I have always felt a particular kinship to the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz
. To be precise, when the Lion is in the Haunted Forest, trooping to the Wicked Witch’s castle to get her broom, he witnesses the Tin Man lifted by a ghostly force and thrown like a chew toy. The Lion squeezes his eyes shut, cowers, and chants over and over, “I do believe in spooks. I do believe in spooks. I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do believe in spooks.” I’m not as big a coward as the Lion, although I do avoid walking past a house in my neighborhood that’s supposedly haunted by the specter of a little boy. Like my furry, Oz counterpart, I have a healthy respect for the power of the unseen. I do, I do, I do, I do, I do.
As a child, my respect for all things ghostly was more of an obsession. Saturday afternoons would find me in front of the TV, watching the latest offering from Sir Graves Ghastly, host of a local creature feature. Sir Graves was a middle-aged man with a goatee who rose from a casket at the beginning of his show and spoke with a bad Bela Lugosi accent. His movies ranged from Boris Karloff courting Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein
to the 1950s sci-fi flick Attack of the 50 Foot Woman
. My favorite offerings were released in the 1960s by the Hammer Film Studios of England. These movies invariably featured a lot of blood, copious dismembered body parts, and plenty of zaftig women in flowing white gowns who wanted to attach their mouths to men’s necks. The combination of horror and gore and sex was enough to drive my pre-pubescent mind wild.
Eventually, I graduated to the slasher movies of the ‘80s. Halloween
, Nightmare on Elm Street
, and the Friday the 13th
s. As a teen, these films had just the right amount of thrill, spill, and kill to satisfy my cravings for a good scare, plus there were always horny teens sneaking off to go skinny-dipping in Crystal Lake together. By the beginning of the 1990s, my taste for celluloid screams waned. Now, as a father of a nine-year-old daughter and two-year-old son, I’m appalled by the Goosebumps
TV show. I refuse to let my children view episodes simply because, to be quite honest, they scare me. I’d like to say that my tastes have matured, that I find vampires and werewolves, zombies and ghosts childish. But when The Exorcist
was re-released in the year 2000, I went to see it with a friend. I slept with lights on for two weeks afterward. I’ve become Don Knotts from The Ghost and Mr. Chicken
I even find most of the current movie versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
a bit too much. Dickens, aside from creating the stereotypical image of the white, Currier and Ives Christmas, also inaugurated the tradition of telling ghost stories during the holidays. The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge is just one of many Christmas ghost stories Dickens published. For Dickens, if you heard a noise in the living room on Christmas Eve, it was more likely to be long-dead Great Grandpa T paying a visit than a jolly, fat elf in red fur. And Great Grandpa T wasn’t usually having a great night.
The recent crop from Hollywood based on A Christmas Carol
takes full advantage of computer-generated horrors. Marley’s ghost has a jaw that falls open to gargoyle proportions. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a terrifying wraith in black with the hands of a skeleton and hell-red eyes. Watching these films, I slip into full Cowardly Lion mode, peering at the TV through laced fingers, waiting for Marley to don Freddy Krueger gloves and carve up Scrooge like a Christmas goose. I much prefer Waldorf and Stadler as the heckling Marley brothers in A Muppet Christmas Carol
. That’s more my speed now.
But it makes sense to me, this focus on ghosts at Christmas time. Even in the accounts of the birth of Christ in the Bible, there are moments of sheer terror. Every time an angel appears to someone, the first words out of the angel’s mouth are not, “Do these wings make me look fat?” The first words, without fail, are, “Fear not,” which leads me to believe that angels are pretty scary-looking creatures, not like Connie Stevens, sporting dove wings and singing “You Can Fly.” No, angels inspire horror at first, not awe. So Charles Dickens was just following the lead of the writers of the gospels when he wrote Christmas ghost stories. Plus, at Christmas time, people tend to put a little more stock in the possibility of unseen powers. The veil between reality and possibility is just a little more transparent. Angels and ghosts are not just figments of fiction. They’re as real as snow, ice, and i-Pads.
Kids, in particular, are more open to such possibilities. In fact, I believe young children have a vision for the unseen that adults either ignore or completely lack. I’ve been creeped out on more than one occasion by my daughter and toddler son suddenly going still in the middle of play and staring into an empty room as if they’ve just caught sight of Santa Claus. My five-year-old nephew once told me, “You know, Uncle Marty, when I get older, I won’t be able to see the angels any more, and that will make me sad.”
Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—my wife and I came home from a midnight candlelight church service. Our daughter was sleeping the sleep of childhood Christmas, deep as a Robert Frost winter woods. Our son was in his crib, for once still and calm. We sent the babysitter home and prepared for bed. Pajamas. Toilet. Teeth brushing. I went through the house, turning off lights. I paused for a moment in front of the tree. The living room glowed a muted red, green, white, and blue, full of the sort of warmth you find in a hand-stitched quilt. I reached down and unplugged the Christmas tree.
As I prepared to climb over my wife into bed, I heard my son make a mewling sound, which usually meant he had lost his pacifier. I sighed, craving the comfort of pillow and blanket, but I turned and went to his crib in the next room to avoid an all-out session of screams and tears from him. I was tired, but I still felt the peace of the candlelit church, “Silent Night” fluting out of the pipe organ. I looked down at my son in his crib.
He was on his back, staring up at the ceiling with eyes as big, round, and dark as tree ornaments. The pacifier was still between his lips, and, behind it, he was smiling the way he did when I washed his feet during baths, all gums and delight. He didn’t look at me, didn’t seem to notice I was there. His gaze never shifted from a place on the ceiling, directly above him. His stare was focused, full of some kind of knowledge.
I felt my Cowardly Lion self stir in the depths of my chest. I imagined Linda Blair levitating above her bed, the girl from Poltergeist
standing in front of a snowy TV screen, chiming, “They’re baaaaaaa-aaack.” I slowly looked up at the ceiling.
Nothing. Just empty, white ceiling. I was half-tempted to mutter, “Humbug,” but, somehow, I knew the sound of my voice would violate the air, cause it to fracture like ice on a mud puddle. I looked down at my son.
He’d started to slowly suck on his pacifier, as if he was working over some great, complicated calculus problem in his head. His gaze remained fixed on the ceiling above him.
After a few minutes of standing beside him, waiting for an alien to burst from his chest or him to start speaking fluent ancient Greek in a guttural drawl, I went back to my bed and climbed in beside my wife.
In the dark, I listened to the still house, half-expecting to hear the clink of chains or disembodied footsteps in the attic. Instead, my son started to make noises, soft, quiet, musical sounds, as if he were talking with some unseen spook or singing with a distant angel choir.