I apologize, loyal readers (do we have any of those?) for the long space between posts. Things have been a little nutty, but hopefully it won’t happen again.
The gap in posting, though, leaves me with the realization that we’re getting ever closer to the holidays, and all these school play-related memories are very timely. So I’m going to attempt to keep them going, in honor of the upcoming Halloween/Thanksgiving/Christmas triad.
First of all, let me point out that my memories of the Thanksgiving play match Erin’s almost exactly, in the sense that I don’t remember much beyond the one song and the fact that I was always, always cast as an Indian. I must not have had a line in this particular play, or, if I did, I don’t remember it the way I remember my lines as Gabriel. I do remember that song though, and I remember absolutely LOVING it. (The only variance in our recollections is that I could have sworn that the line was “feathers in our head men” rather than “feathers in our headband”, but that might just speak to my love of parallel structure.) For me, there was something about the slow, staccato rhythm and the mysterious line about being “down among the dead men.” I’m still fascinated by that line, and I’ve been digging around in my brain lately trying to understand what it might have meant to me when I was a kid.
But more on that later. For now, in the sense of timeliness, I want to return to THE DEVIL’S BIRTHDAY!!
I love being scared. Yes, that’s right, I’m a humongous cliche. I love bad horror movies, good horror movies, and stories that keep me from sleeping at night. Back when I was a grad student I spent inordinate amounts of time researching Victorian and early modern ghost stories (which I still hold are some of the best around). The same was true when I was a kid: I devoured anything that made me want to run and hide in the closet.
As I remember it, Erin had a complex relationship with fear in childhood. She participated with me in many a sleepover reading of Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark (volumes 1 through 3!). But I also remember that these activities would make her nervous – a condition she always gives away by talking veryveryvery fast. (If you ever ride a roller coaster with her, I advise tape recording her, as you would then have the most realistic vision of stream-of-consciousness ever imagined.)
Once, sometime around 3rd grade, she invited me to a lock-in at her church. In case you aren’t familiar with the concept, a lock-in is a sort of massive slumber party generally associated with youth groups. A few adults gather together girls from a variety of ages and let them all spend the night in the church rec hall and participate in church-sanctioned activities. (I wonder if other religions do these too. If they do, I bet they don’t play “Christians and Romans,” another fascinating topic I’ll be broaching later on.) Somehow, Erin’s church youth leaders must not have been as strict as the ladies at our school, because there was much ghost-story telling that evening. It started fairly early in the night when all of us were crammed into someone’s minivan and an older girl convinced us we were reliving the hook-on-the-car-door urban legend. But it continued throughout the night, and I distinctly remember after a certain point Erin leaned over to me and whispered, “Maybe we should go lie down now.” This was code for “I have hit my maximum limit of scare tactics.”
So I don’t know whether she’ll have the same memory I do about ghost stories at our elementary school – specifically about what we spook-addicts were given as replacement for our banished tales. Because they were definitely banished. During 4th grade I had the library’s copy of The Westing Game taken away before I had a chance to finish it – once the teachers realized it contained eery material – and even a run-in with a corpse! That same year, close to Halloween, a rainy morning had us all disappointed that we’d have to stay inside for recess. Our teacher promised she’d make it worth our while by telling some holiday-appropriate spooky stories. Someone must’ve reported this activity to the principal, however, because by the time the promised recess rolled around she was no longer so enthusiastic. She let us know that ghost stories weren’t a good idea after all. Then in the 5th grade I got chastised for doing my book report on a collection of ghost stories – a report that I introduced by saying, “Some people will tell you that these tales aren’t true… but that’s just SOME people.”
So there was plenty of material considered untouchable. I have some suspicions that the librarian felt bad for me, though. She was the one who had given me The Westing Game in the first place, only to see it taken from me later. She was trying to encourage reading as best she could, and she needed something to put in my hands that sparked my interest. For a while she succeeded with books that piqued my fascination with mystery, getting me hooked on a biography of JFK that included a complete diagram of Dealey Plaza and a detailed account of the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination. I was convinced for weeks that if I stared at that diagram long enough I could solve the case.
Even weirder, though, was the final solution that Mrs. B finally reached in her attempts to find suitable literature for me: The Door In The Dragon’s Throat, a weird children’s archaeology thriller by Christian author Frank Peretti.
Peretti has now made a suitable name for himself (amongst evangelicals, at least) in adult literature. But back in the 80’s he wrote mostly for kids. His main series featured a Christian archaeologist and his two kids as they were sent around the world (sometimes by the president!) to unearth lost mysteries usually connected to ancient Christianity.
Peretti was the perfect substitute for my missing ghosts. In many ways, he was probably better – or at least more memorable. I don’t remember the books being particularly prosthelytizing, although I’m sure they must have been in parts. What I remember is the monsters. Peretti dealt with Old Testament lore and often featured creatures like giants and – I swear – a cyclops. The existence of such creatures was backed up somehow by scripture. Wise Dr. Cooper was always explaining to his kids how various verses in the Bible described people and things that no longer existed in our world, including races of giant men and women like the Goliath who fought David.
I am here to tell you that Biblical times were TERRIFYING. There are 3 images I retain from childhood literature that still occasionally haunt me in the middle of the night. One is the infamous girl-with-spiders-in-her-face from Scary Stories.* The second is the girl bouncing around the ceiling in her sleep in Nightmare on Elm Street. And the third is Peretti’s Biblical giants.**
The question I keep coming back to, though, is why? I mean, technically I know the answer: the Peretti books were acceptable because they were by a Christian author, featuring Christian (sort of) themes. The figures in the books couldn’t be considered supernatural because they were historical – Biblical figures traced directly back to scripture (sort of). This raises an interesting issue that’s a constant for kids raised in religious environments: Christianity (and indeed religion in general) is filled to the brim with bizarre supernatural stuff. Wonders and miracles, stigmata, mystery pregnancies, narrow escapes from death, talking bushes… I could go on. All you have to do to get the idea is listen to an Eddie Izzard routine. If you think about it, a kid raised amongst all that stuff shouldn’t need ghost stories at all. But those ideas are generally presented in such a matter-of-fact tone (in class!) that they never seem frightening at all. Or at least, they never did to me.***
Remembering Peretti makes me wonder why we didn’t tap into the natural spookiness of the Bible more often. It may have been for the same reason that our teachers shied away from Halloween: they simply weren’t equipped to deal with the consequences of a room full of scared kids. Fear makes people do odd things, and if the Bible hadn’t been like a cozy bedroom in our parents’ house, we might have been less likely to turn to it for all our answers. I probably got away with reading Peretti because his name was familiar and safe – because he was a Christian author. But the contents of the books touched on something we didn’t see much of in school – but that I DID see a lot of in my favorite stories. Peretti showed me a world that was unstable and contained unimaginable danger. He put me in the same world hinted at by Halloween and the phrase from our “Indian” song: a world where we were down among the dead men, where the unknown haunted us in stacatto rhythms. His Christians faced down giants and carried the ghosts of the past with them. I’d be curious to read those stories again now, to see whether they hold up – and to discover whether they contained more prosthelytizing than I remember. I want to know if those giants are still scary, or if the they seem more like monsters made to pound a message into my skull.
Then again, that’s all lots of horror movies and stories are, really: just coded messages meant to play on the things we fear the most – like communism, or shopping malls. Or Texas.
Except the bloody fur collar story (mentioned in footnote *). That one was just creepy.
*Okay I just remembered a fourth. During that infamous 5th grade book report I read a story about a girl who goes to spend the night at a friend’s house. She wakes up to some weird sounds and finds herself alone in the room. The lights have all gone out, and she goes prowling around the house in the dark, hands out in front of her. As she feels her way around, she touches something that she realizes is the furry collar of her friend’s nightgown — with nothing above it but a stump! Something has chopped off her friend’s head. I don’t remember how this story got resolved, but the image of that furry collar still rears its head (or stump! ha ha!) once in a while.
** Peretti makes an appearance in a great book called Rapture Ready, a compendium on the phenomenon of Christian pop culture. He doesn’t come off TOO shabbily, and the author’s comments about him and his adult fiction make me wonder what I’d think of those books now.
***I have a friend who used to lie awake at night because she was afraid that if she fell asleep the Holy Spirit would impregnate her. So I guess not everybody was as nonchalant about religious mythology.