This week’s question is from reader Jake Rutkowski:
I haven’t been able to use a cotton swab confidently ever since I read Asterios Polyp and saw, to my horror, the end of a cotton swab break off into Hana’s ear. Sure the situation is diffused handily and without any cochlear trauma, but I didn’t even know this was a thing that could happen before reading the book. Are there any routine actions that make you uncomfortable after you’ve seen them going awry in a piece of media?
Here’s one that has come up time and again in film and television, and every time it happens, it reminds me why I never do this in real life: Looking through the peephole in a door. Whether it’s Will Smith blowing a bad guy’s head off after waiting for him to look through the peephole in Bad Boys II, or the woman being shot right in the eye in Fled, or the countless horror films where someone gets stabbed because they were foolish enough to peer through that little opening while being in a scary movie, it never fails to make an impact on me. As a result, it just doesn’t matter who is on the other side of any door I’m near, asking to come in—I’m getting verbal confirmation of their identity, not visual, because I can’t handle the stress.
There’s this restaurant around the corner from my place that braces its window-unit air conditioner against an external wall with a pair of flimsy looking brackets, and I never, ever walk under that air conditioner for a couple of reasons. Reason the first, from Breaking Bad: You know that episode with the ATM and the meth heads? I’m deathly afraid of that scene playing out in real life, only with the AC and my head. Reason the second, from High Fidelity: The most extreme of the three revenge fantasies Rob (John Cusack) comes up with when ponytail-with-sunglasses-attached Ian (Tim Robbins) drops by Championship Vinyl to extend a smarmy, “sorry I slept with your girlfriend” olive branch. Now, I’m not saying I think a raging Todd Louiso is going to run up on me, rip the air conditioner off the wall, and bash my brains in with it. All I’m saying is that filming the final portion of that imagined assault from Ian’s point of view was an effective, nerve-rattling choice on the part of the filmmakers.
I really love water, and beaches, and oceans, but one particular film series appears determined to squash that joy right out of me. First, Open Water now has me extremely nervous on every snorkling excursion, as it featured the (unfortunately true) story of a couple who got left behind in shark-infested waters on a similar expedition. Having been on a few of those myself, I could totally see how that could happen. But the sequel was even worse, and made me wonder how well I can climb up onto a boat from the water. In Open Water 2: Adrift, a group of friends is horsing around on a boat, resulting in them all winding up in the water, except for the baby left on board. Because no one had dropped a ladder, they are unable to get back on to the boat. Sometimes even climbing a rope ladder onto a water vessel taxes what little upper-body strength I possess, so after this movie, I often wonder from the water, will I ever be able to get back on? Or, what if the ladder breaks? So thanks a lot, Open Water, and I look forward to Open Water 3, in which a paddleboat spontaneously combusts.
It’s become such a common trope that it was satirized in The Cabin In The Woods, but that’s not going to change my policy of never, ever stopping at a ramshackle gas station in the middle of nowhere. Nope, only well-lit Flying Js with security cameras and lots of people around for me. Otherwise, a, incestuous gang of murderous freaks might kidnap me and turn me into human BBQ, or put sugar in my gas tank and chase me through the woods when my car breaks down, or hide in the backseat and pop up with a knife when we get somewhere secluded, and I don’t feel like living out any of those horror-movie scenarios now or ever, thanks.
I defy anyone to claim they aren’t slightly terrified of sticking their hand into a garbage disposal. A garbage disposal is a convenient, but conceptually horrifying appliance, and the howling grind they make is unpleasant even when they’re used as intended. Garbage disposal dismemberment is a pop culture fear so common, I’m not even sure of the first time I saw it. But the last time was in The Leftovers, where John Murphy (Kevin Carroll) was the one faced with hopelessly mangled fingers, only to pull his hand out of the disposal without incident. It’s not often that garbage disposals wind up actually hurting people, but Aaron Paul’s character got his hand thoroughly scrambled in the The Last House On The Left remake. (He screams so loud I imagine he had to go on vocal rest before he could properly “Bitch!” as Jesse Pinkman again.) Even when there’s no chance of a mishap, I flinch a little every time I have to fish a half teaspoon or a stubborn chunk of gristle out of the drain.
I share Joshua’s anxiety, but to an even greater extent. I get nervous anytime someone extends their arm into a narrow space. Of course tucking your hand into a garbage disposal is foolhardy, but what are you supposed to do when even groping around in a sewer drain to retrieve a paper boat results in your arm being ripped off by an evil pan-dimensional clown, like in It? Whether it’s ground up by machinery, chewed off by a monster, or grabbed onto by some malevolent force, the regularity with which a character’s arm is endangered just by putting it into something has rendered me with a toddler’s lack of object permanence. Anytime someone’s limb leaves my line of site, I assume it’s just gone forever.
Here’s a weirdly niche bit of daily fear: In the Peter David-penned Star Trek novel Q-Squared, an alternate universe version of Dr. Beverly Crusher gets into a fight with someone—her normally dead ex-husband Jack, if 11-year-old me’s memory holds true—gets shoved, and snaps her neck on a sickbay table. (David’s narration even takes a moment to point out how senseless and ordinary a death it is.) Ever since then, I’ve had an inescapable fear of people falling wrong. I do a lot of improv, which necessitates performers bouncing around on stage with reckless abandon, and there’s always part of me that’s terrified that someone will take an apparently hilarious pratfall and never get up again.
Though there’s no particular example of this that was more formative than the rest (there’s always the Val Kilmer/Michelle Pfeiffer after-school special One Too Many, but it’s hardly the only culprit), I have seen so many people hit by cars after stepping obliviously into the street that it has given me a startle response I can’t shake. I recognize how many of them are in the context of slapstick. I’m usually not even surprised when it happens—I understand it’s a visual beat we’ve come to expect when someone steps backward into the street. I understand the stunt logistics involved in staging one of these shots. I will still look both ways twice before I cross the street for the rest of my life.
Like Genevieve, my fears are vehicular, but I can trace them to a particular source: The Sopranos. That show had several notable car crashes, nearly always taking the viewer by surprise, as a casual conversation in the car would give way to screeching tires and broken glass. By the time that show finished its run, I had gained a lifelong Pavlovian response to get nervous whenever someone on a prestige drama is in the car. Don Draper? Rust Cohle? Peggy Blomquist? Every time they got behind the wheel, I held my breath, waiting for the big dramatic moment that never came. Thank goodness Jessica Jones is a New Yorker and walks everywhere; I can watch her show about surviving PTSD without getting so stressed out.
I have a dental thing. Like most things in my mind, it stems from movies—over the years the sudden, painful, shocking crumbling of a tooth onscreen has made me cringe and recoil more than the goriest horror movie. (Unless said movie starts fucking with someone’s teeth.) It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when tooth horror first took root, so to speak, but perhaps it was poor Tom Conti in his Oscar-nominated turn as alcoholic, lecherous Scottish poet Gowan McGland in Reuben, Reuben, whose lifelong battle against “a mouthful of chalk” reached its nadir when he put his crumbling choppers in the care of a college town dentist—who’s just found out McGland is sleeping with his wife. Or maybe it was Stephen Rea’s equally dissipated photographer in 1999’s Guinevere, who celebrates a rare carefree day in the company of much younger lover Sarah Polley by tucking into some corn on the cob—and reacting in horror to the catastrophic results. There’s just something deeply troubling to it, a potent symbol of the abrupt inevitability of decay and death, even on a sunny day, as when the happily stoned Ilana bites into that jawbreaker on Broad City. (Shudder.)
Using elevators isn’t as routine for me as it used to be when I worked in a real office instead of just my bedroom or when I lived in a high-rise in Pentagon City, but I still encounter elevators more than I would like to. Surprisingly, it’s not my claustrophobia that’s triggered by elevators but rather a fear of the dinging sound that most elevators make, courtesy of the first season of Damages. I wish those dings would just conjure images of Glenn Close and Rose Byrne in power suits, but unfortunately, I can’t hear a noisy elevator without immediately thinking of murder. I’d honestly rather take the stairs.
This wasn’t even from a movie, but a preview for a horror programming block being shown on a now-forgotten TV channel (let’s be honest, it was probably Prism, which will only make sense to Philly kids of a certain age). I’ve never been one for gore, but I can’t sleep on my stomach because this horror montage included a shot of a guy getting stabbed in the back while sleeping on his stomach. Poor unsuspecting bastard. So, instead I sleep on my side, forever prepared for potential knife wielding murderers.
The last time I went into a bathroom stall without looking up was almost 20 years ago, before my friends subjected me to a late-night cable screening of the momentous ’90s crime thriller, Copycat. I don’t remember what happens exactly, but the gist is there’s a copycat killer recreating famous murders, at least one of which involves a noose lowering around someone’s neck while they’re on the toilet. Naturally I started checking to make sure there were no pesky murder implements waiting for me whenever I’d use the bathroom—my version of not showering for a week after Psycho—and soon it became a reflex. I’ve never found a noose, but I have found a black widow, so take it from me. When you use a public restroom, look up.
My fear is so banal that I can’t even explain exactly what fills me with unease when I stand at the foot of my bed for too long in the middle of the night. I can trace my anxiety directly back to the maniacal clown in Poltergeist and the resurrected and pissed Gage Creed from Pet Sematary slicing neighbor Jud’s achilles tendon. Granted, I certainly don’t expect a possessed toy to drag me under the bed or little Miko Hughes to be sprawled on his belly under my Sealy, but I have to admit, I still feel a bit of creeping dread.
Mine is short and sweet: I’m still scared of manhole covers because of C.H.U.D. I know in my heart of hearts that there’s a very slim likelihood that my taking a stroll over and directly next to a manhole cover is going to coincide with the first documented attack of cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers, but that doesn’t mean I need to tempt fate. As such, I generally make a point to be several feet away from any such spots in the street. Because, really, you just never know when the C.H.U.D. might decide to rise.