I’ve said before that one of the reasons I enjoy crime shows like Law & Order, SVU, CSI, The Closer/Major Crimes, etc., is because they’re so completely different from the things that happen in my life (thank Buddha). On “my” shows, the crime has usually already been committed when the title sequence begins, and they go right to the whodunnit part—that’s the fascinating stuff. True, the shows are formulaic—you can count on that first or second person of interest showing up at the end in handcuffs—but I still love ‘em.
Every once in a while they’ll show the crime being committed. Sometimes they show all the stuff leading up to it, like a person watching someone without them knowing, or someone being chased, or a bad guy waiting to pounce on a victim. I don’t like when they do that. That stuff scares the shit outta me. That stuff goes into my brain and pops up every time I’m by myself in the dark. That stuff haunts me.
The first time I remember seeing something that stuck with me that way was after watching the second of the three Brady Bunch episodes in Hawaii. Remember how the tiki makes all that bad stuff happen to them? When we know the tarantula is in the room—and the boys don’t—and we see it heading toward Peter—and he doesn’t—and it starts to crawl on Peter—and he’s sleeping away, dreaming nice Brady dreams? I had nightmares about that for months. And by months, I mean that I watched that 35+ years ago and I still have nightmares about it.
And the delightful Little House on the Prairie, the show where the scariest thing that ever happened was when Pa couldn’t make it home with Laura’s penny candy because his horse only had three shoes? There was an episode in the later years of that show in which a new and boobalicious girl was stalked and raped. I KNOW! (here’s a pretty good and very analyze-y account of this unexpected plot.) I watched that one when I was 12 years old while babysitting at a neighbor’s; the kids had gone to bed and I was waiting for their parents to get home, so I turned the channel to Little House. That show was always a nice way to pass the time… it always had been, anyway.
The episode started like most; that mean ol’ Mrs. Oleson was getting kids in trouble. The stalker/rapist watched the girl walk across the meadow from low in the grass, and we were given his point of view. When they showed glimpses of his face, he was wearing a clown mask. A CLOWN MASK. And so began my fear of clowns.
As the horror of the episode went on, I was terrified but couldn’t turn off the TV, as though knowing the ending would make it better somehow. By the time it was over, I was shaking, and when I got home and went to bed, I couldn’t stop thinking about the clown, about how the girl didn’t know she was being watched. I didn’t sleep at all that night. I was afraid to tell my mom about how scared I was because I thought she’d be mad at me (I was an idiot), so I kept quiet. I didn’t even tell anyone about it at school the next day; in fact, it took me weeks to talk about it. Those weeks were spent getting little sleep, having nightmares when I did finally sleep, and being in constant fear when I was alone.
I don’t remember who I finally talked to about the episode, but eventually I was able to NOT think about that stalking clown. I still had occasional nightmares, but my bank of horrors by then contained the tarantula AND the clown, so it was a crapshoot which would play the main character in my dreams each night. They had to fight for screen time with Cruella DeVille, too, who was still in my nightmare bank from years earlier, as well as the abominable snowman from the Rudolph Christmas special.
Years later, I had nightmares while reading The Firm. When we knew that everything Mitch did was being seen and heard by his employer, but he didn’t know, it felt so sinister and creepy. Around that time, a movie also invaded my dreams: The Hand That Rocks the Cradle—same thing; the ominous stuff just terrified me. I hated the things are not what they seem-ness. I didn’t make a habit of reading books like The Firm (which never set out to be scary) or seeing psychological thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, but just the little bit I was exposed to gave me horrifying, incredibly realistic dreams that, after finally and desperately waking me, made me stay awake until morning.
Once I was married and rarely alone at night, my nightmares pretty much disappeared. My subconscious knows that the guy next to me would, if necessary, pull that dull machete out from under his side of the bed and throw it at whoever’s trying to git me. My dreams are still way too vivid, but I feel safer now. I think that’s why the crime shows don’t usually work their way into my dreams. I can watch them without worrying I’ll pay for it later by waking up in a cold sweat.
Last night was an exception, kinda. My dream began at a high school reunion. While walking around downtown, we went into a building and, for some reason, had to go into a stranger’s apartment when he wasn’t there. (Isn’t that what YOU do during your high school reunions? Or are you not crime-fighters?) We heard noises and discovered a trap door in the floor, so we pulled up the carpet and opened the door to find a woman that the guy had been holding captive for years. Straight outta L&O: SVU, right? Super scary and sinister. Until the first thing the woman said when we pulled her out was “Oh man, I gotta poop.”
Great. Now my 12-year-old’s sense of humor is taking center stage in my dream life.
I guess it’s better than a clown.