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What are we afraid of? - Daniel Silliman

The scariest dream I've ever had was just of red.

I've dreamed of falling, dreamed of murder, dreamed of earthquakes and of the ground eating people. I've awakened frightened of inanimate objects, of turning into a monster, of paralysis, and of walking around without clothes. But the one that terrified me most, out of all the years of nightmares, was just an opaque red.

Like an empty field filled with sulfur smoke, like a blank wasteland tinted by blood, it was just me and red nothing, and I was on the ground, in the fetal position, trying to fold up into myself.

I don't know why. I don't know where the subconscious terror came from or why it emerged from the muddle of sleep in that mask of vagueness. But then, fear is like that. It isn't rational, it doesn't appear in well-lighted rooms, and it always comes cloaked in confusions and metaphors.

Every year, around this time, we celebrate fear. In rituals of candy and kids and costumes, we dedicate an evening to scary things. Thinking about those things, those classic Halloween characters, I wonder what it is we're really afraid of.

Vampires and ghosts, bats, cats and spiders, ax murderers and grinning, glowing pumpkins, I wonder where these fears really come from. Not historically, where do they come from, but internally. Why do they emerge from the goop of our minds, again and again?

Why are people who've never had bad experiences with clowns, sometimes, afraid of them anyway? Why do slowed-down nursery rhymes sound creepy? What are we really afraid of when we're afraid of the un-dead?

There's something, I think, non-literal about our fears. Like old poetry and secret prophecy, the named objects are often only symbols, only indicating the deeper, darker fears. The symbols seize the terror that's too obvious and hide it, so it can be handled.

I think the psychoanalysts are right: My fears are more fundamental and elemental. I'm not really afraid of disembodied eyeballs, robotic vacuums, unending screams, and having my brains burrowed out by a laughing, hysterical dentist with a dull drill. I am, though, deeply afraid of being inadequate, being unloved and alone forever. I'm afraid of failing and losing, and afraid I won't know what it means to fail or lose until I already have.

I am so afraid, I'd rather think about needles in squishy eyeballs, angry birds above me, drowning in quick sand, and being cut up with a rusty saw.

It's just easier that way.

One year in college, I was really interested in surrealism, with its focus on the unconscious, and narratives that used dream logic. I watched a lot of David Lynch, who directed the movies "Muholland Drive" and "Blue Velvet," and I went to an exhibit of Salvador Dali's paintings. I repeatedly watched Richard Linklater's "Waking Life," which is set in a man's dream, where he becomes aware he's dreaming while he's dreaming. The film talks about something called "lucid dreaming," where you're aware of your dreams as they happen and can direct them, getting the conscious to interact with the subconscious.

I tried this, for a few weeks. I tried remembering my dreams, to see how they worked. I tried to be aware of my dreams while I was dreaming, to "go salsa dancing with my confusion," as one character in the film says.

The results were terrifying. The few interesting things dredged from the sludge of my mind were automatically eaten by the nightmares. In one dream, I killed family members. In another, I was told I had to leave and then was walking alone in a bombed-out desert.

After only a couple of days of thinking about the things that scared me, I felt queasy and off-kilter, unnerved and jittery. Where do these things come from, I thought, and why does looking at them leave me ill?

I don't know. I couldn't do it, though, so I shoved them back down into the murk, into unanalyzed images, into the realm of costumes for kids for Halloween. And I left those thoughts alone.

It's worth asking, come this odd holiday, what we are afraid of, what do we fear, and why do we find these old images so deeply disturbing? But I don't know that I dare.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.