Just a number
Say the word ‘triskaidekaphobia’ thirteen times. If you do have triskaidekaphobia, by the end of it, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were hyperventilating on the floor.
Why is there such a word only for the number 13? It has a special word, but the fear of any other number is just generalised as ‘numerophobia’ (which I develop in the face of some whacky binomial theorem question in a math exam. Don’t ask).
I find that quite offensive, to be honest. My relationship with the number 13 stretches back a long way - some might even say from the time I was born. My birthday is the 13th of December, so obviously, this number is dear to me. Thus, call it premature or whatever you want, whenever this number is portrayed to be something to be scared of, it feels like a jab through my childish chest.
In second grade, my birthday fell on a Friday. There was this weird buzz around school, kids murmuring at the back of lines, the words of which I couldn’t quite make out. Someone suddenly shouted, “It’s the Devil’s Day today!”, and that got me wondering, “Was I the Devil?” Admittedly, it was not a great thought for an 8-year old with an aversion to horror and gore.
In fact, many people around the world are scared of the number 13. Some buildings purposely have only floors till 12 to avoid having the 13th. Most aeroplanes don’t have the 13th seat. The famous London Eye has 32 capsules in its periphery that are labelled until 33 because the number 13 is omitted.
Puzzled by this seemingly irrational yet universal fear, I went back and researched the reason why the number 13 is so often shunned. The lore traces back to the evening of the Last Supper, where the thirteenth man to be sitting at the table was Judas Iscariot, the supposed betrayer of Jesus Christ. The number 13 refers to this betrayal of the thirteenth member who sits at the table. Given the fact that this superstition emerged aeons ago and it is still followed today, it gave the fear some amount of validity. But it’s still just a number.
I reflected a little on my relationship with fears. I have a fear of fish, I remembered, something I discovered when I visited an aquarium with my friends. I never really thought this would be a genuine fear for me because I never had any extreme emotions towards any kind of animal. But that day when I was faced with the catfish staring right at my face, the irrational fear came to life, manifesting in the form of heavy and laboured breathing.
It then struck me that fears aren’t supposed to be rational. As long as it is real, it is a fear and should be treated like any other fear - with caution. I might fear many things I haven’t even explored yet. Fears are personal, and questioning as to why one has a particular fear won’t help in alleviating it. It’s not just a number; it’s a fear.
Fears don’t make you weak; they make you human. And there is nothing more human than having a fear that you can’t quite make sense of. Irrational fears are human.
On that note, however, I will be dressing up as the number 13 this Halloween, so this is an open warning of caution to all the triskaidekaphobics out there.
Whenever Halloween comes around, there is one genre of movie that everyone gravitates towards - horror. I never really understood the whole buzz around horror movies. And it’s not that I don’t feel horror; I am deathly afraid of snakes and will most definitely squeal when I see a cockroach in my bathroom. But, for some unapparent reason, I always find horror movies funny. Maybe I sound like a psychopath, but hear me out.
I have always considered most horror movie gimmicks to be “point and laugh at” funny rather than “jump out of your seat” scary. Oh, Annabelle 3 is the scariest movie ever? Well, then why do I cry from laughter and not from fear? When my friends and I watched Conjuring at a sleepover when we were 10, why did we burst out in hysterics?
How come we, as a society, have progressed to a point where we look at ghosts haunting a family or a man chainsawing someone's head off and consider it a laugh-out-loud moment?
The answer is a mystery. I, however, have several theories.
Laughter is an intense emotion, and horror movies are made to elicit intense emotions with their little jumpscares and whatnot. So, maybe laughing is a response to the stimulus, a reaction that comforts us when we are experiencing heightened emotions.
Maybe we laugh on the outside and find ways to mock horror movies and their cliches as a way to shield ourselves from the fear that we actually experience. “Okay, this is not possible in the real world, there is nothing to be afraid of.” In other words, we laugh to hide the fear. Don’t we all want to show each other that we have such courage that we not only don’t get afraid of horror movies but also find them funny? And once we start laughing at one instance, the adrenaline rush of laughing with our friends doesn’t let us stop.
But what happens when we watch them alone? Do we still laugh?
In all honesty, I have never watched a horror movie on my own. Maybe I am scared to learn that I can be afraid of them, or maybe I think they are stupid and unrealistic. Either way, I always have a reason not to watch them. I say “The characters make such bad choices”, “They’re all the same”, and “The plot is so convenient”, but maybe I don’t like what my reaction might be. Only when I know I won’t be afraid I watch them, and then I point and burst into laughter.
So, what’s the conclusion? Why do I find horror movies so hysterical? Is it a coping mechanism or reflex action? Would I not find them funny if I watched them alone? I think the answer in my case is simple. I laugh at horror movies with my friends as I feel comfortable pointing out the absurd decisions characters make. I laugh to prevent fear from leaking out of my skin. I laugh because I cannot control it. And I only watch horror movies when I know I will laugh.
Maybe I am afraid of being afraid. What about it?
Tricking and Treating
Halloween, insofar as it exists in public consciousness here, can mostly be boiled down to three things: costumes, candy, and general spookiness (skeletons, vampires, witches). It helps if the costumes and candy share in the third. I like to order these in terms of least scary to most: candy, costumes, and finally spookiness. I used to wonder why things on such extreme opposite ends of the fear spectrum characterize Halloween together, but now I think I get it. Treat or trick?
There’s something uncanny about costumes. Something forbidding. You can treat it as a fun opportunity to wear an outlandish outfit - as I often do - or, thrillingly, you can take it a bit more seriously. On Halloween, you can be anything. I like that this ‘anything’ often tends towards the magical, and the magically dangerous. You can be a vampire, fake blood dripping towards a low neckline, not-so-fake glint in your eyes.
Halloween is a juxtaposition of fear and sweetness, but it shows us that the two are not really that different. Why do we like watching horror movies? Why do we dress up as dangerous mythical creatures to go around asking for chocolate? We all have a beast inside, waiting to bite. I hope today’s poems shake you up a bit. Trick or treat? Can you have one without the other?
The Witch Has Told You a Story by Ava Leavell Haymon
Ava Leavell Haymon was the 2013–2015 Poet Laureate of Louisiana. She is the author of four collections of poetry, including Eldest Daughter, Why the House Is Made of Gingerbread, Kitchen Heat and The Strict Economy of Fire, along with five chapbooks. Her third book, Why The House Was Made Of Gingerbread, was chosen as one of the top ten books of 2010 by Women's Voices for Change. (Wikipedia)
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti
Poet Christina Rossetti was born in 1830. Rossetti's popularity in her lifetime did not approach that of her contemporary Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but her standing remained strong after her death. Her popularity faded in the early 20th century in the wake of Modernism, but scholars began to explore Freudian themes in her work, such as religious and sexual repression, reaching for personal, biographical interpretations of her poetry. Academics studying her work in the 1970s saw beyond the lyrical sweetness to her mastery of prosody and versification. Feminists held her as symbol of constrained female genius and a leader among 19th-century poets. (Wikipedia)
All Souls by Michael Collier
Michael Collier was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1953. His poems often reveal a fascination with objects and their significance; they are populated with, according to poet and critic James Longenbach, a “sinister and yet oddly comic cast of misfits, ogres and giants.” Collier himself has noted, “I suppose… that I believe almost literally in Williams’ notion of ‘no ideas but in things.’ I’m a consumer. I like things.” Beyond the surfaces of the things and characters, Collier’s poems reach for moments of truth and clarity. (Poetry Foundation)
WE ARE THE HORROR STORY
I remember the first time I watched The Haunting of Hill House. I was prepared for it to shake me up (and it did), but I didn’t anticipate that I’d be sobbing in my bedroom, devastated, by the end.
Themes of mental illness, exploitation of power, queerness, classism, and more were explored in an imaginative yet disturbingly lifelike manner. And for once, I didn’t think any of these themes were misrepresented. Moreover, because the show had such an uncanny realism to it, I saw myself in all the characters. The element of horror in the show is brought by individual manifestations of each of the characters’ fears and it showed me that horror could serve as a brilliantly done allegory.
I’ve found that most horror and dystopian media are allegories, intentionally or not. Often, these allegories tell stories of oppression and suffering that either very closely resemble or outright mimic stories of (primarily) people of colour. Ironically, horror and dystopian films are notorious for killing off the only minority characters early on and completely removing them from the narratives of their own stories. And these are the same stories that don’t make it into history textbooks. They’re about the same people that are forgotten, neglected and shadowbanned. Whose names we never learnt to say. Whose names were overwritten and replaced with Western, White names. And somehow, that gives these stories some form of validity, so much so that they sell out in theaters and bookstores.
A friend of mine who lives in the US was talking to me about their history curriculum. They explained that their textbooks tend to glorify American and British colonisers and conveniently leave out information about countries that were hurt systemically during these times. Naturally, people who live in countries like the US grow up with more knowledge about zombie apocalypse movies than the colonial mindset and the xenophobia that clearly inspires these movies. A ton of films with a ‘they’re-trying-to-take-us-over’ storyline seem to share a fundamental trait, which is a fear of the other; the same fear between White people and POC. Zombies were originally characters in Haitian lore, and when Haiti was colonised, they were appropriated into the American media we see today, like The Walking Dead. Here, though, White people are seen as the victims, having their livelihoods taken away from them.
It’s astonishing how much of a sway White people have in the narrative. Think about all the horror you’ve watched, and then think about how much of it is told through a Western perspective. I’ve read a lot of horror, more than I’ve watched. And admittedly, most of it has been by older, White male authors such as Stephen King. And you can tell when something’s been written by an older White man by the values the piece expresses. For example, in the beginning of It: Chapter Two, a gay couple gets thrown off a bridge, like, right off the bat, really making it blatant how dangerous public displays of queer affection can be. When I first watched that, the only thing I learnt was that I had to be careful.
Another example of a questionable allegory is Squid Game (although one could argue it’s more dystopian than horror). It’s been applauded for its clever social commentary but the irony there is blatant once you do a background check. Despite the massive investment the show had for filming, it was intentionally filmed in certain parts of South Korea where workers’ rights weren’t rigid, so they wouldn’t have to pay as much for things like set-building, extras, props, etc. The cost of filming Squid Game was a lot lower than the investment; and unsurprisingly, the main cast and production crew got paid much more than everyone else involved. This becomes all the more baffling when we consider that the show in question is about the effects of capitalism on workers.
The reason I bring up Squid Game is to emphasise how the lives of real people are retold and dramatised into the genre of horror, while the people themselves remain unrecognised. Most such apocalyptic horror works on the same principle: the rich and powerful have an imbalance of control over the last of the remaining resources, while everyone else has to compete for the little that they are left with as the world ends. My friends and I joke about the world ending because of climate change and depleting resources, but this could be a reality for our generation, and horror movies that represent this are all the more terrifying for us to watch.
Most of these concepts - the zombie apocalypse, the doomsday trope, or the world invasion - were either invented or appropriated into film by Hollywood. But horror is an entirely different experience when watching it is like looking into a mirror. When you realise you are the horror story.
Do you feel fear? Everyone feels fear. The only thing that differentiates all of us is the things we fear. Some of us fear spiders or the dark, and others loneliness. But why do we feel fear? Does it not inhibit our abilities? Then, is it not a flaw?
Perhaps. However, this bug in our system has proven over time to be a very important design feature, remaining an evident part of the human psyche, even after evolutionary software updates.
Think of it this way: Modern humans first emerged on this planet 300,000 years ago and our evolutionary ancestors, 2 million years ago. And yet, we have endured. Innovation lays the foundation for progress, however, fear is the reason for our survival. We knew not to challenge anything bigger than us, anything with sharper teeth or better yet, insult a person who cooks our food. All because we were aware and afraid of the consequences. We were always inquisitive, searching for new ways to become the dominant species despite knowing that there was danger lurking around every corner. So, we waited before turning that corner, making new ways to combat this danger and eventually, we emerged victorious.
However, somewhere along the way, we lost this innovative nature. Instead, we turned on our own, creating horrors worse than any danger that nature could deliver upon us. Instead of progressing as a species, we began tearing each other apart like the very things we feared so long ago. Communal hate, bigotry, apartheid leading to social harm, alongside nuclear warfare and chemical weaponry for physical harm. I believed that fear was supposed to be temporary, that we were supposed to have stopped feeling it once we had reached the finish line of progress. Instead, we created our own monsters, having to fear them.
Every morning we wake up, having to worry about our futures, our past and worst of all, our feelings. We run and hide from showing our emotions because we wouldn't like what others think. We shy away from making new connections because of predefined inhibitions given to us by society. And yet, this is necessary. Our instincts help us avoid those we don’t feel comfortable with and they help us forge bonds that would stand the test of time. But these instincts may just stop us from being an active part of the social machine, perhaps leaving us to a lifetime of loneliness and cynicism.
So this Halloween, be thankful for all you have because you never know. Fear may be a trick, or it may be a treat.
A HEART OF STONE
A desolate scream echoed through the house, the sound ricocheting off the cold, bare walls. In a corner of one of the many austere rooms was a girl hugging herself, tightly curled into a heaving, weeping, despondent ball. Her hair was plastered to her tear-stricken face.
In front of her lay something beating and pulsing; something she avoided looking at.
In front of her lay a human heart, one that had begun to decay and wither away. Strangely, it had even solidified in parts, turning a dull gray - as if it had turned to stone.
In spite of its ghastly state, the heart kept beating. Its pulse was weak, but certainly present. The heart belonged to her, but the intensity of everything it brought with it exhausted her, so she abandoned it. At least, she tried to.
So the heart no longer had anyone, or anything to beat for, to attach itself to; to keep alive. Yet, it adamantly continued to contract and relax, over and over again, resisting the stone walls forming, resisting its inevitable death.
It followed her around no matter how hard she tried, emerging wherever she went, whatever she did. Her disembodied heart held onto the meager string of hope that she had long given up on.
The heart was hers, and although it continually hurt her and overwhelmed her, she could never, ever get rid of it.