**This was originally published on Thursday, October 31, 2013, in my newspaper column, “The Old Paths,” in The Stokes News. Due to a website change a few years ago, the publishing company broke all links to our old articles which were archived online. This was a tragic mistake and resulted in the loss of thousands of newspaper articles. Little by little, I am putting my old columns on this blog so that they can be preserved. Each column may be updated to reflect present times when transferred to this blog.**
“Where is my golden arm?”
Just hearing those classic ghost-story words around a late-night campfire always made the hair rise up on my arms. I wouldn’t go to the bathroom alone on the way to bed, and I would lie awake in the darkness for a bit longer than normal, just expecting to see the dead man looking for his golden arm.
Oh, you did that, too, huh?
And how ‘bout the one where the couple picks up the hitchhiker who mysteriously disappears from the backseat or the one where you’re working a jigsaw puzzle late at night and when you get done, you realize it’s the very picture of your room with a man’s face staring in through the window behind you?
Versions of these and other stories have long been part of the old paths of campfires and sleepovers. And if you were lucky back in the day, your friends’ parents would let all of you pajama party kids stay up late to watch “Shock Theater.” You’d all scramble into your sleeping bags in the living room floor after that creepy show—feeling cold chill bumps upon cold chill bumps, scared to talk above a whisper.
Everything seemed magnified in that atmosphere of fear. What might have been the family dog banging his tail on his doghouse suddenly becomes the ghost of Great-Aunt Marge rap-rap-rapping on the door to take revenge on the family. The leaking bathroom faucet down the hall becomes blood dripping from the ceiling.
Yet you giggle and shiver simultaneously, knowing that you’ll tell the same stories at the next sleepover or on the next camping trip. How can something so spooky be so fun?
I don’t get it. Why do we LIKE to be scared? It is obviously part of human nature, because children (and adults) have told ghost stories throughout history. There is something in the human psyche that finds such fear “delicious.”
Why else did we all rush right out to see “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” years ago? And then we watched sequel after sequel of these and other cult classics. Scary movies are big business. Hollywood ain’t dumb.
When I taught high school, my 11th-grade American Literature students might drowse through the Puritan poets or Longfellow. But let me start teaching Edgar Allan Poe, and those kids were on the edges of their seats. Not one student ever told me they had had enough of Poe.
Yet his writings were macabre, dark, depressing. Someone is bricked up to die in the cellar. A tell-tale heart beats underground. A raven is rapping at your chamber door “once upon a midnight dreary.”
Yet we cry, “Give me more, give me more!” Sometimes I would like to reply, “Nevermore! Nevermore!” (Kudos to those who get the Poe reference.)
I know I am in the minuscule minority, but I don’t like for my children to tell ghost stories or watch scary things on TV. They still inevitably do when the cousins get together. “Scared?” you may ask. Goodness, no. My hubster laughs at my irrational fear of mice because he considers me a woman who is pretty much fearless and would fight a roomful of literal demons.
But I believe that what we fill our minds with becomes a part of us. To make a Sunday School reference, the Bible tells us to think on things that are lovely, pure, honest, praiseworthy. It also says that however a man thinks in his heart, so will he become.
Whether or not you subscribe to the Good Book, you must admit that even logic tells us that whatever we feed ourselves is what we become. Junk food will eventually beget a junky body. I tend to believe that theory holds true for things that go deeper than the physical.
A Purdue University professor, Glenn Sparks, did extensive research on how scary movies affect us physiologically. He found that palms sweat, heartbeats increase as much as 15 beats per minute, muscles tense up, skin temperature drops several degrees and blood pressure spikes. Sparks says that although we tell ourselves what we’re seeing is not real, our brain hasn’t adapted to technology and still reacts as though what we see is factual.
Shouldn’t we be conditioned to seek things to give us pleasure rather than what elicits these unpleasant side effects of fright? Being thrilled AND scared is paradoxical, isn’t it?
Media researchers have found that indulging in this type of media actually makes the viewer feel more hostile, view life in a more hostile way and be haunted by the images that have entered their brains to make a memory—whether real or not.
Joanne Cantor, PhD, director of the Center for Communication Research at University of Wisconsin, Madison, is acclaimed as an expert in this subject. She has found in surveys of her students that almost 60 percent of them admit that scary things they watched before age 14 had created disturbances for them, both while sleeping and awake, to this present day. She notes hundreds of students who have told her they became afraid of clowns or battled horrible images running obsessively through their minds for years after watching frightening movies.
Her thought is that the brain possibly stores the movie images as memories in the amygdala—the storehouse of memories which generates emotions based on them. If this is true, the same emotional problems that can be caused by memories of actual trauma from childhood can also be caused by memories of fake violent, frightening images in movies since the brain may not be able to differentiate between reality and the big screen.
That makes me question how many adults are struggling through life with depression or anxiety and panic attacks or horrible nightmares and sleepless nights because their brain stored up the scary movie images as real. These people wonder what’s wrong with them and wonder how to get to the root of the darkness in their lives……never thinking to question the horror movies and scary images they filled themselves with once upon a time……
I know, I know—I’m a spoil sport on Halloween, aren’t I? Go ahead and see the latest horror movie without me; at least you’ll save money by not having to buy me a ticket. Keep the machete; I’m running through fields of daisies. And the only man with a golden arm that I’ll acknowledge is whoever wins the Cy Young Award next baseball season.
To each his own, I suppose. However, just know that if I come to your campfire gathering, I’m gonna sing “Kumbaya” or something. Here’s hoping you’ll join in!