Tonight, amidst the underlying thrum of anxiety caused by the pandemic, I will be facing an even older fear. It is Walpirgasnacht, the Witches’ Sabbath on the eve of Beltane or May Day.
Now I am not a Wiccan (no value judgement implied. An abiding respect for natural consciousness is as good a basis for belief as many). Nor, living in the heart of Dallas, do I really dread the frenzied marauding of moonlit and unclad cavorters.
It is just that growing up, my brother would regale me with terrifying stories about the festival. Then, when he had left me in a fevered pitch, he would call out my name in the deep of the evening through the intercom which, for some strange reason, connected our two rooms. Or he would sneak in to wave one of our glow-in-the-dark models in my face until I awoke and screamed. He would dash merrily back into his room, sure to get a withering scolding from our parents but loving every minute of it.
Why do we enjoy being scared so much? Why would David and I sneak out of bed to watch Lugosi’s Dracula (still one of the scariest movies I have ever seen)? Why would we read passages of Lovecraft or Derleth to each other until our eyes teared and our hands shook?
David taught me early that ghost tales are almost universal for as long as humankind has been able to tell stories. Parents who are ever protective of their young will offer up terrifying tales in the dark of night or by a lonesome campfire. Even sacred texts are not above dragging in a good scare or two.
I think it is because terror is a universal part of human existence. We are so frail and so limited in what we know and what we can understand. We are so lost in the shared enormity of being alive and suddenly not being, that we cannot even voice our dread.
Ghost and monster tales give names to the things we fear. A vampire, a werewolf as dreadful as they may be are so much easier to handle than the terror by night, the breathless and formless void lurking in the darkness of the cave or the laundry room. A thing with a face, no matter how dreadful the face is, is something we can recognize and perhaps avoid or fight.
This year in particular, when we are surrounded by a threat that is everywhere at once and cannot be seen or fought, it is nice to remember the old-fashioned kind of scare – one that may be laughed off or run away from or replied to with a brotherly shove.
So tonight, if you must, I urge you to keep track of where you put your clothing, beware of moon burn and don’t fly too high into the clouds. Or spend the evening as I will, blankets over my head waiting for the voice on the intercom that won’t be coming and basking in a fear of the far-fetched but imaginable.
[This Post was adapted from a essay originally published on Facebook the day listed above]