From ghoulies and ghosties and long leggety beasties, and things that go bump in the night, good Lord deliver us — Old Cornish Prayer
A few years back, Bill Watterson, who created Calvin and Hobbes, came up with a fabulous book title: Something Under the Bed Is Drooling! It captured the universal midnight horrors just as, “…things that go bump in the night” does.
I can remember, all too vividly, waking up in the middle of the night, with the moonlight shining through the branches into my room. Something had awakened me with a start. I found my bedroom transformed into a nightmare of moving shadows. Every corner seemed to be dark but not fully dark as the light, filtered through the moving branches, made each shadow seem as if it held some moving shape. It seemed as if I could surely make them out if I tried hard enough.
But the real terror was my closet door, carelessly left open. A huge black rectangle, big enough to hold absolutely any monster my fertile imagination could conjure, it seemed filled with some awful shape. As the dim light moved and changed, so the dark almost-defined shape seemed to swell and recede, its details always just beyond grasping.
I can remember lying there for what seemed like hours, in stark terror. I knew pulling the covers over your head only worked when you were hoping not to be noticed. But this Thing was right there, just across the room, watching my feeble terror with gloating strength. I knew, I just knew, that if I once pulled my head under the covers it would be on me in a second. Nothing was holding it at bay but my unblinking vigilance.
Every once in a while I would find myself seeing some other shadow that seemed to be moving with the light from the branches outside and I would realize, in a panic, that I had been lured into looking away from the closet for a second. My eyes would snap back, expecting to find the nameless thing already halfway across the room.
God! How I wanted to close that door! I was sure that once the door was closed I would be safe. How could I have been so stupid as to leave it open?!
I can remember how cold I got, rolled into a ball of fear, staring at that door. I wanted more than anything for that door to be closed, but I also knew that if I stuck so much as a foot beyond the edge of the bed, the other thing, the one that lived under the bed, would reach up and grab me and I would be lost. In the middle of the night wasn’t safe for anything, not even a finger or toe, to poke beyond the edge of the bed.
So I couldn’t get up, I couldn’t get warm, I couldn’t go to sleep. I had to lie there, shivering, staring at the thing in the shadows, willing it to keep away.
Pretty soon I had to go to the bathroom, too.
I suspect that most of us have memories of nights when some of our monsters were terrifyingly real and terrifyingly close. Hence the universal impact of Bill Watterson’s title. (Of course Calvin, being blessed with an exceptionally vivid imagination, grew some especially gruesome denizens). I also suspect that a lot of our other fears share some universal characteristics.
Okay, our nighttime horrors are what?
Well, they are powerful, certainly more powerful than we are. They are maleficent, with a relentless, single-minded intent to do harm to us and the things we love. They shun the light, lurking in the shadows with others of their kind. They are wily, capable of either disappearing into the shadows when the lights come on or of dissembling themselves into a pretense of harmlessness. They are evil in a glistening, slimy way that relates them to Evil itself.
These seems to reflect something pretty basic in our nature. For not only do we conjure creatures with all of these traits to disturb our slumbers, we also have the habit of projecting them onto what we fear in the daylight hours.
Take, for instance, white supremacists. We picture them as a darkly powerful underground of heavily armed militants. They are, we hear, constantly training themselves for Der Tag, the day when the great racial war will finally break out. With cellars stuffed with enough food for years of survival, they spend their weekends alternating classes in unarmed combat and explosives preparation with pious prayer sessions to their Aryan God. They are linked closely enough to share ideology, propaganda and weapons suppliers, but too loosely related to be investigated and captured en masse. They reject our government as illegitimate (not to mention under Jewish control), our laws as corruptly betraying the Founding Fathers and ourselves as knavish slaves and collaborators of the system. They pretend to be pious patriots, but they are really Nazis aiming to destroy the blacks, the Jews, the homosexuals, the immigrants and just about everyone else who doesn’t match their ideal of a “true” American.
A horror, indeed.
Let’s look at Buford Furrow, the man who shot up the Jewish daycare center. Now (aside from commenting that the man has an obviously phony name invented by someone trying to be funny about the bucolic backwardness of the radical right) he is a blatantly ignorant loser of a man. Determined to start a racial war, he manages to shoot up a room full of children, killing no one. Outside, he manages to kill a poor bystander of a postman. Aside from being a federal employee and having the bad taste to have the wrong color skin, this guy is actually embodying the best of America, working hard while covering a friend’s route.
Now one might like to say that the not overly bright Mr. Furrow was simply a wannabe, not truly representative of the militant right. Maybe. But when we find the rest of the Aryans saluting this screw-up as a hero, I think we can say that they, at least, see him as faithfully reflecting who they are and what they stand for.
If one paid attention only to the media, one would believe that these folks practically fill up the forests and the plains and all those sparsely populated states with their hideaways, untraceably united through their hate sites on the Internet. That they have professional training programs and vast arsenals. That they are, in fact, proto-Rambos, just waiting to launch themselves at the rest of us.
The truth appears to be a lot more like Mr. Furrow. The vast majority of the militant white supremacists are, in fact, pathetically ignorant and incapable outsiders. Individually they have the power to cause occasional, isolated incidents of mayhem. But collectively they are incapable of organizing a decent demonstration, much less a revolution. To most of us, they pose virtually no threat at all.
There are, of course, true believers who are both ardent and capable. But their numbers are too small to pose a real threat to any significant portion of society. They are condemned by their own dogma to be isolated, hyper-religious fanatics, fervently awaiting the day when we collapse from our own corruption.
On the other side, let’s look at the enemy they most fear, the One World Government. In case you are unaware of it, this is the great conspiracy of the left which is going to take away all of our freedoms. Led by the U.N., it is a vast plan to take away all our guns, revoke the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and turn us all into socialist slaves. It has been systematically stripping away our freedoms and weakening us by mixing us racially and infecting our society with permissive ideas about homosexuality, sexual permissiveness and the separation of church and state.
This notion has gotten less attention from the media (who are, as we all know, a bunch of commie pinkos anyway), but it enjoys wide belief on the far right. I know some good, hard working, otherwise sensible people who believe that there are, right now, U.N. blue painted armored vehicles stored at U.S. military bases waiting for their own Der Tag.
The reality is that the U.N. is one of the most inept, inefficient, bureaucratically arteriosclerotic organizations the world knows. From Rwanda through Kosovo, the United nations has consistently failed to operate with any noticeable efficiency. Good intentions, Yes. Efficiency, No. The idea that these folks threaten to take over the world is just plain ludicrous.
In fact, I would put Kofi Anan and the United nations right alongside Buford Furrow and the white supremacists as prime examples of complete miscasting in the theatre of conspiratorial nightmares. It is patently absurd to imagine that these two are avatars of Evil who are able to swell themselves up into malevolent phantasms when the lights go out.
And that is the oddity.
It doesn’t seem to matter what the real nature is of those we are going to transform into bogeymen. We have the ability, through sheer imagination, to load them down with attributes drawn form our psychic closets no matter what they were to begin with. In our minds their true natures loom in the shadows, dilating them into the very embodiments of pure menace.
Real monsters being pretty thin on the ground, we have a fortunate talent for inventing them.
Once upon a time an old man lay dying. He was the paterfamilias of great extended family. When the time was clearly drawing near, the whole family gathered in his room to hear his last words.
For a long time, he said nothing, and just stared at the ceiling. Finally he sighed heavily and said, “You know, my life has been full of disasters.
“…Most of which…never happened.”