On Horror, Death, Ray Bradbury, and Ancient Burial Sites
by Selah Janel
So I’ve mentioned before that I grew up as kind of a scaredy-cat. I couldn’t watch scary movies without freaking out (even though I snuck off in video stores to read the back of all the boxes of every horror movie ever). I was pretty gullible and believed a lot of the wild stuff people told me.
To be fair, I do have just cause for this. I was exposed to some overly creative bedtime stories as a kid (The Demon Who Stole the Parents comes to mind), saw the IT miniseries as soon as I came out. There may have been the time when a relative pretended to be possessed in a car on a road trip…
So to be fair, my abject life terror wasn’t completely unwarranted.
I darted away from my shadow at the weirdest times….until I didn’t. At some point, I started to become enamored by the what-ifs in a situation and I started delving into possibilities. At around ten I started getting into Irish ghost and faerie stories, which I think helped. I gained more of an appreciation for the darker folk tales once I learned they had a purpose. I survived the trend of young adult problem literature, so as much as I was timid as a kid, I had that adjusted as a teen. There are still aspects of horror I don’t like, and some things I’m not totally comfortable with, but all in all I have a deep love for the genre.
Oh yeah, and then there was that one time I was nearly locked in an ancient burial site with a bunch of exposed bodies.
I’ve talked about it on my own blog some, but growing up, The Sibling and I had a talent of getting locked into places as kids. I had the glorious experience as a kid of getting locked in a library and we still tell tales of how The Sibling got locked in a bank vault. What can I say, we liked to subvert the manuals and keep things interesting for my parents. They loved it.
But there is one incident that beat all of those times getting lost in stores, locking people out of houses, getting locked into other weird places. This is the story that wins the battle in my favor in our family.
I was between seven and nine and we were in central Illinois somewhere, looking at a potential new place of employment for my father. The Sibling had gotten to stay home, but because the viewpoint of a seven to nine year old is crucial, I went to make sure my parents weren’t ruining all our lives.
For some reason, on the way back home we went to visit this museum on/near to an ancient mound burial site. For those not familiar with Native American burial mounds, they’re usually specific to certain periods in time, and at least in the case of places like Cahokia, they’re still pretty mysterious. In a strange life theme, I’ve always lived fairly close to them, and even got to watch a small area be excavated as I was going into college, if I’m remembering the time frame right. I have mixed feelings on the subject, because while I love learning about history, I do feel that there has to be a huge amount of respect with excavating anything of that nature, and in general it’s a very loaded topic.
Which is weird because this museum’s feature was that there was a giant section of the burial mound exposed inside the actual museum for people to walk above and peruse. I really don’t know how that was even allowed or possible, but I’ve asked over and over and I’m not making this memory up. I have been told, though, that that part of the museum, if not the whole thing has been shut down since then, so there you go.
At any rate, by the time we were at this museum I had been to many museums and I knew how to behave in museums so I was generally allowed to look at what I wanted to as long as I stayed in sight – especially since the place was getting ready to close and we had popped in right in time.
So I’m looking down at all of these skeletons and at first, you know, it just seems like history, like anything else I’ve been dragged to see: a run of the mill exhibit with a lot of boring signage and diagrams. I wandered around the huge room looking at the signs I’m too bored to read, and wander back and forth a bit as my folks took forever. And ever. I remember you could walk out on this balcony and look down at the mounds that were still intact, though they were far below.
I’ve never really been afraid of heights, but there was something at the moment that just…it all was too much. I turned to go back and couldn’t see my folks. I don’t know if they’d wandered out or if they were on another side of the room. I don’t remember the structure well at all, I just remember that as I tried to cross back past the exposed bodies, that’s when it hit me.
Any of those could be me in a fairly short amount of time – or long. I didn’t have a great concept of age at that point, but it hit me that those had been people just like me, and now they were gone and people were staring at them and what was preventing that from happening to me? I specifically remember an infant curled up against its mother (there was a helpful plaque pointing that one out) and realized that that could be my mother and The Sibling, or my mother and me. Eventually history and my life would move on – maybe I’d be old and maybe I wouldn’t be – and I’d be a skeleton just like everyone else in the room. They looked peaceful, they even looked beautiful in a strange way, but it also broke my heart because that meant their lives were over and they couldn’t do anything else and what did that even mean? Had their lives been hard? Had they died of natural causes? What about if they hadn’t?
At this point the security lights came on and bathed everything in a helpful red glow. No matter how I turned or tried to look at things, the bones seemed to shift under the light just a little, and every noise that made it into the hushed room sounded like a footstep right behind me.
I kept turning back to the balcony, then trying to cross past this huge tableau laid out beneath me, and was unable to do it. I must have made that path like ten times, glancing at the mother and child at each cross, looking over the display of exposed ribs and skulls and limbs. It was odd because I could turn it off and on – one moment I could rationalize it and know that I’d be perfectly fine and the next I would remember that it could easily be me and what if I fell off the balcony or fell into the pit and the panic would creep up my middle and freeze me all over again.
I’ve never been claustrophobic, and while I had had childhood moments of freaking out, usually it was after a night terror and not in public. All I could think of was that the place was closing, the lights had changed, and I was going to be stuck there forever with them and oh my god what if that’s what some of the bodies were?! What if they were people who just hadn’t been able to get out!? Where were my parents? Were they leaving me here? What if no one checked the room until the morning? What was I going to do stuck there all night with all the bodies!?
At that point my mother came in just ahead of one of the guards, found me pressed into a wall having a life crisis, retrieved me, and that was that. No, seriously, it just wasn’t actually brought up much after that.
I was one of those sensitive kids who also never thought to talk about what was on her mind at the time so I didn’t really think to mention it because nothing had actually happened. We weren’t physically locked in, the lights had been turned off, but my mother found me, we were able to walk out and drive home, life was good and normal. Still…the what if’s lingered.
For those that think that kids don’t have a real concept of life and death and can’t think about the future or relate a historical lesson to their own life…oh yes, yes they can. Part of the reason I love Dandelion Wine is Doug’s realization that he’s alive in the opening chapter. I’d had moments like that as a kid, moments where I realized I’d never cross a certain point again, or I wouldn’t be at a school or in a situation forever and I just had to hang on and trust that things would be okay because I was alive and that was good, and there was still a lot to do.
I’d known death before – I’d lost two siblings by that point, as well as older friends, but seeing all that up close hit me in a way that things never had before. It also wasn’t my first venture into skeletons as part of history, but for some reason, seeing all of those bodies laid out before me…it didn’t just scare me because I thought they possibly, maybe could get me if they were bored enough, but it outright terrified me that I would eventually be just like them.
Obviously I survived and put it out of my head for a while. I don’t really back away from death, be it in concept or watching it play out around me—life doesn’t work like that. And I don’t hold the incident against my parents – it was just one of those things that happened and I reacted in a way that I’d never reacted before. They had no idea ‘til earlier this year that the experience had freaked me out or why. And really, we went to plenty of historical sites and museums and saw plenty of things after that that never bothered me.
When I first read Bradbury’s story The Next in Line, I didn’t think much about why it bothered me, why it gave me such a panicky feeling of claustrophobia, of imminent doom. It was a good, scary story – I had the right reaction, turn to the next one! But when I recalled that memory and read it again…I was eight all over again, quietly freaking out, wondering about my place in the world, feeling empathy with the female lead in the story, and absolutely hating the cruel, callous twist at the end that her husband delivers. It brought all of that possibility right up front and center and to this day I have to mentally prepare myself to read that story.
I’ve never understood people who want to brand Bradbury’s horror as light horror, or brush it aside as if it has no real impact. There’s so much emotion there, emotion that covers some very real concepts and life experiences. You may not have the gore, but you have the terror if you’re honest with yourself.
Every Halloween I keep that feeling with me and I think that’s why The Halloween Tree is so successful. Hell, that’s why a lot of Bradbury’s work is so successful and part of the reason why he’s one of my favorite authors. His work reminds us that the holiday isn’t just about getting candy or playing tricks, that life has it’s dark as well as its light, its inevitable conclusion as well as its beginning. Maybe horror isn’t just about crazy stuff and blood and guts. They’re both about reminding ourselves that it’s worth celebrating every day that we’re still alive, that we haven’t yet had the sun eternally set on us, that it will come back around and we’ll still be breathing, maybe laughing at our own silliness for getting worked up over nothing and maybe not. We’ll still be there, quietly thankful that we are still there. Summer and winter, light and dark, life and death…the opposites delight and scare us and maybe, if we’re lucky, make us think and feel and be grateful.
When Selah Janel isn’t getting locked into places and having creepy adventures, she’s writing. Find her at her blog, on Facebook, and on twitter.