that gave me nightmares for YEARS.

The heroine was raised in a demon cult. She believes she has left it behind and divorced herself from all its members, and her wedding is the final statement of this. As she's about to take her vows, everyone in her wedding party, one by one, (ending with the groom, of course) reveals themselves as members of the cult. She thinks she's escaped but she's now the queen.

Processing this in my own therapy, I realized it is the unconscious fear of everyone who grew up in a dysfunctional family. Just as you think you're out, they reach out their tentacles and drag you back in.

I just used that concept with a client a week or two ago. Remembering the movie helps me empathize with the fear it arouses.

Pat said...

When I was growing up nobody had air conditioning, so on one especially hot, hot night we moved the black and white TV out onto the patio. We lived in a wooded area and therefore dark trees rose up behind our backs just a few yards across our unkempt lawn. The only light was blue flicker of the TV. Sitting on the flagstone patio we watched "The Frozen Dead," a typical B-grade horror flick. A mad scientist had lured people to his creepy castle and then killed and dismembered them one by one until he had a basement full of disembodied limbs. The limbs, arms and legs were lined up and attached to a wall and were controlled by the head of one of his victims, a woman who looked a bit worse for wear. In the climax of the film the mad scientist, in a fight with the protagonist, fell against the wall of limbs. The limbs grabbed him and straggled him to death. Then the protagonist, weeping since the disembodied head was that of his fiancée, asked her: How can I help you? and the head whispered: Kill me...kill me...
Dang! I didn't sleep for week.

Kristine said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kristine said...

I'm sure this isn't my first terrifying moment, but it's the one I remember the most. It happened during the summer when Chad (my husband) and I were dating and drove to Ocean City, MD for a few days of vacation.

We decided to beat traffic and drive throughout the night, which was a smart idea until we got lost in Delaware and ended up on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but empty fields and darkness. Not even a street light. Can anyone say CHILDREN OF THE CORN? It was the kind of experience horror movies are made of.

It also didn't help that I'd only been dating my future husband a few months. Visions of my body being dumped on the side of the road swam through my head. I mean, did I really know this guy?

Fortunately, we found our way back to the highway and Chad didn't turn out to be a serial killer.

(FYI--Sorry for the deleted post. I hit the "publish" button before reading over what I had written.)

Nancy said...

Is anyone else thinking Joyce should just go ahead & get her degree or license or whatever it takes to become a cop? She's a natural!

Pat said...

I think she ought to go on a crime spree in Shaler and then just have a ball writing up her own misdeeds and dispatching the cops all over the place.

She'll need an alter ego...and a cape!

Joyce said...

If I wasn't pushing 50, I would do just that, Nancy. I don't think I can keep up with those

I'll just settle for being Xena, Warrior Princess.

Nancy said...

Xena, you know it's illegal for a potential employer to ask your age. I say go for it!! Although I do love Pat's idea of an alter ego crime spree.

Today I'm decorating our front lawn as a crime scene. I am spending waaaaay too much mental energy on this project! And if it rains tonight, nobody will come to see it. ;-(

Meryl Neiman said...

Oh, I wish I had known about your crime scene Nancy. Will it be up tomorrow? I want to see it. The people across the street from me used to go out. She makes her own "creatures" and drapes them around the lawn, with gravestones galore. But they're renovating their house this year and the creatures were inaccessible and never made it out. Very sad.

As for frightening memories, I scared myself silly as a kid with my imagination. I always thought that there were snakes at the end of my bed, under the covers. I worried about fires and burglars and all sorts of things. The scariest "real" event was when I was lost in the Arab Market of Israel at age 9. I stopped to pet a cat and the rest of the family went on. Fortunately, I found a police officer and waited with him until my family found me. That was the first time I saw my father cry. He was so relieved to see me.

Gina said...

The first time I can remember being truly terrified happened before my brother Johnny was born, so I must have been about 3 years old. My parents had gone out somewhere and I was with my grandmother and aunt. It must have been around Easter time, because I was sitting on the floor in my grandmother's living room playing with a little baby chick. I was wearing red corduroy pants, and the chick somehow got into the pant leg and started running up my leg, inside my pants. It was such a weird scary sensation that I screamed and screamed. My grandmother and aunt managed to rescue the chick and calm me down, but I cried until my parents got back.