CW: wet crotch, underpants, disease, body parts.
As a child, rummaging through the house for buried treasure was a favourite pastime, an exercise which ranged from digging through the cracks in the settee for long lost trinkets: combs, toy cars, dismembered action figures, dried chicken drumsticks (I heap all the blame on my sister for that one) to sneaking into my parents’ bedroom and poring over my father’s medical textbooks. The massive tomes with full color pictures of patients instantly captivated me and I found myself fascinated with the ways sickness could warp human features into something other. It was, well, horrifying. But that didn’t stop me from looking at them again. And again. And again.
It was during one of these treasure hunts that I found my parents’ secret stash of movies (no, not those movies). I popped in the first cassette into the VHS player and watched a now familiar opening scene: a car full of friends rolls up to a holiday cabin in the woods. It was The Evil Dead. I watched, terrified and yet morbidly fascinated (much as I had been with the medical pictures) as the evil claimed the friends one by one.
Needless to say I scarred my young mind by watching it, and endured several nights of nightmares. But like the books, I kept returning to the movie again and again, until I knew every minute of it by heart, until my dreams were a never ending reel of possessed clocks and rapacious trees and demons boiling out of the depths of hell.
That was the first cassette.
The second was an Old Nollywood movie called Diamond Ring 2, in which an idiot teenager and his friends rob a grave, stealing – you guessed it – a diamond ring off a freshly interred corpse. The vengeful spirit puts the foolish boy into a coma and gives his family 24 hours to find and return her ring or forfeit his life. I haven’t watched that movie in eighteen years and I still remember the soundtrack. Yeah.
Every culture has its ghost stories (which is a catch all for legends and tales bordering on the horrific) and growing up in Nigeria, I heard my fair share of ghost stories. But these weren’t tales we whispered by the light of campfires (why would you leave the comfort of your home for the cold uncertainty of the wild???[the wild is filled with a certain subspecies of humans with a penchant for body parts]); the tales were told in the cold light of day, in between mundane tasks and conversations, in the matter-of-fact tone of one commenting on the weather, which made it its own special brand of terror.
When I was ten we moved from the rented apartment we’d lived my whole life to our own duplex. And as I sat with my siblings watching Shrek on the new TV, behind us my parents chatted with their friends. I heard my dad say about the old house: “they say the landlord seeded the compound with the bones of some dead girl, buried her skull in the roots of the palm tree.” I whipped around and gawked at him, and he very patiently repeated what he’d said. I flashed back to all the times I’d sauntered past that palm tree, all the times I’d rested under it in between playing football with my goons and said, “why didn’t you tell me?”
“Did you really want to know?”
Did I really want to know? No. Would it have made a difference if I knew? Most definitely. But that didn’t stop me from thinking of all the times the palm branches had scratched against my window, and wonder if it wasn’t the spirit of the girl pleading to be set free.
Secondary school introduced me to horror in its literary form. After the initial Harry Potter frenzy, I happened upon a Stephen King book in the library: Misery. I enjoyed it so much that I hid it where no one could ever find it, and stole to the library whenever I could to read it. Up until that point I’d only seen horror movies, become overly familiar with the beats, so to speak. But reading Misery opened my mind to a whole different kind of terror. With a movie, you’re more or less stuck with the director’s vision of the events and characters and setting etc (which is not necessarily a bad thing); with a book, you are the director of your imagination. And oh, doesn’t imagination like to run wild? Reading Misery, Paul’s pain was my pain, his terror was my terror, and the evidently unhinged Annie Wilkes was the stuff of nightmares.
But what really fascinated me was how simple words strung one after the other could light up the cinema of my mind, and evoke visceral reactions even more lasting than some of the movies I’d watched. It’s not surprising, then, that when I finally put pen to paper in the hopes of becoming a writer, what came out was a horror story.
The oldest and perhaps most visceral of human emotion is fear and I found catharsis in the ability to master my fears, in the ability to dream up dreadful situations and explore them on my own terms. If horror is fear of the unknown, then I gain power over it in the knowledge of the outcome, in an almost clinical detachment as I watch my characters navigate horror.
Creators of horror are rarely – perhaps never – scared by the stuff they create, because the horror is theirs, and they’ve seen it in its underpants (hell, they bought the damn underpants); the terrified are the readers who are kept in the dark and watch with
soiled crotches bated breath the characters navigate horror.
Do I still look twice at the shadow in the corner of my room? That depends on a host of things, chief among them being my mental state at the given time. But best believe that by the time I put pen to paper I will have known that horror by its name, and bought it some damn underpants.