This is a horror story.
I missed my chance. It was Halloween a couple of weeks ago. But, you know, this isn’t the right kind of horror story for Halloween. Halloween is a time for the not-quite-scary, the weird and surreal and unimaginable, the watered down horror that is the fear of the unknown. That stuff is great, but it’s not scary. Monsters are physical by nature, creatures with beating hearts and blood, and can be fought the same way as anything else. Ghosts can’t be fought, but are inherently reassuring: Is it so bad getting murdered by a ghost, really, given that the existence of the ghost is evidence of an afterlife? It’s kind of flattering, really, a ghost trying to kill you. Kind of an invitation on a ghost-date.
This is the story of the last lie you ever tell yourself.
“This is safe. Someone would have done something about it if it weren’t.”
The truth is, the structures we live in are rotting away, moment by moment, in real time. The difference between a home and a ruin can be subtle. Sometimes people live for years in a house before they find out it wasn’t safe, before the banister breaks or the floorboards give way, before the picket white fence splinters into wooden stakes and tetanus nails. We don’t notice. Our homes stay familiar to us, platonically unchanging, even as their hearts rot.
It probably won’t be your home, but it could be anything. Anything could be unsafe, so everything is unsafe. Do you really want to lean on that railing? Are you confident in those stairs? How about that bridge?
Yeah. We like to talk about fear of the unknown a lot, but it’s the fear of the everyday, the tedious, the prosaically awful deaths that lie around every corner that we don’t talk about. This fear is too much to think about. When a mine fire starts under a town, we take every opportunity to ignore the problem, pretending it will fix itself, until the town dies. We let our bridges and freeways decay, fall apart, borrowing the convenience of today against the disaster of tomorrow. We let corporations ignore safety regulations and call it ‘disruption’, call it good for the economy. We bury our fear, ignore our fear: The fear that literally any object in the world, with a slight shift in circumstances, could be fate’s murder weapon. The perfect crime: Gravity, with the loose brick, on the way to the bus stop.
This is so horrifying we create a kind of taboo around speaking about it, particularly the young: We deem it ‘uncool’. It’s uncool to be concerned about whether you know how to get out: The cool kids burn alive, screams exhale smoke, hands pushing against solid wall trying to find a way through. It’s uncool to use a seat-belt, the cool kids are ejected from their vehicle and have their bones scraped away to bloody fragmentary paste against the intersection asphalt. It’s uncool to–
Yes I know, I sound like a caricature of a grouchy safety instructor. The thing is, I can envision each of these tiny tragedies in detail, feel the breeze of them as I pass them by, premonitions of a fate that lies in potentiality. I am cautious by nature – not least because I am a large person, and therefore the chances of something collapsing under my weight are higher, and the force of my fall will be more damaging. At thirty-two-feet-per-second-squared, every pound of force becomes that much greater an impact.
The scariest thing to me about an old haunted house isn’t the haunt, it’s the house.
There’s actually a horror movie about this, sort of. Final Destination frames the horror of accidental death as the act of the malicious spirit of Death personified. The trick is, Death always gives a warning, some little clue that something is about to go bad – a premonition, a creak of aging wood, a breath of cold air. Whether by sportsmanship or by supernatural contract, Death provides advance notice of his arrival. And, in this, Final Destination pulls its punches. It codifies into law our reassurances, our guarantees against our fear that we will be safe: “It won’t happen to me.” we say, “I’m careful. I’ll notice there’s something wrong. I’ll notice the cracks, the dust, I’ll hear the creaks, the pops, I’ll be ready to move, I won’t panic.”
And that’s the last lie you ever tell yourself.