The Smell of Fear
|Only the brave will follow the dark path...|
Imagination, in fact, is pretty potent on its own. The sighting of a single unidentified animal jumping into a bush one night got a mass of thirty odd (in some cases very odd) children running at full speed up the hill while trying to vault over each other. However, imagination fueled with just a few horror movies, can cause unstoppable terror to spring, unannounced, from nowhere. One evening we were all down by the gate after someone made a phone call. (In those pre wireless days, the only place to make a call was the pay phone in the little wooden building by the gate. The technological invasion of our isolated sanctuary is not an improvement.) The mood was light, the jokes were flying, and spirits were high (a regular Family Circus moment). It was at this point that some genius noticed, while still laughing, “Hey doesn’t that look like the Poltergeist tree?” Suddenly, the levity left the group faster than a Happy Meal toy leaves a car with an open window. We all stopped talking and began to walk up the road very slowly. This lasted roughly one fifth of a second, and then we stampeded, wildebeest like, back to the cabins, shattering the three minute mile barrier en masse.
The movies that generated the most fear during my Up the Lake childhood were the Friday the Thirteenth series. This was due to three reasons: A) The Lake looked like the one in the movies. (It had water in it, trees around it and camps near it. Close enough for us.) B) The crickets in August make a continual chh-chh-chh noise. And, most importantly: C) It was the 80’s. All that was required to generate chaos and screaming (OK, all that was required to generate MORE chaos and screaming) was for someone, in a pseudo-spooky voice, to utter, “Jason’s coming.” This would cause everyone to run around yelling aimlessly, much like the plots in the movies themselves. Everyone that is, except me. Big wuss though I was, I had watched far more Sesame Street than horror movies. My reply to, “Jason’s coming,” was, “If me knew he’s a comin’, me’d a baked a cake,” in an authentic Cookie Monster voice. (My useless talents are many and varied.) This has always been one of my favorite songs, with a slight variation. Instead of singing, “howdcha do, howdcha do, howdcha do,” I would sing, “fah-ti, fah-ti, fah-ti.” That was Uncle Ackie’s favorite word; I never did learn what it meant. Based on: the laughs of adults when I sang it as a child, the swats from my grandmother it earned me as a teenager, and the mere fact that it WAS Uncle Ackie’s favorite, indicates that it must be quite a word. There was a point to this story, but it seems to have been lost in a sea of Muppet references, and Italian profanity. Perhaps it would be better if we just continued.
Because it is so easy to scare people at night Up the Lake, it is done frequently. The basic form of this is jumping out from behind some trees and yelling something in the “Boo!” genre. As simple as this sounds, it can also be very effective. A couple of little Joes popped out on my sister from under the bedroom, and she couldn’t catch her breath for about thirteen years. More complicated attempts are seldom as productive, but are much more fun to set up.
Often, complex scares are dependent on previous events. The year we built our new kitchen cabin, we went up to begin work, before the regular season, when there was absolutely no one around. Late one night, we heard the soft mooing of a cow coming from the woods. There are no dairy or cattle farms in the area and it was very eerie (because we were very tired). A few other people also heard it later that year. Don’t bother skipping ahead to find out what it was; we never had any idea. (If you’re still looking for closure reading these things, you should probably go off and read something else, like the Handbook for Ridiculous Optimists.) As the summer wore on, reports of the “Moo Monster” declined but persisted. One night, when my friend Jesse was visiting, we were in the kitchen and heard a loud “moo!” coming from close by. As we listened, we heard not one, but two moos, each in its own key. Then, as panic and fear began to fade, we heard the highly ominous, “Baaaaaahhh…um … *cough cough cough* Moooooooooo!” At this point we found Nick and Skip underneath the building attempting to make spooky livestock noises. And that is the rather sad and pointless ending of the tale of the Moo Monster.
The biggest problem with scaring people is that we’ve all been going up there so long, that the difference between a true scary noise and a person (usually named Joe) trying to make a scary noise is pretty obvious. Even the practice of running around on someone’s roof seldom brings more than a minor yell. It does, however, bring major laughter when the frightener is seen falling past a window by the frightenee (sometimes, the old jokes are still best). On those occasions when new people come to visit, however, it’s open season. Tracy had her varsity football-playing cousin up one weekend, and they were down the lake with my sister. I snuck down and did the standard “throw rocks in the water while hiding in the woods” bit. This scares none of the regulars anymore and actually reduces the chance of spooking them by announcing the frightener’s presence. It made the new frightenee quite antsy, though. After I got bored, I leapt up in the air off a rock and hit them with a flashlight beam from about ten feet off the ground while yelling, “What are you kids doing down here?!” Mr. Quarterback proceeded to demonstrate all the bravery and chivalry normally associated with that position by grabbing his much smaller female cousin and thrusting her between himself and the unknown threat. Simultaneously, my sister very calmly folded herself into a beach chair. It may sound like I’m gloating over another’s misfortune (which I am) but, since I was normally the one who got scared, I’m allowed to dwell on this one.
One common fear among many first time visitors is the outhouse. Often guests will hold it in for several years before venturing into one of these innocent looking structures. After talking to many first timers (and several eighth or ninth timers), the main reason for this nervousness has revealed itself to be a concern that something will crawl up and bite them. A long time ago I realized that anything that was capable of surviving in such a location, and also able to jump up the required distance from less than sturdy ground, was going to be way too powerful to stay put in that hole for any length of time. However, my sister and I have both confessed that the reason that we used to (and still did well past the age where it is safe for our knees) run down the hill from the outhouse at night is the belief in the Outhouse Monster that lives in the woods behind the little building. I thought I heard it one night; I was heading up the hill after reading by the fire long past everyone else turned in. From ahead of me on the path came a deep inhuman sounding growl, causing me to immediately reassess my need to continue the journey and turn in myself. As I opened the bedroom door, the origin of the noise was revealed anticlimactically (once again) as multiple source snoring that came in phase and resonated out the back bedroom window. With everyone’s sonorous sinuses up these (including mine) we count ourselves lucky every morning the place is still standing.
It was after Kim ran down that hill one night, and we shared these views with our cousin, Eric, that he related a story to us that sheds light on what our visitors may believe is down there. While I can never do true justice to the story as he told it to us, this tale must be recorded as a shining example of the creativity (or something) that being Up the Lake generates in all children.
Eric had two of his friends up visiting him during his youth, Mick and Nick. This trio with rhyming names was engaged in standard camouflage clad, army face paint wearing, b-b gun toting fun, when they happened upon the idea to visit the outhouse. The reason for this was not the standard reason for sane adults to visit an outhouse, which is to make a deposit, but rather the standard bored man-child reason, which is to look down the holes. Every Up the Lake outhouse is a two seater (at least), as very few women and children would walk through the woods to them alone at night, and even fewer would be willing to wait outside alone. Exceptionally few men actually made it as far as the outhouse when going through the woods at night, but this is neither the time nor the place to bring up that rather unpleasant issue. When we last left our three intrepid explorers, they had entered their small wooden destination, lifted the lids, and took up their posts. Mick and Eric shared one, while Nick got a solo view on the second. Then, staring intently down the portholes as if they had just been seated in 20,000 Really Gross Leagues Under the Sea, they looked. (We now pause so you can go, “Ick,” a lot . . . done? Good.) As they were looking down Nick enthusiastically yelled, “I see one!!” The other two stared more intently. They saw a great deal which could be described as “stuff,” but nothing at all visible that deserved the title of, “one”. Overcome with curiosity and the desire for knowledge, Eric and Mick asked, “What?” With no drop in enthusiasm Nick replied with an infinite amount of gravity and certainty:
Without a moment’s pause to notify the Smithsonian of the discovery of a new species, or to notify Bellevue to ready a padded room for their Shitsnake spying friend, Eric and Mick looked closer, appearing like a Siamese twin birth to anyone unfortunate enough to be looking up at them from the other side. As the duo strained to see onto his half, they asked their pal the location of his groundbreaking discovery. Nick assured them that it was hiding under, “that piece of toilet paper,” (where else?) and that he would point it out.
Before his intrepid associates could figure out how he was going to point down into the darkness, at what must be a horribly dangerous, or at least geographically unhappy reptile, Nick yelled yet again:
“THERE HE IS!”
And, with his face stuck in a place that a face should never be, he pushed his repeating b-b pistol down next to the improper cheek for this location, and blasted over a score of shots at the Creature From Behind the Charmin.
The boys left the building after their theoretically successful hunt, and as they were walking away noticed two things, (1) There was an amusing new smell. And (2) Nick’s black camo makeup was now highlighted with many brown spots, which (sadly for him and hysterically for Mick and Eric) smeared when he tried to wipe them off. His friends demonstrated their love and support by laughing violently, saying helpful things like “Eeeeeeewwwww”, and running away.
The moral of this story is, of course: No matter how hard you try to write clean, family oriented essays, and no matter how hard you try to avoid offending your readers, sometimes you just have to call a Shitsnake a Shitsnake.