The Power of Imagination and Fear – “A Walk in the Dark”

Edward Hopper original sketch night scene


A Weekly Column with J. Torrey McClain

We’ve talked about horror movies before on, and in my discussion, a common theme of creepy girls and the supernatural emerged.  The thing is, these things aren’t scary on their own.  “Thor” isn’t scary. “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” isn’t scary.  What gives them the ability to scare me comes not as much from their intrinsic natures, but from the images that come from the masters of horror combined with my imagination.

My imagination is the key.  The supernatural have no rules and no limits.  They can do whatever you dream them to do.  Once you start down that road, then anything can trigger those pieces of the mind that start the skin crawling and the sweat to run cold.  The rustling of leaves outside my tent?  Probably the wind.  But, then maybe it’s a mouse.  Maybe it’s a snake.  Maybe it’s a softly moving wolf.  Maybe someone is in my camp.  Before I know it, an army of undead, animals, and adderall-crazed ankle biters have amassed on the other side of the thin sheets of nylon.

Those are two other keys to fear: removing senses and being alone.  If my tent was clear material and I could see the leaves drifting along the ground, my fear would be gone.  If I can hear the voices of friends still up around the campfire, I can feel safe.  If I have a friend telling me to go back to sleep after a late night trip behind a tree, I can rejoin his or her slumber.

Original sketch Edward Hopper Nighthawks

Arthur C. Clarke hits me perfectly again with the short story, “A Walk in the Dark” from the same collection as “The Wall of Darkness.”  The opening is innocuous.  The first paragraph introduces Robert Armstrong as a man who has walked two miles and his flashlight just went bad.  It give you those two pieces of information and depending on your imagination, it might be perfectly safe as you think of a two-mile round-trip hike.  Maybe you just finished trick-or-treating and you can use the streetlights on the rest of the way home.  Maybe your friend has a flashlight.

However, Robert is alone.  He’s on another planet that has no moonlight.  He’s trying to get to another spaceport after the vehicle he was supposed to take broke down so that he can catch a flight home that won’t happen for another six months.*  In less couth words, he’s screwed.

Edward Hopper Automat

*I just have to comment on how much I love Clarke right here.  A vehicle breaks down and a flashlight stops working.  These things don’t happen to us very often if at all.  It happened to Robert twice in one day and he has no security net.  (Does anyone really carry two flashlights at once?)  It goes back to the writing axiom – coincidences to get people in trouble are fantastic.  It generates conflict.  A series of coincidences to get people out of trouble?  Well, that’s lazy and just bad writing.  I love Clarke’s good writing.

Complete darkness is the ultimate removal of the sense of sight.  However, it doesn’t have to be completely dark to make the night creepy.  During the summers of my high school and first couple of college years, I worked as a janitor at a movie theater.  It meant I got a key to the building.  It meant I could combine forces with a projectionist friend to watch movies late at night. It also meant that sometimes I cleaned the theater all by myself in the middle of the night.

New York Movie 1939 by Edward Hopper

The first problem is the light inside and the lobby completely made of glass.  I have light, but the reflection means that I can’t see out and others can see inside the theater.  Once that thought gets in your head, it’s tough to expunge it out again.  I remember distinctly staying in the hallways behind the lobby as much as possible and surging through the gaps connecting the box office to the theaters.  If anyone could see me, I wasn’t going to be an easy target.

The second problem was the theaters themselves.  They seem warm and nice when you have the lighting on the walls that give a theater the mood to get you ready for a movie.  Once night comes, those lights go out and the antiseptic waves of the fluorescents light up the seats with footprints, the floor with gum, candy, soda and popcorn spilled about and the curtains that could use a good cleaning.  That’s not that bad, you might say, but that’s just the beginning my friend.  You know that a cineplex is made up of multiple theaters.  You know that the only way to get to a new theater is by going outside and walking around to the next theater.  That means, that anytime I’m in a theater, someone could be in any other theater, the hallway, the projection booths or the bathrooms and I couldn’t tell one way or another.  I can only see within my own black box.  It gets worse.  You don’t sweep.  There’s always too much trash left behind.  You run a blower to get all the trash up front to make it easy to sweep.  That blower sounds at least as loud as the vacuum cleaner that scares the wise cats and dogs of our world.  In order to run it, you’re always facing forward.  So, now the closer I get to the front of the theater, the more space is there for anyone to sneak behind me and I could not see or hear them.

Sheridan Theater by Edward Hopper

I must say nothing ever happened when I worked.  Every night passed uneventfully.  That didn’t stop my imagination from kicking into overdrive and the back of my neck tingling every few minutes so that I would spin my head to look in every direction and call out for any response.

Fear finally got the best of me one night before I got to the theater.  It was the middle of the summer and I had just pulled into the alley that leads to where I parked my car.  There, in the middle of the alleyway, frozen by the lights of my Oldsmobile, stood a jet-black cat.  He didn’t move.  I didn’t move.  We stared for what felt like a couple of minutes until I took it as a sign that I wasn’t going anywhere near that theater during the night.  I put my car in reverse, spun it around and drove back home.  I woke up the next morning and cleaned those theaters while the sun shined and fellow employees got the place ready for the day.  Never before or since has superstition taken a hold of me in the same way.

Lieutenant Cdr Data cat spot painting in style of Picasso

Many other times my imagination got the best of me.  Walks home late at night through neighborhoods with plenty of trees turned to sprints.  Bike rides in which the faster I pedaled, the less I could watch to make sure that no one was around until my head tilted down and I pumped with all my might.  Hikes to hot springs.  Drives down remote roads where only the road in front of my car gets any illumination.

A man walks out into the dark.  His mind starts to think and think and think.  What would happen to you?  I know what would happen to me.

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