copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
As we age, the objects of our fear change. As children, we fear the dark. We fear monsters. We fear strangers. Later, we learn, as the Beatles sing,
What do I see when I turn out the lights?There’s nothing in the dark that wasn’t there in the light, we learn. There’s nothing to fear, even if the jacket on the back of the chair looks, in the dim light, among the shadows, like a crouching troll. Monsters, we learn, are imaginary. There are far worse things--real things--to worry about. Disease. Sickness. Death. Strangers, we realize, are potential friends.
I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine.
Like shape shifters, our fears change. They transform themselves. They metamorphose, becoming different, becoming other. Often, even when they’ve changes, they are still in mask and costume, impersonating our deeper, truer fears. Take the fear of close spaces. In “The Premature Burial,” Poe describes the terror of one who, thought to be dead, awakens inside his coffin, having been buried alive:
Fearful indeed the suspicion--but more fearful the doom! It may be asserted, without hesitation, that no event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and of mental distress, as is burial before death. The unendurable oppression of the lungs--the stifling fumes of the damp earth--the clinging to the death garments--the rigid embrace of the narrow house--the blackness of the absolute Night--the silence like a sea that overwhelms--the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm--these things, with thoughts of the air and grass above, with memory of dear friends who would fly to save us if but informed of our fate, and with consciousness that of this fate they can never be informed--that our hopeless portion is that of the really dead--these considerations, I say, carry into the heart, which still palpitates, a degree of appalling and intolerable horror from which the most daring imagination must recoil. We know of nothing so agonizing upon Earth--we can dream of nothing half so hideous in the realms of the nethermost Hell. And thus all narratives upon this topic have an interest profound; an interest, nevertheless, which, through the sacred awe of the topic itself, very properly and very peculiarly depends upon our conviction of the truth of the matter narrated. What I have now to tell, is of my own actual knowledge--of my own positive and personal experience.Terrifying, indeed, would it be to find oneself in the situation that Poe describes! It is such “premature burials,” historians suspect, that gave rise to the legends of vampires. Awakening within the narrow, close confines of a buried coffin, the panicked person would rip and tear at the lining or the bare wood of his or her confines, possibly turning over, if there were room enough for such an action to be accomplished, all the time wild with terror and horror, screaming in unheard anguish until there was no more air to gasp and stillness and silence put a merciful end to the victim’s horrific struggles and desperate pleas. Later, should the coffin be exhumed for some reason, the corpse within, now on its stomach, rather than on its back, and the casket itself disheveled and scratched, would seem to prove that the dead was not dead, but, rather, is one of the undying, one of the undead.
As terrible as claustrophobia is, there is something worse, perhaps. What if no one existed but oneself? What if all the world were but aspects of oneself, as are the artifacts of one’s dream? The existence of inanimate objects, of plants and animals, of other persons, of the universe itself cannot be proven, after all; rather, all things other than the experience of one’s own mind at work is all that one can know directly. The existence of everything else is merely inferred. Inferences can be misleading. They can be false. They can be illusory. The mirage on the highway seems to exist, until a car, traveling toward it, gets close. Then, it seems to vanish. In fact, it was never really there at all, perhaps, any more than is a rainbow or a dream. Psychologists believe that infants are natural solipsists, believing that they alone feel and think.
It may seem delightful to have a tropical island all to oneself, and, perhaps, for a while, it would be. What would it be like, though, after a week, a month, a year, or a decade? What would it be like to be alone in the world? The solipsist knows, or would know, were this philosophical position tenable for long in the thoughts of a person both mature and sane.
Even if solipsism is untenable to the vast majority of people, its possibility, even as but the topic of argument and debate, suggests the extremes to which people can go in challenging common-sense realism and, indeed, common sense itself. Some, standing upon the precipice of solipsistic madness, fall over the brink and into the abyss. But for the grace of God (or, perhaps, only chance), there go we as well. Claustrophobia may represent more than a fear of close spaces and of being trapped physically. It could symbolize the fear of being trapped inside oneself. There are various ways to be imprisoned within oneself. Solipsism is only one, and the unlikeliest one of all. Other, more probable alternatives to psychological imprisonment are the large number of mental disorders and even inarticulateness. If we cannot speak, if we are unintelligible or inarticulate or incoherent, we cannot make ourselves known. Therefore, we are trapped within the circle of our own thoughts and within the sphere of our own emotions. Our minds and hearts become the coffins in which we are buried alive. This, in fact, is the theme of Sherwood Anderson's novel, Winesburg, Ohio, which is, while not a horror story per se, full of moments of horror.
In horror fiction, we use cramped spaces--narrow hallways, tunnels, cages, cells, and the like--to symbolize such fears. We also employ the zombie, a creature much like us but slow-witted and slow-moving, shambling, stumbling, and unable to speak or think. Dead men walking, the zombies are we, as the solipsists of our fears.