The Allure of the Dark Side

A dark, cloudy sky with rain bearing winds and the hints of a storm brewing with flashes of lightning and thunder. A day such as this in my childhood was enough to send me over the edge with my over-active imagination reading too much into the atmospherics unfolding around me. What was simply the first monsoon rain of the season in the parched North Indian summer would turn into a kind of harbinger of terror in my mind. I would view the frequent flashes of lightning as some sort of a nightmarish weapon being unleashed from the sky meant particularly for me and as the sounds of thunder got nearer and nearer, I felt more and more agonized and ran into the innermost depths of the house in a bid to take cover under a table or some other piece of furniture lying about so as to evade this ghostly killer from the sky.

What was a completely natural weather related phenomenon would turn for me into one of the most terrifying days where my life and that of all those I loved was at stake. A few times in the beginning, I did try to entreat everybody who was sitting on a verandah or a terrace enjoying the weather and sipping cups of hot milky tea to hide inside along with me, but on being met with laughter and amusement, and feeling quite enraged, I had decided to leave them selfishly to their own fate and not bother with them at all. I was almost the circus clown of the family whenever the rainy weather hit us as all my cousins or any friends visiting stood amazed at my shedding continuous tears and praying with folded hands to the sky to spare me and refusing to believe otherwise about this lightning that was out to get me no matter how many times my mother tried to hammer this fact into me.

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On retrospect, I wonder how these ideas became embedded in my mind. Although it is tough to recall a single moment when I became so terrified of the natural elements, it would have probably been because of a horror story I had read or a lightning-strike related documentary I had seen that would have accounted for this sort of inner conviction that somebody up there was out to get me. My childhood love for horror stories that sent my adrenaline pumping has survived into my adulthood and I still hungrily lap up any narration of supernatural stories (the ones being claimed to be true of course being the best ones) or the silly gore that Hollywood decides to pass off as horror.

This fascination for the supernatural and the resultant thrill felt as a result pervaded our lives in many ways as kids. One of the games we used to play as children was a kind of modified version of hide and seek that was not meant for the faint of the heart and only the brave children could possibly play this game. This involved an indoor hide-and-seek where all the lights of the area being played in were turned off and the house was left in complete darkness. This was a sort of secret pleasure to look forward to as well as this could not be done while adults were in the house for it would disrupt their activities. It was simply terrifying for those who hid to wait alone in complete darkness without making a sound or talking to anybody else. You would sometimes have scary thoughts like what if nobody came to find you at all and after the initial delight of having found the perfect secret place wore off and the terror slowly started to creep in, you would abandon this spot to go somewhere that felt a little safer even if it was not that well-hidden. This sort of a game was the most terrifying because it brought out a sort of primal fear of being left alone in the dark with no one to converse with forever. It was also quite scary for the person who was seeking as he/she had to stretch out their hands in the dark and try to find everyone else and during this time, he would sometimes feel a rush of air or sudden quick movements in the dark as one of the hiders would pass through trying to evade the seeker. This could be downright terrifying as you had no idea of knowing who was moving about in the dark all around you. It is said that the maximum fear comes from the fear of the unknown and the darkness became the complete unknown for all the players. It was not infrequent to have the whole game disrupted by one spoilsport who could simply not take it anymore and would suddenly turn on the lights in the process losing their privileges to be ever called to play this game again.

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There were other games as well that simply involved the enacting of some kind of a scene with all the players being given parts associated with apparently scary stories ending with a simple game of catch and run. Two of them that come to mind were called “Ghost in the graveyard” and “Witch in the Bathroom”. They were probably attempts to make the catch and run game more interesting by play acting as the catcher would become known as a scary witch and those being chased would be the children who had discovered the witch in the house bathroom. There was a terrible thrill received from pure imagination and enactment of this scene and the use of words that conjure up horrifying images like “ghost”, “graveyard”, “witch” in popular culture, especially the part where the witch was finally discovered and everyone started running seemingly for their lives.

Another thrill seeking activity was the customary childhood one of getting together in the dark with torchlight to narrate horror stories. In my case, it would be my grandmother doing the narrating that would make the whole experience a hair-raising one as we would not even have an iota of doubt about the veracity of these stories and simply accepted them at face value. This resulted in multiple sleepless nights with all the lights on with my mother ultimately forbidding us to indulge in these story-telling sessions again, and we would of course refrain not wanting to be terrified to the point of sleeplessness but only till we felt the urge to feel the thrilling sensation of being terrified one more time.

This spilled over into my choice of reading as well and for a while, I would only go for books related to horror or to do with the supernatural. Once my mother started to notice the veritable collection of such books that I was starting to now build with titles such as “The World of Beyond” or “The Most Haunted Places on Earth” along with the usual “Goosebumps” and “Scary Stories for 8 year olds”, I was forbidden to buy any more of these books as she tried to put a leash on my thirst for ghosts, ghouls and spirits and divert me to happier, more sanitized things by trying to bribe me with the usual books I used to like before by gifting me the big fat omnibus collections of “St. Claire’s” or “Marlborough High” that would keep me occupied for at least a month owing to their huge size, but in vain as stories about boarding school girls did not jus do it for me anymore. I had had a taste of blood and I was not going to let it go so easily! As I started to grow older, the Goosebumps were replaced by Edgar Alan Poe, Mary Shelley and even Alfred Hitchcock but the love affair with this genre still remains as fresh as it was when it first began.

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On digging a little deeper into why people all over the world like horror stories and horror movies and how urban legends in every country and local stories meant to terrify still continue to have believers, a lot of different theories come up. But, the one that seems most plausible is the one that says that as early men and forest-dwellers, our lives had a lot of everyday thrill, what with chasing animals as hunters and being chased by predators higher up in the food chain that set our adrenaline pumping on a regular basis. It was not an easy life and every day could mean life or death with even a single misstep. Perhaps, modern life has become too monotonous for most people with no real thrill in daily situations and the primal man inside of us craves that raw, animal terror once in a while which is what probably makes people all over the world walk into a theatre again and again and pay to get terrified or to pick up Bram Stoker’s Dracula yet again and even explains the grand success of shows like “Supernatural”, “The Vampire Diaries” or “American Horror Story”. It is more an act of the mind and the willing suspension of disbelief that makes the experience such an overwhelming one. Like Arthur Conan Doyle once remarked:

 “Where there is no imagination – there is no horror”

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How London shocked a Victorian Time Traveller

It was a bright sunny day in June and I stepped out onto the kerb wearing my sensible cotton day dress and a pair of comfortable boots. No one even so much as glanced towards me or even my big brown hat. I looked around and discovered that the pedestrians of 21st century London were quite ridiculously dressed. The clothes were quite plain and lacked any sort of elegance or sophistry. Whoever thought of women donning on plain office suits with not even a flower or a bow on it. And the lack of hats just amazed me ! I wondered if people had suddenly become rather poor or cloth had simply run out ! Although hordes of people were wearing a plain dress, now and then,  I did see some of them wearing a different set of clothes with all sorts of colors in them making no sense whatsoever. I couldn’t seem to make head or tail of it. I could not, for the life of me understand what the prevailing sense of fashion seemed to be as all manner of dress could be seen once you started to go about the town and see different sorts of people.

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Once I had taken some time to gather my wits a little, I noticed a very peculiar, mysterious thing. Everyone on the street had some sort of tiny, thin brick in their hands that they kept on poking at with their fingers. Some sort of eerie, unearthly light was also being emitted by it that I could not decipher at all. Whatever it was, I did not like this one bit. The spectacular thing was that everyone carried around this brick in their hands, kids, adolescents, adults, old people. At first I thought only some people had it as I saw only some of them holding it, but if I started to observe someone without it for a few moments, they would without fail take it out of their pockets or bags soon enough and start poking at it and touching it in quite a funny manner. I had to try my best not to forget my manners and break out in hysterics at their concentrated expressions when they did this as if their whole world lay in these funny-looking bricks; however, I controlled myself, only to be polite!

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But, there were plenty of good things as well. One of the first things I realized was that I no longer had to screw up my nose or hold my kerchief to my face to avoid the terrible stench from the Thames. The river seemed as good as new. I had to go close to the bridge and look down to see carefully if the river was actually there as I could not for the life of me imagine how come the river did not stink anymore. I did not have to lift up my dress to navigate the streets as well as the roads seemed to be quite clean. There were no beggars in rags and tatters either trying to catch hold of me or to pick my pocket. I soon came up to the Tower of London hoping to catch a glimpse of the notorious criminals of the day but I was sorely disappointed. There were no heads cut off put up on the Tower to deter the public from a life of crime and sin. However were they to prevent crime if they did not bother to scare the townsfolk by nailing the criminals to the walls. I began to feel a little uneasy as I started to think that there must be a lot of crime here now that the people were not scared anymore. In fact, the Tower seemed to be completely empty of them. Or, they must be doing something worse to get rid of them, I shudder to imagine!

I began to walk besides the shops for a while and saw that many ladies, if you can still call these pants wearing girls ladies, were out and about on their own with no male company whatsoever. You would think that I was being judgmental about this considering that I was out alone as well. However, I would think my status as a time traveller quite secured me from any such thing as I had no option but to travel alone. All the shops had signboards on them. Not only the shops, but the entire town had written instructions and signboards up everywhere. Some of them were even magically moving. I had an eerie feeling that this was somehow related to the bricks I had seen earlier but dismissed my discomfort in order to explore this fascinating world a little further. I wondered what was the use of so many signboards when half the people were uneducated and could not read to save their lives. Seemed like quite a waste of money which is something I cannot quite abide by. Although I come from a very well run house in Yorkshire and my father owns all the lands in the parish for miles about, I cannot stand for such waste and extravagance. One must be mindful of such expenses and exercise prudence in these matters if one has any good sense.

I entered into one of the shops that seemed to sell goods of daily use to ask for some flour and butter. I proceeded to what seemed like a counter and asked for the things I needed only to be told that I could go and pick them up myself. What an affront! I could not believe how rude the shopkeeper was. How could he expect to run a business if he treated his well-paying customers with such snobbery. I had half a mind to turn around and leave and never set foot in the shop again but was stopped by the sight of a lot of people milling about behind the counter picking up things from ceiling high shelves into little carts. I wondered whether these were all helpers. But then, I saw some of these helpers come up to the counter and paying cash. I thought I had begun to understand a little bit of what was going on when another customer came and instead of paying gave a piece of strong, thick paper, the kind Mother and I use to make cards to send out at Christmas. The shopkeeper swiped it into a box and gave it back. Now, I was mighty confused about how this shop worked. After a lot of deliberation, I concluded that this was not a very well-run business and I would be better off buying my goods elsewhere.

By this time, I was quite famished and thought I would go and get myself a cup of coffee and a scone somewhere. Unfortunately, I found myself in a street where there were only public houses. I could not even think of stepping into these bawdy places or my reputation would have gone for a toss for a lifetime. So, I sat down outside on a bench on the street to catch my breath for a while. To my amazement, I saw quite a lot of women enter these public houses bearing the sign “Pubs” in short form and some even took in their children. I must say, the women in this age had fallen quite low and I had no interest in looking at them anymore.

The sight of the road was amazing. There were these metallic boxes with tires that people seemed to be getting in and out of. I wondered where the horses were to be able to pull them. Were they hidden inside? But, there did not seem to be enough space for them be able to fit inside and also be able to carry people. Everyone seemed to be traveling in these boxes. However, I am sorry to say that this was definitely a step backwards as horse carriages were able to take you places quite quickly and now there were so many of these metallic boxes on the road that they were simply stuck  behind each other and seemed to move agonizingly slowly. I wondered what the use of them was as it was simply quicker to walk wherever you wanted to go.

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Although I had had quite an adventure exploring the streets of my city, albeit in a different time, I began to feel lonely and uncomfortable soon. There was no Mrs. Martha taking her babies in her carriage near the park or Lady Ellensborough out on her shopping spree that I could have a quick chat with while I was about. I could not even see Mr. Hawthorne who carried people around in his horse carriage for a fee. In fact, people were too busy rushing about to have any conversation with each other or invite them over for tea or luncheon. So, I began to walk over to the place I had originally appeared to start my journey home.