Currently I am positioned ridiculously comfortably on a sofa: I am a veritable picture of luxurious sloth. My legs are aloft on a pile of cushions, and over them I have slung a soft and fluffy red-checked blanket. Beneath them, wedged precariously between the tower of pillows, the seat, and my increasingly warm bottom, is an overfilled water bottle in a stripy jumper which almost, but not quite, matches my own. I am toasty. Every single light in the house is on and I am not in the least bit scared. But soon it will be bedtime and if I could skip that and go straight back out in the rain to work again I would. Right now.
Here’s what I’m afraid of: I am afraid of a decomposing green woman in the bathroom telling me she has been waiting for me; I am afraid of a literally heartless young boy with long blue fingernails and a frozen smile on his dead blue face, cradling a hurdy-gurdy whilst peering in my bedroom window and playing a tuneless tune; I am afraid of a masked dwarf steaming across the floor shouting ‘Mama’; I am afraid of Bob at the end of my bed; I am afraid of a pile of unfolded sheets on the other side of the room; I am afraid of Bob behind the sofa; I am afraid of the rats in the walls; I am afraid of Bob in the bathroom mirror; and I am afraid of my black winter coat hanging from a nail in the wall.
The black winter coat is a new one (fear, I mean), and I only noticed it at 3am this morning when I awoke needing a wee. My eyes had become accustomed to the pitch-black darkness just enough to be able to make out human and sinister shapes from the totally innocent accumulation of stuff in the room. From where I was cocooned in a duvet it looked like a woman, silent and still, hunched over and facing the wall. I rolled over and tried not to look at it, but my eyes settled on another thing: the sudden apparition of a spiky-haired someone at the foot of my bed, which morning revealed to be a jacket on a coathanger, looped over a doorknob, with some peacock feathers stuck in the neck hole because there was nowhere else to put them at the time. I resolved not to wee, and slept uneasily.
I blame last night’s sleepless terror solely on a play I saw a few days ago, one that has been running in London for over twenty years, terrifying thousands of people every week in an old creaky theatre on Russell Street, Covent Garden: The Woman In Black.
I decided I needed to see this particular play after I saw and loved Ghost Stories, which I thought was perfect in its writing, execution, and mechanics – but as anyone who’s seen it knows, you’re not allowed to say a thing about it. I will say that the myths they debunk are the kind of things I still find actually scary, bunk or no bunk. My pal Nat, who, yes, seemingly pops up in almost every blog post, said that he had been to see a play called The Woman In Black ten years ago and wanted to leg it during the interval he was so scared. “I didn’t want to go back in there with the ghosts,” he whispered, with a fear ten years old but still written large across his face. Later he received an email from yours truly with the subject: MAN UP. I wanted to know when he was free for round two in the ring with the ghosts. After much arm-twisting he conceded, though he’d had about three pints when he did so. He couldn’t let me face them alone, after all.
The Woman In Black is, ostensibly, a regular hokey ghost story about grim doings in an isolated corner in the far North of England. It’s a book published in 1983 by Susan Hill who, now in her late 60s, churns out a regular series of detective novels most likely enjoyed by other women in their late 60s. I have never read the book and have no real intention of doing so: the things I like about the play are probably not in it. They are the mechanics invented for the theatre to make the story work with just two actors (one of whom looks astonishingly like Peter Cushing) and very few props. Being able to think about this sort of thing, mechanics and plot devices, is a good way of distracting yourself from what is, at its centre, probably the most terrifying fucking thing I’ve ever sat through.
I have a long history of being afraid of the dark, and I blame it squarely on everything I have ever watched or read. Sometimes I wish I’d listened when some killjoy adult said, “It’ll give you nightmares, you know,” because it did. As a kid I wasn’t so fearty but we had a glowing night-light with Roadrunner’s face on it anyway, probably for my younger brother and sister, or so I like to tell myself. My Ma’s theory is that I was taught to be afraid of the dark by a picture book my Dad bought me called Scroggy the Monster Who Was Afraid of the Dark, about a big blue monster who would check under his bed and in every cupboard in the house before going to uneasy sleep in a state of deep discontent. I don’t know about that, but I do know that Dad didn’t help much by doing spidery fingers up the back of my neck during Arachnophobia, or by going and standing quietly in the corner of the room straight after the credits rolled on The Blair Witch Project.
The scariest film I ever saw was one whose name I never caught. Visiting my grandparents in the North of England, after travelling all the way from Australia, meant that wee eight-year-old Hayley Campbell was jetlagged for about a week in an old, foreign house. Awake at midnight, I crept down the stairs to find my Grandma still up, bathed in the blue flickering light of the TV she was watching on her own. “There’s a film about to start,” she said, “I’ll watch it with you if you can’t sleep.” I settled onto the gold velvet couch: one of those sofas into which you, and entire days, disappear. The film was probably some terrible American telemovie, which is unlikely to have ever made it onto video let alone DVD, and I’m happy to let it die in the forgotten white noise of some early ‘90s cancelled television channel. It was about a young girl’s dead father’s soul taking up residence in a lamp in her bedroom. It glowed all yellow and moon-like when he called to her in singsong, and his face appeared in black and white on one side of the globe. In my birthday card the next year my Grandma painted a watercolour picture of the possessed lamp inside a Hallmark card of her choosing.
I have every light in the house on, and I am afraid of lamps.