This being the “season” leading-in to Halloween, I thought it might be optimal to put a few minutes aside in order to discuss those things which frightened me as a child.
To begin, I need to make plain the fact that when I was a kid, I was easily terrified by ghost stories. I was hopelessly addicted to them of course, but easily terrified nonetheless*. So any famous ghost story you can name, from the one about the broken doll in the basement (“I’m on the fiiiirst step!” et cetera) to the one about the caller upstairs (not really a ghost story per se, but still) probably caused me at least one or two sleepless nights.
But the all-time champion of ruining my nights was a much less well-known ghost story; indeed, I can’t seem to find it repeated anywhere online. It was told to me by my sister when I was five years old; she had heard it from a friend of hers at a Halloween party. I expect (for reasons that will no doubt become clear momentarily) that her friend probably overheard it at a sleepover (more particularly a “sleepover of five”).
It was the Tale of Monkey-Man, and it went something like this:
There was once a mad scientist who researched the link between Humans and Monkeys**. One day (as mad scientists are want to do) he was conducting an experiment upon himself, when something went dreadfully wrong. Instead of finding whatever data it was that he was looking for, he wound up mutating into a hideous half-man, half-monkey! With suction cups on his fingers! For some reason!
In any case, now reduced to his feral state, he became preoccupied with his lack of ability to mate. So he began roaming the neighbourhood.
Meanwhile, five girls were having a sleepover party; it was a fun party, involving all of those things which sleepovers allegedly have (such as pillow fights, and that thing where you peel apples in just such a way as to reveal the man that you are destined to marry). It was fun, but sooner or later the time came for the five girls in attendance to go to sleep.
Late that night, as they lay in bed, just on the cusp of sleep, they were all roused into wakefulness by a mysterious sound…namely, that of suction cups against the wall, growing ever closer…closer…
They were all too frightened to breathe a word. Their abject terror only intensified as they heard the grinding of wood on wood as the bedroom window was slowly hoisted upwards. And then there came a dull *thud!* as a hulking, hairy figure launched himself into the room. Monkey-Man had arrived.
Each girl scrunched her eyes tight, willing herself to believe that this was only a bad dream. But with a loping gait and heavy breaths, Monkey-Man proceeded to each of them in turn.
He roused the girl nearest to him so forcefully that she had no choice but to open her eyes. It was a terrible error, for upon seeing Monkey-Man’s hideous visage, she gasped and died of fright on the spot.
Monkey-Man moved-on to each of the girls in turn. Each time, upon seeing him, they found themselves completely overwhelmed by his monstrousness and so died of fear before they could even so much as utter a scream.
All of the girls that is, until Monkey-Man reached the final one. She, apparently, was made of firmer stuff than her friends, and so, when Monkey-Man approached her, she looked him straight in the eye and said: “I’m not afraid of you.”
And so Monkey-Man grabbed her under his powerful arms, whisked her back to his laboratory, and transformed her into his Monkey-Bride!
Ever since then, Monkey-Man has been wandering around, looking for new mates. And every time there’s a sleep-over of five, you can surely expect to hear the sinister sound of suction cups upon the wall.
Of course, looking back on it from a distance of two decades this story is, objectively, pretty ridiculous. But I can assure you, when you’re five years old, it is absolutely terrifying. I suppose that this fear relies not just on the monster–or on the cultural fear of science run amok***–but on some of the surprising subtleties contained in the story itself. There is, of course, the more or less standard suspense-building as Monkey-Man draws “closer…closer…” But this is compounded by the manner in which he dispatches his victims–they don’t even have a chance to fight back; the creature is so hideous that even the sight of him kills them on the spot.
And then of course, there’s the climax. Children (at least of my generation) are taught to face-up their fears–that in so doing, they will be able to conquer them. But in the story, this expectation is cruelly betrayed (and this is likely the first time that I saw such a reversal in a work of fiction as a child); by facing up to her fear of Monkey-Man, the final girl does not escape, but instead only invites a fate much worse than mere death. It concludes, as ghost stories tend to, with the creepy implication that this monster is still about, and that such a terrible fate may one day befall you. It is, in fact, pure, concentrated nightmare fuel.
Whatever the case, hearing this story had a very profound and negative effect upon me as a child. For at least a year after hearing it, I found myself incapable of sleeping without a desklamp on in my room. And I would never dare to draw aside the curtain on my bedroom window outside of daylight hours, for I knew that I would see him there waiting right outside of my window****; hulking, shaggy, and ready to pounce. In my mind’s eye, I imagined him as looking like a combination between Chewbacca and the Salt Vampire from Star Trek, only with a face that was shrouded in darkness. Mentally, I began dividing my life up into The Dark Days of Now, and that happy Eden which had existed in the days when I was still as yet ignorant of the evil of Monkey-Man.
I’m curious, though: this being Halloween and all, can any of my readers name the most frightening ghost story that they ever heard as a child?
*A pair of facts which, in combination, made my parents intensely frustrated with me; much like the way I loved salsa in spite of the fact that it made me throw-up every time I ate it.
**Maybe this story originated with a creationist?
***The Mad Scientist archetype, by the way, is something that I very much hope to get around to blogging about at some point
****This in spite of the fact that I’m reasonably certain that I’ve never actually been to a sleepover of five.