The Everyday Uncanny

In recent years I’ve been easing my way back into scary fiction and the less gruesome sort of horror films. I am strictly a dilettante here; I can highly recommend Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House if you want a book, and recent films like It Follows, The Babadook, Let the Right One In, and a few more, but I have no hidden gems to report and no serious insights on the genre. For a discerning commentator on all things horror, I will refer you to Chris Morgan.

I will never be a critic of the genre, which is part of why I’ve come to enjoy it. And there’s an element of psychological hygiene to it. I benefit from horror stories the way I benefit from, say, hardboiled mysteries–they show me things outside of the frames of perception I rely on every day, and the stories that come through my particular door. So I clicked away on this 2015 Deadspin collection of reader-submitted real-life horror stories. I rather enjoyed the chills until the last two, which were horrifying enough that I really hope they were made up.

I had my little cathartic shudder and all was well. Then I got up for my morning run. It was still dark, as I like it to be when I start. I put on my reflective shirt, my blinking red light, and switched on my flashlight. If a car was going to hit me, it wouldn’t be my fault; if I was going to stumble into a skunk, it wouldn’t be the skunk’s fault. These are my customary fears, and they are easily enough managed.

Sunday morning was different. The lots are big out here and the forest preserve looms at the edges of the subdivision, so it’s not as though the blank, partly wild spaces and their capacity for imagined terrors are new to me. Some substantial mortgages rest on the thin membrane between the world that makes sense and the world that doesn’t out here. But my last night’s reading had left me more skittish than usual. So when a car lazed by, heading toward one prong of the two-pronged dead end that I run around, I tensed up a bit. Not that there’s anything odd about a driver slowing down to note a guy running with a flashlight in the predawn. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the car veer into one of the driveways near the end of the road. Just someone coming in after a late, late night. On I jogged. I saw first light touch the top of the sky. Then the glow of the headlights reached the trees over my head. The car was coming back toward me.

I stupidly picked up my pace, then realized I should conserve my energy in case I really did need to sprint. I reached the end of the road and turned left, toward home and away from the marsh and the most forlorn stretch of the subdivision. The car followed. As I glanced back it turned my way and again passed me at a pace that did not strike me as especially businesslike. I watched it ahead of me as I turned onto the road out of the neighborhood and it found the easternmost dead end, turned around again, and passed me once more before reaching the main road. It turned the opposite direction from my home, and drove away. The scent of cigarette smoke lingered in the air after the car left me, normally an ambient smell I enjoy, now a sulphurous and sinister warning.

My door was quickly locked and my nerves were well unjangled before church and I could happily focus on that other end of the paranormal spectrum as I prayed Cranmer’s words, imploring God to send his angels to bring our praise and thanksgiving before God’s majesty in his heavenly sanctuary. We took the kids to the town’s Main Street trick-or-treating event. It was bright, cheery and crisp. The high school drama club had set up an adorable haunted house with student zombies, vampires, mummies, and aliens. Mo Willems characters were on hand courtesy of the library.

Back at home, children in bed, I noticed the church building was still lit up. No one appeared to be inside. So I got my flashlight and walked over. The doors were all still open and no one was inside. There was no mystery to this; thanks to the day’s unusual schedule, no one was responsible for closing up. But a big empty church building, however modern and suburban, is just an uncanny place, maybe even more when it is brightly lit than when it is appropriately dark. I won’t deny that I was strategic in how I locked the doors and turned out the lights. I didn’t hear any noises or feel any sudden chills (my last church was held by the administrator, with utter conviction, to have a resident ghost; if there are any unresolved horrors here, I’ve never been told them and couldn’t begin to imagine what they would be). But if I had, I am certain I would have met them with no manful composure at all. Even though my prayers are said, my soul is at peace, and my Savior lives.

Back outside I switched on my flashlight. It sputtered down to a faint disk as I rounded the youth house into the dark stretch of my walk. Shake, shake, shake, and a little brightness revived. I got inside and locked the door. It was all nothing out of the ordinary. Just the raw stuff of life that waits to be sifted for vivid details or molded into a pattern. What if some horrid mishap should befall me all the same? What if I should meet some gruesome fate between when I schedule this post and when I goes up? Well, that would certainly be odd, whatever else could be said for it. The Dodgers have just-re-tied this baseball game, so it’s a moment for odd outcomes.

I will still take my prophylactic doses of neurotic shadow-guessing. Whether they awaken me to realities or tempt me to lunge at illusions is impossible to know. We are chaotic minds in a chaotic world, and the odds that the two realms of chaos are either fully overlapping or fully distinct must be quite small. Maybe the simplest posture of reverence is best: don’t be afraid of the dark, but give the dark its due.

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