I've always been the most easily scared person in the room. It's part of my character. It's who I am. But the first time that I distinctly remember being terrified was during a visit to my grandparents' house. It almost became tradition that whenever anything supernatural was talked about, my grandma would begin to tell the story of the ghost dog. The tale would begin on a Saturday night when my aunt, who was 18 at the time, was coming home well after midnight. By the time she reached the hall she could hear barking coming from upstairs, and when she peered through the near pitch-black house she saw their dog, Colleen, staring back at her. She told her to keep the noise down so as not to wake the others, and then went into the kitchen to get a glass of water. But upon entering the kitchen, her heart stopped. There, in her doggy bed in the corner, fast asleep, was Colleen. And when she went back to the stairs, the other dog, the one that had barked and stared back at her, had vanished. "The real story," my mom would whisper to everyone but my grandma, "is that your aunt was completely drunk." But I refused to accept that. I knew in my heart that the house was haunted by the infamous ghost dog, and it sent chills down 5-year-old Ryan's spine.
From that point on, fear was a natural part of my childhood. It invaded every single part of my life. If it was day time I was terrified of social interactions, embarrassment, school, and now dogs; if it was night time I was terrified of vampires, demons, and murderers. I'd even gotten into the habit of sleeping with the blankets completely over my head to hide from any otherworldly beings. I would later find out that this was counter-intuitive towards my survival, because of needing to breathe. So, instead I would simply wrap myself up to where I looked like I was staring out of a giant winter hood at all times. I had a strict "eyes and nose exposed ONLY" policy in place and it worked wonders for me. After all, I did manage to avoid getting kidnapped by demons in the dead of night. Like, you have to give me that.
Still, there was a sort of rush in being afraid. And in the second grade I experienced my first willing step into the dark arts. It was in the basement of my best friend James's house where we decided that we would perform an ancient ritual that we'd witnessed on TV. We may have only been seven years old, but we'd heavily studied the steps necessary for this particular evil sacrament, and knew the risks that came with it. With our curiosity at the wheel, we were prepared to deal with the consequences of our actions.
"Are you ready?" I asked, with a flashlight in hand.
"Oh, I'm ready." He looked terrified but excited. "Are you?" I nodded. "Let's do this." We took one final look around us before we began.
"BEETLEJUICE, BEETLEJUICE, BEETLEJUICE!!!" Immediately after saying His Most Unholy Name thrice, as the ritual demanded, we ran screaming in terror out of James's basement and hid up in his room for the rest of the day.
The next time I would willingly scare myself would be in the 7th grade, when I decided to watch my very first horror movie with a group of friends. Looking back, The Grudge wasn't particularly scary. However, I had grown up watching Buffy, so there was a special layer of terror added on by the fact that all of a sudden Sarah Michelle Gellar was completely helpless. This woman that I only knew as either the ass-kicking Slayer from Sunnydale, or the for-seemingly-no-reason-at-all black belt version of Daphne, was now frail and killable. And it fucked me up. It's not an exaggeration to say that it took me a few years after watching The Grudge before I could sleep with the lights off again. And even then, it took me until I moved to the city before I could sleep in complete darkness.
Several other ghastly phenomena happened to me over the course of my life. From seeing an electric blue outline of a person in my basement, to a kitchen knife going missing in my apartment when I lived alone, to me waking up to my pillows thrown across the room, my light on, and my phone on the floor with "666" dialed into it. But by the time I was in my junior year of high school, I'd learned not to be afraid of paranormal things. All it took was a paralyzing new fear of death to make me THRILLED for any sign of the existence of ghosts or demons, as it meant I wouldn't simply fade into oblivion after I died. I had options, at least. It was a warped way of thinking, but it helped. Or I should say it helped with everything except for my constant unending fear of serial killers. You see, Serial killers tiptoed on the line of being terrifying but still totally plausible. They could kill you and it wouldn't necessarily mean that you'd have the option to come back and haunt their ass afterwards. So to avoid being serial killed, I created a set of rules that I enforced upon myself and my friends to make sure that we'd survive. These rules included: Do not go near any wooded area past 9pm; Do not jokingly pretend that there is a serial killer somewhere nearby when in a frightening situation; Do not enter a suspicious room without investigating it first; Do not investigate a suspicious room unarmed; Do not say the phrase, "There's nothing to worry about, everything's going to be fine"; And, perhaps most importantly, if one person looks behind them at any point, the entire group must look behind them. Because I'm not trying to recreate that scene in every horror movie where that one character looks off into the distance, sees some blurry figure watching them, doesn't think it's worth bringing up to the rest of the group, and then later that blurry figure finds them and kills them all. No thank you. We're ALL gonna see that blurry figure carrying the chainsaw and we're gonna strategize from there. Straight up, I refused to be the kind of person that would die in, or even BE IN, a slasher flick.
When I was 18 these rules saved my life. I was home alone, browsing around on a hookup site when I received a message from a 55-year-old man that lived a few towns over. I read the message but I wasn't interested in him, so I didn't reply right away. I went back to viewing some other profiles and a few moments later got another message. It was him. His message made some innuendo about the way that my head was tilted in my profile picture, and then, to my horror, described to me what my house looked like from the outside.
Acting completely on instinct, with my heart beating out of my chest, I immediately took a screen capture both of the message and of his face and sent it to some friends. I put my phone in my pocket, grabbed the heaviest thing I could find in my room (which was a metal desk lamp) and hit the floor. I scanned the hallway through the crack under my door, looking for any signs of footsteps. After a few minutes had passed and the hall showed no signs of life, I silently opened the door and snuck out of my room. I dashed past my dad and sister's rooms into the living room, then kitchen, and grabbed the largest, sharpest knife available. I hid all other sharp objects in the sink below some pots and turned the water on, making them difficult to grab for anyone else. I then burst into the last few rooms in the house to make sure I was home alone before posting up by the front door and texting the biggest, burliest men that I knew. It's actually pretty impressive how many ex-marines you end up knowing when you're an 18-year-old twink. One of them responded back and asked for more information about the messages sent to me, as well as the pictures on my profile. When I sent them, he, in text, rolled his eyes and sighed so hard that I could feel it happen through the phone.
"Ryan, all he did was say that your house has a sloped roof... In your profile picture you are very clearly sitting in front of a sloped ceiling. He's not trying to kill you, he's just weirdly perceptive." Still, even though my life wasn't directly in danger, I was proud of myself. Because had that BEEN an actual situation in which I had to fend off a serial killer, I would've been setting myself up for success. Unfortunately, when I was 19, my follow-through wasn't quite as sharp.
Dan was a boy that I'd met a few months earlier through that very same website, but had managed to maintain a strictly platonic friendship with. He was that cool kid in school who would do the things everybody wanted to do but never ended up doing because they put unnecessary restrictions on themselves. He worked in the music industry and would regularly attend large-scale rooftop parties with producers, directors, rappers, singers, etc. He had the kind of life that I probably wouldn't have believed had I not tagged along one time. And then there was me. I was jobless, living at home doing pretty much nothing, feeling my creativity waste away with every passing hour. So Dan reached out to some of the people that he worked with to try and get me an internship involving social media. He asked if he could pick me up so that we could discuss it, and I agreed.
He refused to talk about it on the drive, changing the subject every time I brought it up. "I wanna wait until we get to this spot that I know of. It's amazing. It's beautiful and you'll love it, just trust me." We talked about various other things on the way and he, knowing how much I loved Buffy, showed me a wooden stake that he'd carved while bored one day and had left in his car. It was around 12AM when he drove into a tiny cul-de-sac on Long Island and parked directly in front of a "DO NOT ENTER" sign posted up in front of a wooded area.
"I'm guessing the secret spot is right through those clearly-werewolf-infested woods, right?" I joked. "Why did you park here?" He un-did his seatbelt and opened his door. "Oh, fuck no," I said, my eyes widening and my grip tightening on the stake.
"Just trust me. It looks creepy from here but once we get inside it's actually gorgeous. It's my favorite place to go and think. I do it all the time." I protested a bit but Dan insisted on entering the woods. And thus began the catch-22 of being in a horror movie. Because at this point, the decisions you make are lose/lose. If you choose to go into the woods you're choosing to fight for your life. But if you choose to stay behind and lock yourself in the car, you'll be the first to die. Once you're in a horror movie, if you at any point decide to turn back you are going to die. Those are just the rules of the game. So I got out of the car, stake in hand, and followed beside him.
"It's just a few minutes up ahead," Dan said as the trees began to block out all light from the moon and the street lamps, making it impossible to see more than a foot ahead of you. I stopped short and my mind began to race. I knew that something weird was happening. Dan's insistence on traveling into a pitch-black wooded area so close to midnight was not normal. The wooden stake carved in his van was not normal. My heartbeat sped up and I accepted that the person next to me was not actually a friend. Through the dark he couldn't see the sideways glances I gave him, as the wooden stake switched to my left hand, nearest to him, and prepared for the moment he might attack me. I knew that it was coming and, at this point, I was ready. Yet I couldn't shake the thought that I'd been to his work place. I'd met his employer, his friends, and I'd seen that the life he was living was not a sham. How could this man, someone who worked in the entertainment industry, be a murderer? And if he was a murderer, why was he leading me to some clearing up ahead? Why not take me out now, in the dark, before my eyes had a chance to adjust? We'd been walking upwards of ten minutes at this point through the pitch-black, him saying, "it's just a little further up ahead," the whole time when the thought finally hit me. "This... This is some illuminati sacrificial shit, isn't it? " And then directly after, the absolute worst realization of my life set in, "Oh my god, Tila Tequila was right." I expected to come to the clearing and see men and women, faces from the industry, draped in black and red robes with the pyramid eye on the hood. I expected a knife to my back. I expected Dan to kill me. And although I was terrified, I was ready to fight for my life.
Our steps slowed and we came to a slightly less dense part of the wooded area. A small amount of light shed through the trees and I could see more than a foot in front of myself again. I readied myself for what lie ahead, as this was clearly the last stretch. This would be it...
And when we stepped through the last bit of trees we found ourselves on a gorgeous hilltop with moonlit grass shining a dim blue. Down the hill was an amphitheater, unlit but beautiful with rows upon rows of seating.
"This is where they perform a bunch of outdoor productions of musicals and plays," Dan smiled at me, not knowing that I had already accepted that we would be fighting to the death just a few moments earlier. "I thought this would be a good place for you to see, creatively speaking. I just feel like it's... so YOU." The area was beautiful and I felt bad that I'd thought anything ill of Dan's intentions while bringing me there. But mostly I was disappointed in myself for having allowed this situation to occur at all. I prided myself not in being the survivor of a horror movie, but in being the person that would never find themselves in one at all. And yet here I was being led through the pitch-black suburban woods at midnight by someone I'd only known for a few months.
Still, things had turned out alright, as they tend to when you're not actually part of a horror movie. We never ended up speaking about the internship but, after a long fight on the way home, Dan and I ended up better friends than we had been before. Neither of us ended up dying that night, no sacrifices were made, and, perhaps most importantly of all, Tila Tequila was still wrong.
Lately I've been having this recurring dream where the connecting factor is that at some point in the dream my teeth end up falling out. Not all of them, but at least one or two. Which is actually not super farfetched because I take care of my body about as well as a hamster takes care of its babies. In that I am a very nurturing, loving mother to the hamster baby that is my body, until I experience even the slightest bit of anxiety, in which case I will straight up eat that motherfucker. I'm all vegetables and meditation until the second I get anxious, and then without hesitation I'm 7 cups of coffee deep with an empty bag of chocolates next to me and am about to vibrate through the wall.
The most recent tooth-loss related dream involved me, for whatever odd reason, having the power to turn back time. But even invoking the superpower that skyrocketed Cher to international fame couldn't save that one wiggly, bloody tooth that fell out of my head 14 times in the same dream. It would fall out, I would rewind time, do things in a completely different way, and still find myself running into the same result. I ended up screwing with the space time continuum so much that night that it felt like an entire season of Doctor Who had taken place inside my head. When I woke up I was left feeling terrified, anxious, exhausted, and with an overwhelming urge to slap Steven Moffat. And then I fell back asleep and had an entirely DIFFERENT dream where that same goddamn tooth fell out.
After rigorously brushing, flossing, and then checking 12 different times to make sure that my tooth was still there, I sat down to think about what the dreams could mean and why exactly they kept happening to me. The general collective of internet knowledge seems to bring up two valid theories on what these dreams mean. The first being Freud's theory, which shockingly enough has to do with sexual repression. And considering my sex life has been moving at the pace of the tectonic plates for two years, it does sound a bit right. You'd think sex in the city would be easy to come by, but it's actually way more difficult than it is in the suburbs. After all, in NYC everyone on Grindr is your actual neighbor in your actual apartment building, so if things take a weird turn they can literally take up stalking you as a part-time gig and still manage to murder you in a timely manner.
The second most common interpretation that I found is that the loss of a tooth in a dream represents a renewal of self. Considering my mind and body have both felt a shift coming in my life for a while now, I'm more than willing to accept that interpretation as well. For a long time it felt like my life was easy, simple, and flowing, even at a slow pace, and I was okay with that. But then over time the negative thoughts started to build and the anxiety started to take form inside of me. It was like my mind's ocean started crashing against the shore. All of a sudden everything that used to be easy, simply, and flowing seemed frantic, rushed, and urgent. And it took me until, frankly, last night to realize that it felt like that because every cell in my body knew that it was time for me to wake the hell up, stop accepting the idea that the negative thoughts and secondhand embarrassment of the people around me have anything to do with me, and realize that I'm just one step away from being who I dreamed I would be as a kid.
In the sixth grade I was in my third year of a program called "Orion," which was a program that took gifted children out of class once or twice a month and brought them to a separate school to work on advanced puzzle-solving skills, life-skills, etc. Sixth grade was the final year you could participate in the program and it wrapped up with one giant simulation of the real world. Each student would create a resume for themselves, apply for an array of jobs in a specific field you were interested in, get hired for whatever job they felt you were most qualified for, create your business model with the other students, and then on the final day live out a day in the life of that simulated world and watch your work in action. I was incredibly excited and I knew I wanted to enter the writing field, so I whipped up a resume and submitted it. When the positions were announced I was listed under the "Newspaper" category but wasn't quite sure what my title meant, so I asked around. Was I an advice columnist? Was I in charge of the editorials? Was I the headlining entertainment specialist?
"That's the person that goes around the street yelling, 'Extra! Extra! Read all about it!'" One of my classmates pointed out to me. It's weird because I don't really remember being disappointed that in a school full of "gifted children" I was given the prestigious role of delivery boy. In fact I remember laughing about it and bragging to every mini-executive in the room about how I was a Newsie.
I'd fully embraced my title but was still pitching in with ideas every time the group needed help. After all, if I was going to be peddling these newspapers at the job simulation they needed to be well put together. And then about a week before the job simulation one of the teachers overheard me doing my Newsie shtick and finally asked why I kept repeating that same phrase. So I told her.
"Ryan, that's... That's not what an advertising sales manager does." I stared at the teacher blankly as it took me a moment to register what she had just said. They hadn't rejected the idea that I had something valuable to bring to the world of writing. They hadn't plopped me onto the bottom of the totem pole simply because somebody needed to be there. They hadn't finally realized that I was an imposter and should've never been in the gifted program to begin with. Not only was I not hired to be a delivery boy, I was actually in charge of most of the people in my group. It was like a reverse version of undercover boss where I was the only one that had no idea I was the boss. Our team ended up doing really well the day of the simulation, but it sticks out in my mind, now, just how easily I'd accepted that in a world full of 12-year-old CEOs I would be picked out to just be a delivery boy.
There were a few things that I wanted desperately out of life. I wanted my own apartment, I wanted to live in NYC, I wanted to live comfortably, with the ability to buy food and games whenever I wanted, and I wanted to be an artist. But somewhere in the last year the voices of a few nasty critics in my life managed to break into my head and fill it with the idea that I was only a delivery boy, just like they did in the sixth grade. And just like back then, I'd accepted that as my new reality and turned away from the idea of being an artist in favor of the glamorous, gold-plated life of retail. Then, the other night, while staring out of my apartment window and drinking a glass of rum that I had delivered to my door, I realized three things: I had my own apartment, I lived in NYC, and I was comfortable. I realized that in the past two years, while completely doubting my abilities to achieve any of my goals, I'd accidentally succeeded in three of them while operating on auto-pilot. I mean, can you imagine what I could've accomplished had I actually paid attention to what I was doing?
So there was, and is, one goal left. And it's the most difficult one. But in my first year of Orion, in the fourth grade, the teachers went around and asked what everyone wanted to be when they grew up. There were a variety of firefighters, nurses, doctors, vets, teachers, etc. throughout the audience, and then one flamboyant little boy named Ryan who answered, "I'm going to be a famous writer."
"Do you have any idea how small the chance of that happening is?" my friend, who wanted to be a politician, answered back. "That's like being a movie star, only like 3% of people actually make it." Ironically, on another day when we were all asked who wanted to be President of the United States, he was the only one who raised his hand. And years down the line he would end up running for Mayor on a platform that would spark major change in our hometown. "I just think you should pick something more realistic."
"Maybe," I responded. "But there are movie stars. There are famous writers. So if 3% of people actually make it, why shouldn't that be me?"
Ryan C. Robert is the writer of multiple comedy blogs, most of which are satirical and self-deprecating. He writes about his life in his personal essay series "Before Color," parodies cooking blogs in "Trish's Dishes" and posts writing prompts every single day.