Even at a very young age I wanted to be scary, but I learned quickly that, for a blond-haired, pug-nosed little girl like me, that was probably easier said than done. When I was about 6 or 7, for Halloween, I decided to be an ugly, old witch, the type that would terrify all the other children just by walking into the room. It was going to be awesome! I had a black dress and the requisite pointy hat, green make-up, hair that was teased and sprayed grey, and, of course, a kick-ass broom. I felt powerful, in charge, ready to seize those ruby slippers and turn everyone into toads.
But no one shrieked in horror when I rang their doorbell. No one cried or peed their pants in terror. It was disappointing, to say the least. However, the nail in coffin was when an older gentleman told me that I was “too adorable to be scary.” How dare he?! He should have at least pretended to be frightened – I mean, why break a little girl’s heart on Halloween? My mom assured me that he didn’t know I was trying to scare him. “He was just trying to be nice…” Whatever. I was devastated. And to add insult to injury, I’m pretty sure he gave me a box of raisins instead of candy. Jerk.
As the years passed, I continued to try to inspire mortal dread in my friends, holding “séances,” telling ghost stories with flashlights, and playing Ouija board (to my knowledge, we never released any demons from hell, and no one has since been possessed.) I think I ended up scaring myself more than anyone else, doing these things, though.
By the time I was a teenager, having inspired only warm fuzzies in my peers and comments like “you’re as cute as a button” and “you look like a little doll!” from elders, I gave up on trying to be scary. I consoled myself by reading horror and gothic novels and every single ghost story I could find at the library (the internet wasn’t a thing yet, so that was my main source of info.)
After college, when I was still an actor, I got a role in William Shakespeare’s Haunted House, an annual NYC Halloween production in which Shakespeare’s famous characters are forced, as ghosts, to relive the worst moments of their lives over and over. It’s all the supernatural and bloody scenes from his plays, performed using the original text in an interactive, Coney Island-style haunted house setting. I played one of the fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; however these fairies were not sweet, glittery, Tinkerbell pixies. Nope, we were disgusting, alien, bug creatures that would eat your brains, if given the chance.
Throughout rehearsal, I worked hard to tap into the darkest, most primal and monstrous parts of myself. I was a trained, professional actor, not some little kid in a homemade witch costume. This was my big chance to be scary for real!
I thought I was doing a great job in the show, growling and gnashing my teeth in iambic pentameter with the other fairies, until one mom in the audience said to her little boy, “Honey, don’t cry. Why don’t you go talk to that fairy,” pointing at me. “She’s not scary, she’s cute.” Seriously?! Come on! Disappointment rose up in me, filling me from the “nave to the chops,” until I could taste it – it tasted like stale Halloween raisins.
In the years following, I was recast as Juliet which allowed me to be more cute than scary, so that was better, but there’s a part of me that still longs to send shivers up spines, cause skin to goosebump, and make neck hairs to stand on end with fright. I haven’t yet learned how to follow Lady Macbeth’s advice to “bear welcome in your eye, your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.”
So, maybe what I can’t accomplish in person, I can do in my writing. I know I’ll never be a master of horror, like Stephen King, Anne Rice, or Edgar Allan Poe – there will always be an element of cuteness, a touch of quirky wit, and probably some kissing in my writing – yet, hopefully with Essex Hill, Betsy and I can at least creep a few young readers out, and perhaps inspire future generations to go for the gold and scare the crap out of people.
PS. I just read Kendare Blake’s fantastic, scary YA novel, Anna Dressed in Blood. Talk about witty, romantic AND terrifying. Deliciously scary!
Having given up on trying to look scary at Halloween, Betsy and I now embrace the cute (and I put my piggy nose to good use!)