Nostalgia for Nightmares

September 29, 2014 — One of the beautiful things about Halloween is that it magically gives kids the power to face their fears: monsters. This goes for adults too. Of course, we only have one fear, really, and that’s death, so we face that by draping plastic skeletons all over our porches and watching people die in horror movies. But that’s a more boring topic.

I miss my childhood monsters, especially the ones born from my own nightmares. The older I get, the less I dream (or the more I forget my dreams). As a kid, though, my sleep was beleaguered by nightmares, and I had to fake a lot of headaches just to pull my parents out of bed to get me Tylenol so I could mentally reset myself.

Even now I remember most of my childhood nightmares. My worst ones were always of two sorts. Either I had done something horrible and irrevocable, like the time I flushed my childhood friend down the commode or that other time I blew up the East Coast with a nuclear device hidden inside a pumpkin the size of the Empire State Building. The other kind was witnessing the start of the apocalypse. Knowing that my death was imminent was far scarier than the plague of vampires or Godzilla run amok or whatever form the end of the world took that night for me.

But of all the actual monsters dredged from my subconscious that have hunted me down in dreams, only four have always haunted me. I remember them more clearly than the face of my second grade teacher, more vividly than the presents of my early Christmases. I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody about them, mostly because they’d seem silly to someone who hasn’t shared nighttime childhood brainspace with them. Still, in the spirit of the season, let me introduce you to my monsters, in order of personal mental scarring, low to high.

Please don’t laugh at my nightmares.

The Fashion Phantom

This one, I admit, is the most unlikely of monsters. The nightmare was a brief one. I was with a small group of people, I don’t remember why or who they were. I want to say Sherriff Andy Griffith was one of them. But there was something we had to do, a mission of some sort. We were instantly transported to a brown, dusty, almost Western town, where we entered a shop. On the counter was an old-fashioned cash register. Up to this point, the dream was a fun one, the first few frames of an adventure…until something slide out from behind that register.

Two arm-length purple silk gloves, the kind worn by women at glamorous parties in bygone decades, slithered out like a pair of eels and started undulating together like some kind of dismembered cabaret. They weren’t connected to anybody, but were filled with phantom feminine arms.

I don’t know what happened next, because I immediately went into my routine for getting out of nightmares, squeezing my (mental) eyes shut and yelling at myself to “Wake up, wake up, wake up!” Don’t give me too much credit for being able to recognize when I’m in a dream. I have the same defense mechanism when I’m awake.

In researching fears of phantom clothing, I came across this Dr. Seuss book, What Was I Scared Of?. In it, the fuzzy, yellow main character goes through life fearing…a pair of empty green pants. This is not a book I read when I was a child. I only just now, in my crumbling adulthood and after writing the first draft of this post, discovered it. But I don’t know whether discovering it should make me less creeped out by my Fashion Phantom or more.

I assume the instant moment of fear from seeing those otherwise innocuous gloves sprang from not knowing what was wearing them. Regardless, for the love of God, please don’t ever wear long purple gloves around me. Green pants are okay.

Cheetah Man

This is a more classic monster, but a more bizarre ending. My brother, a friend, and I were being chased around my house by a monster I hadn’t yet seen. We hid in the bathroom, which was small and dark. Suddenly, I was alone in the room. I looked at the open doorway and there, framed within, was Cheetah Man. It stood upright and had the head of cheetah and the hands and feet of one. Maybe the rest of it was furred and spotted, too, but I couldn’t see it underneath the Renaissance fair-type outfit it wore.

The cheetah man opened its slavering jaws to an almost Predator width and began a prolonged scream at me. That was bad, but that wasn’t the scariest part. It’s what it did while screaming that seared the creature into my young consciousness. It didn’t claw at me with its hand-paw, didn’t lunge at me with its toothy maw…it reached out its left foot, which flattened and spread like, I don’t know, the hand of the Creature from the Black Lagoon and wrapped it completely around my leg. IT WRAPPED ITS CHEETAH FOOT-FIN AROUND MY LEG.

I didn’t need the “wake up” defense mechanism this time. I woke immediately, the part of my leg where its Cheetah foot-fin touched me, a band of cold flesh.

Prune Face

This was a rough night for me. So I’m looking at a tree, and under that tree is a large, high-backed wicker chair facing away from me so that I couldn’t see who was sitting in it. Over the arm dangled a limp, white hand. Somebody is dead in that chair. I know this.

Suddenly, that limp hand bloats and wrinkles like a body dredged from the ocean. Something is now alive in that chair. I know this. And I know, know because my subconscious is a bastard, that I’m about to see its face, all swollen and pruny and pale. So I squeeze my eyes shut, but of course my eyes are already shut since I’m asleep and you can’t squeeze your brain shut. Basically, my defense mechanism wasn’t working.

The nightmare itself seems to realize this, and instead of just showing me the face and being done with it, scrolls it slowly in front of me from top to bottom, the pallid and misshapen countenance smiling evilly at me while a deep, terrifying laugh that I can still hear today causes every hair on my body to suck back into its follicle.

You won’t know reading this, but I froze in terror for five minutes after typing that last paragraph.

Knob Goblin

This guy. This guy is the only monster and the only character not inspired by someone from my life who has made repeated appearances in my dreams. Unfortunately, I can only describe him comically.

Imagine the Kool-Aid Man for general size and shape. Instead of red, he’s dark brown, maybe black. He has no face, and like the Kool-Aid Man, his head and torso are the same thing. On the upper part of his torso-head is a series of four or five steps that run the width of him. On each of those steps is a single row of golden knobs, like lines of doorknobs facing up.

He doesn’t sound like a monster, I admit, more like a member a character in the busy background of a science fiction movie or a side-kick in a foreign children’s show.

But he was scary.

I remember one time, he trapped my mother, my brother, and I on a bed at my grandparent’s house, walked calmly over to us, and then bloodlessly pulled my brother’s ear off. I remember another time, where he trapped me and a friend in a cabin with translucent walls in the middle of a forest. He was leading a pack of similarly sized monsters, who walked up behind the cabin, split into two lines, and started marching around the sides like the Muppets do in the opening sequence of the original Muppet Show. All I could see were large shadowy forms through the walls, but I knew he was one of them. I woke up before they got to the entrance.

I remember recognizing him in those nightmares, like he’d been in other nightmares that I couldn’t remember. Maybe my subconscious shielded those from me. He might still be entering my nightmares since I rarely remember them anymore.

And that’s it. Those are my monsters. I’ve had gorier nightmares, certainly. I’ve had more traditionally scarier ones. I’ve had plenty of pop-culture themed ones. But those are the four monsters who, for some reason only Freud could tell, stuck with me into adulthood. I think of them relatively frequently.