Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Haunting

The house is small but not overbearingly so; an unseen observer would likely describe it as cozy rather than constricting. A pretty pair rests together, sitting engrossed in each other's very existence, separated by the strength of their mutual gaze from the troubles and worries of life. They are cocooned in forest, apart from the world, cut off from the constant flow of information that is the curse of the modern age. They are an archetype of innocence, the beautiful ignorance of the young and in love. A warm saccharine haze permeates the very air of the room.

You watch them. 

How is this possible? How are you, living your own life, wholly apart, wholly other than the cozy house in the woods, capable of perceiving the lives of these two? Your eyes see words printed on a page, and in your mind's eye an image is constructed, one that shows you a world which is real, alive, existent. And so you watch and wait; you observe. You listen to the voice of the book and of its author, explaining the rules of this world and the details of the reality you are observing. And yet, your task is not an entirely passive one. You also create this world, you inhabit it with your imagination. You act, and your action changes the reality you perceive.

So act. Imagine. Imagine movement. Imagine a cupboard door swinging ever so slightly on its hinge in the adjoining kitchen. Does it make a noise, a tiny, barely audible rustle or squeak? The characters certainly think it does. They hear it, ponder it briefly, allow it to fall out of their minds. Just the house settling, nothing to worry about when compared with the immediacy of her eyes, his smile.

But it's more than that, it must be. It was the result of a choice, an action, not a coincidence. You chose to imagine it, to inhabit the words on the page, and so it was: the cupboard door moved. So why don't you try something else? A bedroom door, perhaps? It’s done, the door moves, just a few inches but enough to be noticeable. Can you see it? Can they? No, not yet. Take your time. Or perhaps the sight lies just on the edge of perception, the uncertain part of vision where the imagination (real or fictional) has free rein to create its own unconscious monsters or movements. Perhaps they wonder, Did that door just move? No, my dear, I didn’t see it. Your actions shake the tranquility just a bit more profoundly this time, enough to warrant a moment of doubt, but still not enough to break the reverie.

Still not enough? How much will it take? Turn the lights off. There, that's it, just the simple movement of a switch and they're up now, the combined sequence of events forcing themselves on even the most oblivious pair of minds. Ah, but they have not yet experienced terror, only shock, inconvenience, annoyance. They are reaching out, moving into the darkness now, earning their bruises, searching for the simple piece of plastic that will save them. But you do not really want them to reach it, do you? Maybe the switch has disappeared, or are they just disoriented?

In any case, perhaps a change of scenery is in order. Imagine it now, imagine them groping, stumbling, crawling out of the room and into an adjoining one. The kitchen, full of knives? No, too easy, the bedroom would be more appropriate. Remember the door you imagined earlier? Now perceive the other side, a bed, a few tables, a mirror, and little more. For now, at least. They fall into the room, hoping for the reprieve of tabletop lamplight. Do they find it? Perhaps you imagine it away. Or even better, imagine the lamp lighting for just a moment, the comfort of familiar light and familiar faces for only a fraction of a second. Alienation melts, the two faces ease, horror recedes into humor. There, that is the moment, the instant, tension and release, the story arcing back upon itself. And that is the moment for you to choose terror, for the light to flicker and waver before receding in a flash. And for fear to dominate once again.

The tempo is picking up now, hearts beating faster, narrative twisting and breaking along with the rules of normality you and I have established for this world. The characters are panicking, grabbing the room’s furnishings in an attempt to establish some grounding, a place for themselves in this unsettled space. It is time for the end, time for encounter, time for you to reach out. It is time for you to touch them.

Imagine just a tap at first, the barest hint of contact on each of their shoulders, but in this time of heightened senses it is more than enough. It is incarnation. You are becoming more bold now, scraping and scratching. The characters, the people, are screaming. Now, imagine the finale: you pick them up, suspend them in the air for a single beat, a baited breath, a moment of complete quiet. And then sound, whipping wind, as the two escape the hold of gravity and fly at a sickening speed into the wall. But you need more than this, you need punctuation. And so, the moment the two hit the wall, glimpsing each other in a moment of sheer terror, a new sound fills the air: the mirror shatters, shards spiraling through the room. Impact.

And then silence. No consciousness. You could murder them if you wished. You could twist them, break them, leave their bloody corpses on the floor for some other innocent character to find. But that would not be terror, only exploitation. The most fearful thing about terror is that it lingers, remains, continues to stand forever just offstage, waiting to once again emerge into the spotlight of perception. And so you will play the ghost and let them live, leave with their bruises and their memories. This is denouement. This is haunting.


And as you continue to haunt these lives, these pages, consider the nature of fear, of the desire to escape the torment of the unknown and the unknowable. Consider the emptiness which resides within the hearts of both real and fictional characters, and the lengths to which an author, a reader, or a character will go to avoid an encounter with that which terrifies them the most. Ultimately, we cannot entirely hope to escape that reality of terror. It continues to lurk around the edges of consciousness, the borders of memory, reason, and emotion. And sometimes, on more or less rare occasions, it is not content merely to remain there. Sometimes that terror will emerge, will disentangle itself from the darkness on the other side of every mirror, will show itself to you in all its hideous glory. You will truly see the face of the Other, not the human Other which we encounter every day, but the alien, the truly unknown, the truly secret and sacred and sacrilegious, the true Face that haunts our dreams in dark nights and darker days, and the true nature which, ultimately, we fear not only because it is Other, but because it is somehow also Self.

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