Fight or Flight

Chaos in Print

I am quite often amazed at the things that frighten us. One of my fears is spiders. I mean, what’s to be afraid of with a spider? They just crawl along, going about their business, and enjoying their little spider lives. They have no business with me. They’re just looking for their next meal. But yet, when one happens to cross my path, I scream like a little girl and go running in the other direction. Why? I’m obsessing on this right now because there were two very similar incidents in my past, and I behaved differently in each situation. Why did I have more reason to be afraid than in the other?

The incident that triggered this happened a few months ago. I had met up with my friend Trouble for all kinds of mischief and merriment in West Edmonton Mall. It was our usual day in the mall; wandering around, doing some shopping, discussing deep, philosophical issues, and maybe even seeing a movie. Trouble has recently told me that the only time she gets out to the movies is on these little day trips of ours. She hadn’t seen Shrek yet, so we decided to go see that. After we had purchased our tickets, we found that we had about an hour to kill before showtime. Trouble, then, had a great idea! Last time she was at the mall, she and her fiancé attempted to go through Galaxyland’s haunted house, but they got frightened and took an early exit. So, she asked, how would I like to try it? Maybe, with me, she could get through it. Now, I’m young and stupid, so I said yes.

We marched up to the front gates of the haunted house, and paid our $5 admission. We ventured in to the haunted house. It took us a moment for our eyes to adjust to the much darker conditions. My nostrils were stung with the scent of artificial smoke. We crept down the long and darkened hallway, and soon we were at the first mechanism of freight. It was set up as this little funeral. We had our four grieving family members, gathered around a bed. The person in the bed was presumably our recently departed. Low, ominous funeral music played in the background. The entire set-up was bathed in an eerie red light. I was beginning to think, “OK, and this is scary how?” Trouble and I began to move on, and that’s when we triggered it. Over the loudspeakers, the music was replaced with this God-awful scream, and the corpse came flying out of the bed and stopped within a couple feet of our faces! Trouble and I did what most logical human beings do: we screamed like children and grabbed each other. When our screams subsided, so did the artificial one on the loudspeaker. With the hiss of hydraulics, the corpse resumed its restful position. The low, ominous funeral music began playing again. Trouble and I looked at each other, our breathing heavy, our pulses quickened. “Well,” she said. “Let’s keep going.”

We approached the black velvet curtain that separated this chamber from the next. Trouble had taken up a position behind me. “You go first,” she said. “Why me?” I asked. “Because I’m scared,” she said. I turned to face the curtain. Who knew what was poised to fly out at me on the other side. I reached forward. I touched the curtain. My breathing was still heavy. My pulse was still quickened. What was behind that door? Things were only going to get worse, right? Things were only going to get more scary, right? I turned around and looked Trouble straight in the eye. With my voice quavering, I managed to squeak out, “I’m scared, too.” She looked back at me and asked a stupid question. “Do you want to leave?” “YES!” I said. We turned and began a hasty walk back towards the entrance. Of course, by doubling back, we triggered the corpse to go flying at us again, but this time it only served to quicken our walk out of there.

We burst back out of the main entrance. Trouble felt this need to apologize to the clerk, and I tried to explain to Trouble that I’m sure this kind of thing happens all the time and no apology was necessary. Trying to cheer her up, I reached back into Klingon lore. “We charged into battle and lost,” I told her. “There is no dishonor in that. The only dishonor comes from not trying. And we tried.” Switching to a more lighthearted tone, I said, “But do you know what the scariest thing of all is? We’re both out $5!” Deep down inside, though, I was feeling bad, too. I mean, I had no logical reason to be afraid, right? It was a just a dummy on a hydraulic lift. As I reflected on this, I soon had a flashback to my childhood.

Back when I was in Cub Scouts, at around the tender age of 8, Halloween came. For that evening’s Cub meeting, then, the Scouts had turned our little community hall into a haunted house to try and frighten all us Cubs. I was placed in a group with some of my fellow Cubs, and we ventured into the haunted house. It was your standard amateur haunted house. The dollar store spooky sound effects tape was playing on a radio. No hydraulic lifts, just volunteers shaking things. But still, it was quite terrifying to an eight year old. Our group reached the final leg of the haunted house. It was along the deck of the community swimming pool. The chilly night air, the moon shining down on us, and the faint “splish” of the pool’s water made things seem quiet. Too quiet. Finally, our group heard a faint noise behind us. We all turned to look to see that we were being chased by a zombie! It was just a guy in a zombie mask, of course, but we were impressionable eight year olds. It was enough to make them scream at the top their scream at the top of their lungs. I, however, did not scream. I had a strange calm about me.

For you see, this was no ordinary Halloween. After weeks of searching through stores with my mother, I finally got the costume of one of my heroes. I wasn’t there in my Cub scout uniform. I was wearing the robes of a Jedi Knight. For that Halloween, I wasn’t Mark, I was Luke Skywalker. And Luke Skywalker doesn’t run in fear. I turned to the rest of my group and barked an order. “Go on ahead!” I yelled. “I’ll catch up!” Of course, I didn’t need to say that, they were already running. I drew my dollar store lightsaber, raised it above my head, and clubbed that zombie on the head! I saw into the person’s eyes, to see a somewhat confused look. The person’s body language switched from one meant to instill fear to one of inquisition. Although he didn’t say it, I’m sure that Scout wanted to say, “You’re supposed to run in fear, kid.” After he was done looking at me, he just shrugged and walked away. I sheathed my saber, turned and ran to catch up with my group.

Now, what’s different in these two situations? Why did I have the courage to club a zombie on the head, but run in fear from a dummy on a hydraulic lift? Why did I feel a greater need to protect three kids whose names I can’t remember than one of my closest, dearest friends? Could it have been the lightsaber? Did wielding that weapon give me a false sense of courage? Perhaps it wasn’t just the saber, but the whole outfit. Perhaps, while wearing the costume of Luke Skywalker, I felt like I wasn’t just dressed up as my hero, but that I was my hero.

The costume, perhaps, was just one big security blanket. With a constant reminder of one of my heroes around, I couldn’t help but act like my hero. Of course, I’m a grown-up now. I’m supposed to have no need for these security blankets. My security blanket is supposed to be an internal thing, consisting of scraps of morality handed to me by my heroes, care-givers, and parents. So where was my security blanket that day, as I turned and escorted Trouble out of that environment?

Trouble was there that day. Perhaps that’s the one big difference in these two situations. Bear with me now. Perhaps, when I turned from that velvet curtain and saw the fear in Trouble’s eyes, perhaps the same thing was triggered in me that made me tell my childhood companions to run on ahead. I wanted to protect my friends. While my methods were different, my goals were similar. When I was gripping a dollar store lightsaber, I knew that the best way to protect my friends was to battle this monster. When it was just Trouble and I facing an unknown terror behind door #2, I knew the best way to protect her was to remove her from that environment. I was just trying to defend my friends, and there is nothing more noble than that.

Or, maybe, I’m just romanticizing the fact that I’m a big fat chicken. What can I say? It’s all a rich tapestry.

Right now, one of my favorite toys is a Darth Maul double-bladed lightsaber that I got from the discount bin in Wal-Mart. Whenever I’m watching TV, I like to swing it around and pretend that I’m a big, tough Jedi. Maybe, Trouble and I will venture back into that haunted house, and the staff will let me wield my lightsaber. With the mighty weapon of a Jedi in my hands, she and I will be able to conquer the dark things that lurk around the corners of that haunted house. But, until that day, my lightsaber is great for squishing spiders.

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