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.
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.
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.
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”