Thursday, August 14, 2008

I was listening to the podcast of This American Life while running yesterday, and as usual, that thought-provoking podcast got me pondering personal experiences -- maybe I should do my own video podcast.

But until I work out the technology and get ready for my close-up, I'll have to write out my musings -- specifically, on TAL's theme this week, of "Fear of Sleep". Now, unlike the people profiled on the show, I don't have hypnophobia. I love sleep and welcome it any chance I can get. Even on the job sometimes. But I wasn't always that way.

One of the people on the show saw The Shining as a boy and it scared him pretty bad. It was an okay segment, presented from one of TAL's producers POV as a kid who related to the "Redrum" kid in the movie. I really think I had it worse, though.

The first scary movie I saw was Jaws. I was pretty young and was profoundly affected by it. I drew sharks all day -- picture after picture of them, and then laid awake at night, replaying scenes of Robert Shaw getting eaten, the dorsal fin protruding above the surface, and even my own odd obsessive drawings.

Eventually, I got over it. Perhaps as a kid, there was so much stimuli to distract me over time, that the film became a distant memory. Also, I realized that even though I lived on an island -- as Roy Scheider said in the movie, it's not an island if you look at it from the water, which made no sense, but more importantly, if I don't go in the ocean, I'd be safe from killer cartilaginous fish.

Three years later was Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I thought I had described this movie experience on the blog, but I had only mentioned that it gave me a phobia of sleeping in the same room as plants. I don't trust anything that's alive yet doesn't move or make a sound, and reproduces by having sex with itself.

Seriously, though, this flick fucked me up.

And my parents were no help. They had seen the original version from the '50s and were interested in this '70s remake. And they took me along figuring the kid wouldn't have another Jaws-like incident. But this was worse.

I was literally trembling in my seat. Physically, profoundly terrified. See, the thing is, if you're afraid of sharks, don't go in the water. Jason Voorhees scares you? Stay the hell away from Camp Crystal Lake. And let's hope no one who trained for NASA has a serious phobia of the Xenomorphs from the Alien series.

But the creepy slimy pods of Body Snatchers got you when you were sleeping. How do you avoid sleeping? We spend a third of our lives doing this! Basically, if you live, you die. The paradox was perplexing for my prepubescent pea-brain.

Still, I was precocious enough to purge the picture's possibilities. "That could never happen," I said as we were leaving the theatre. "'Cause the alien plants would have taken millions of years traveling through space to get here."

My mother said, "Maybe they left millions of years ago."

Okay. How 'bout this: "Well, I heard that things from outer space burn up when they enter our atmosphere, . That's why the rocketships have to have special protective covering so they don't get too much damage due to friction during reentry."

Dad looked at me, ready to put the smartass punk in his place. "That's because rockets and asteroids come in at great speed. But these seeds from outer space -- they just floated down."

"Well, but-- okay, wait--" I tried to come up with another hole in this
pod person theory, stammering away.

Mom tried to calm me down. "Don't worry, Michael," she said. "You'll feel much better after you get some sleep."


And that's the other aspect of this movie that was so scary. The paranoia. Everyone's in on it. You don't know who to trust. Even my own parents were conspiring to get me.

Or at least mess with my head. I was seriously traumatized by this movie. That evening, it was one of the nights of Chanukah, and I had gotten this really cool ceramic R2D2 light thing that my grandmother made in her ceramics class. And some board game that was kinda like Battleship or Stratego, but with magnets. I made my sister stay up for hours playing game after game to the flickering droid light. I remember struggling to stay awake and me begging her, just one more game -- I can't go to sleep!

My sister got it, but Mom and Dad thought it was all a big joke. The nights that followed, they'd stand outside my door and whisper things like, "okay, I think he's asleep..." or "you got the pod?" and "leave it here. Tomorrow he'll be one of us."

The cruelty didn't end there. Six months after that winter of my discontent, when I was in sleepaway camp and the long summer nights helped ease my nighttime fears, I got a letter from my mother: "Your father has been acting very strange lately. Quiet, serious. Not like himself at all. And he's been growing some ugly plants in the backyard..."

I know they were just kidding, and either unaware of how serious this fear of mine was, or trying to help me get past it with humor. Nevertheless, it's all going on the shrinklist.

Today, I can look back on it all and laugh. I recognize what scared me. And I think that's one of the things I like about zombie movies -- the idea of losing allies to the enemy, becoming increasingly and inevitably outnumbered. But it's all just a movie. I can watch Body Snatchers without any deep-seated dread. Hell, I own it on DVD -- I love the weird score, and think it's got one of the best final scenes in cinema. (The all-time best, by the way, is in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.)

And I sleep soundly... as long as there's no fucking plants in the room.


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