Ichabod's Kin
A place for politics, pop culture, and social issues

WHAT SCARES ME MOST

     llalloween’s here, and I am reminded: Some people are scaredy-cats, and I’m one of them. We order our lives so as to feel in control, to be captains of our fate, masters of our destiny. So who are we kidding?
    Herman Hesse said we live in the realm of the uninsurable. Freud said it’s human to build mental defenses against our fears and anxieties—or to convince ourselves that we don’t have any.
    Ah, “from ghoulies and ghosties and three-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night, good Lord deliver us…”
    Personal rituals help us to feel more comfortable in a frightening world: If you’re among the majority that puts on both socks first, then shoes, be advised at this time that a fifth of the population puts sock and shoe on one foot, then the other. This may seem unworthy of mention, but whichever people do, they seldom do it the other way. Why? Does it matter, or make that much difference which way it’s done?
    Some people always check behind a shower curtain even in the home of a friend. This is more typical of women ages 21-34, while men are more likely when we’re 45-54. Guys, what the hell are we afraid of at that age?
    And how do you eat corn on the cob? Most people  go around the cob in a circle. The rest eat it in rows like a typewriter. Few can bring themselves to do it the other way: something terrible might happen. Same thing with spaghetti—do you cut it up or wind it on a fork? These are almost equally popular ways, but those who use one way won’t do it the other: the world might come to an end.

                                                             FEAR AND TREMBLING

    The celebration of fear, as is our custom around Halloween, goes back to the Druids. But Rudyard Kipling said he found more belief in ghosts in the southern U.S., between Savannah and Memphis, than in any similar area of Europe. More than half the American adult population believes in the Devil; nearly half believes there are human-like aliens among us; and almost a third believes some houses are haunted.
    So if you thought Astrology is all the rage, it’s way behind aliens and haunted houses. Even witches, the kind we parody in costume, like Rodney Dangerfield, get no real respect: despite all that’s written and said about them, only 14% of us believe they exist. That is interesting because at Halloween so many want to dress that way. Of course, there is a saying that, “wear the right costume and the part plays itself.” But let’s not go there.
     “Fear and trembling” are part of the human condition, not things “out there,” but inner human states. People and things don’t “scare” us as much as they awaken fears already inside. Millions are spent on movies to do just that; but for free, anyone can do it by grabbing us suddenly from behind, or by jumping out of a closet as we walk by.
     As Hugh Walpole said, “…for all of us, our particular creature lurks in ambush,” and we can become, as Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “distill’d almost to jelly with the act of fear.” Edwin Friedman’s metaphor was that fearful anxiety hovers like a cloud over society, looking for some place to land, and will come to rest on any current public fantasy or rumor, whether having to do with a social minority, a national enemy or reports of alien—or we could add, terrorist—visitors.

     Nothing was more respectable than ancient evil. While people give little credence to witches, good ones or bad, they once were among the most dramatic targets of social anxiety. The Halloween festival evokes images of them that are now trivialized and hardly worth a thought. But the word, wicca, relating in English to the word, “wise,” tells us that in ancient days, witchcraft was the craft of the wise. They were among the few who could read and write when illiteracy was the general rule. In time, it was believed they could heal the sick and improve growth of crops. Today we call people with similar gifts, physicians and scientists.
Halloween is the beginning of the Wiccan new year, when witches honor friends and family who have died, and are invited to attend as “guests,” a word related to the word for “ghost.” But almost everything they documented about their lives, beliefs and practices was burned or lost; all we have left comes from those who disliked and persecuted them.

                                                 THE DEVIL IN MASSACHUSETTS, AND
                                                       THE FUNNY MAN WITH FANGS

     Of course the witch trials in Salem didn’t help. One of the landmark studies on that was written by Marion Starkey, whom I visited in her home in 1987 when I was on sabbatical. Undoubtedly many of us read it as a bestseller then, titled, The Devil in Massachusetts. Many innocent people were horribly defamed and killed on the testimony of others who, shortly after, apologized for their sudden, strange capacity to lie. Starkey was one of the first to debunk the idea that any real “devil” was at work: rather, a tiny group of pubescent girls whose rage toward their Puritan environment became the death of the most innocent people in their town.
     Then there’s Dracula. Were it not for Bram Stoker’s chilling little tale, we would think a man in a cape, with fangs and slick black hair to be rather silly. After all, the real blood-suckers in our society are handsome and engaging, like Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy—or charming little buggers like Charles Manson. But their Pentium chips were definitely out of whack, and their power to seduce and destroy was possible precisely because they were not silly-looking characters.

                                                            CITIES OF THE DEAD

     Along with Dracula comes the curious notion of the living dead, or the “undead,” about which, I submit, people care not a fig. What we do care about is being dead: nobody wants to be that—that’s why so much of religion is about eternal life, which is interesting, given that lots of people don’t know what to do with a Sunday afternoon. But we maintain constant connections with those no longer living. And I don’t mean séances and other channeling. Our real fascination is with cities of the dead: that’s what cemeteries are—necropolises, literally, cities of the dead. And the living go there more than those who are not. If we think people behave well in church, consider that nowhere do they behave better than in cemeteries, where they visit those who are there but who do not speak and are not seen.
     Thankfully, there have been people who were, and are, unafraid of both the past and of the unknown. Such have been the great humanists of the world. Science began with those who were willing to face the unknown, humanists who made no claim to finished truth. They sought mystery like some people chase tornadoes, and what is mystery but not knowing? We think we should never be caught dead saying, “I don’t know.” We won’t stand for a mechanic to say so: “What do you mean you don’t know what’s wrong with my car?”

                                                                    MY GREATEST FEAR

     When Halloween comes around, we’re still like the Druids, who started all this nonsense anyway; they tried to chase away the god of autumn darkness with great bonfires—literally, bone-fires, fires made with bones. They tossed in also certain unfortunate people who had broken laws, or were prisoners of war. Later, spirits of the victims were believed to try to return to their original homes. The folks at home, not a little unnerved by the prospect, left food by the door, hoping the spirits would eat it outside and leave them alone. Of course, beggars filched much of it in the mid of night, not to mention irreverent teenagers, and next day the more superstitious householders had all the proof needed of “ghostly” visitation. Silly them, but that’s where we get Halloween.
     I wish we did more with Halloween. We could use it as a time to face our fears; to consider the mystery and importance of death, as is done in Mexico’s Day of the Dead; and to appreciate the importance, sometimes, of honestly saying, “I don’t know.”
I’m not scared as much of what people may do, as what they may not. It bothers me that the vast majority of Americans get their news from sound-bytes and that they believe and vote according to them. It scares me that so many won’t read a damn book once in a while; the value of books is that they get and place most if not all the information in order and in context.
     It is said that Freud used a couch for his practice of psychoanalysis simply because he could not stand to be stared at; imagine, the couch became as much of an institution as his method! I think too many of us cannot stand to face the truth or ourselves.  And that scares me.
It may surprise some that I do not fear the Tea Party as others do. From their beginning I knew it would be transitory. I also knew it would cause and create much mischief, and it has. But in the context of history, it has been here before in various guises, whether the Know-Nothings, Fr. Charles Coughlin or Sen. Joseph McCarthy of the infamous Red Scare in America. Ted Cruz is another Joe McCarthy and he even resembles him.
     You may say, yes, but any of these movements can get out of hand. They did, f a time. But the difference is that they were not in a vacuum, as was Hitler and Nazism, Stalinism or Fascism. Our extremists arose in a democracy, and Americans, for a time, will listen to, entertain and consider extremes but ultimately a democracy tends toward moderation.    
     But it still requires vigilance and good information. We cannot expect much of others and little of ourselves, or what will become of us?
     And that is what scares me most.

2 Responses to “WHAT SCARES ME MOST”

  1. I used to be much more frightened than I am now. I never used to watch scary movies, but now I love them! A good scare is fun! As we age, our real fears (sometimes) come true, like losing a family member, or a child. Once the unthinkable happens there’s not much more to fear, except the future of those left. Like my grandparents, I fear the future of the world, and the complacency of those who control the destruction. So I stand firm on my soapbox and preach my solutions to who ever will listen. 😛

  2. Hopefully the Teas popularity is dwindling. Maybe the last elections are a sign that is so.


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