The first was that when people said a movie or book had scared them, they meant that it had scared them. To me, this was literally inconceivable. How could a piece of fiction actually scare anyone?
It dawned on me, however, that I hadn’t always felt this way. In 1969, when I was 16, L. Ron Hubbard’s paranoiac book, Fear, had me looking over my should for several months. And after seeing Don’t Look Now in 1973, I’d had a nightmare that left me unable to sleep for the rest of the night, and haunted me for days afterward.
Remembering this brought about my second realization: the nightmare induced by Don’t Look Now was the last one I’d had for over 20 years.
So I decided to have a nightmare.
I’d lie in bed in the darkened room and imagine myself getting up, going over to the mirror, looking in it, and seeing a face behind me. Sometimes I’d actually do it, although no face other than my own ever appeared. Generally, after trying to conjure up a shivery feeling, I’d just wander off into the kitchen to make a snack.
I was oddly diligent in this quest, however, and after a couple of weeks it finally paid off.
This, without embellishment, is the nightmare I had. It was a pretty damned good one, if I do say so myself.
I was standing on a train station out in the country, having just got off one train to make a changeover to another. I had some time to kill, however, and upon seeing a path leading into the woods, decided to take a walk.
After a few minutes, I came across a house with about half a dozen people sitting outside, talking. They invited me in, and for a while we sat in the living room chatting like old friends.
At some point the conversation turned to books, and somebody brought out a children’s book, saying that he thought I’d be interested in it. The book was extremely tall and narrow, and appeared to have only one page.
On the page was a mountain surrounded by a plain. I was sitting on the floor, and the book was tall enough that I had to look up to see the top of the mountain. There, small but recognizable, were a number of frolicking baby zebras. The text read: “Baby zebras on the mountain.”
In the middle of the page was the grassland leading up to the mountain, and on it were more zebras, obviously much closer now. Accompanying them were the words: “Baby zebras on the plain.”
Near the bottom of the page the text read: “Baby zebras all around me.” To my astonishment, this was literally true — the baby zebras were actually spilling out of the book, snapping at me with long, razor-sharp teeth.
The text accompanying this read: “But the baby zebras are insane!”
I threw down the book and jumped to my feet. The people, who had been so friendly only moments ago, were now laughing at me. Far worse than their laughter, however, was the fact that they were all dead.
And judging by their decayed flesh, they had been dead for a long time.
I bolted from the house. Rather than following the same path by which I’d arrived, I raced down another path. While still taking me back to the train station, it brought me out a little farther down the tracks.
Somewhat calmer, and with no signs of pursuit, I looked around. I could see the station. I could also see a group of people milling around the place where I’d originally entered the woods. As I got closer, I saw that most of them were police. An area just a few yards into the path was cordoned off with yellow tape. I went over to ask what was going on, but nobody paid me the slightest bit of attention. Unobstructed, I made my way over to the yellow tape and saw a body.
I stood looking down at myself, dead, lying in a pile of leaves. My mind screamed, but I was frozen to the spot. There was a terrible moment of horror and confusion.
And then I was standing on a train station out in the country, having just got off one train to make a changeover to another. I had some time to kill, however, and upon seeing a path leading into the woods, decided to take a walk.
And while the “I” in the dream remembered nothing of what had just occurred, the “I” dreaming it realized that this was going to happen again and again and again.
And I woke up.
After that, I decided that having nightmares wasn’t all that important, and went back to not having them. A wise choice, I think. And I still don’t get frightened by fiction.
But that poem has stayed with me. (My wife even used it in an essay for her surrealism class.)
Baby zebras on the mountain,
Baby zebras on the plain,
Baby zebras all around me,
But the baby zebras are insane!