When I was young there wasn't much on cable-free television in the horror-movie department, so we had to make do with the requisite smattering of Japanese acid-trip offerings that included, but was not limited to, Godzilla, Rodan and another movie called The Gargantuans, which basically had Tokyo being attacked by multicolored plush toys. These movies were, of course, about as scary as a preschooler jumping from behind a bush and yelling, "Boo." But given the lack of variety available at the time, my sisters and I watched them anyway, commenting, of course, on how weird it was to hear articulate English sentences emerge from lips that looked like they were trying suck golf balls through a beer bong.
But then one day a new movie was added to our repertoire, the plot of which seemed to consist of nothing more than a collection of Japanese soldiers on a submarine being terrorized by a creeping clear liquid. This substance, if it dripped on them, would make them disappear, leaving nothing but their empty clothing behind, bloodless and disembodied. I have absolutely no idea how the director accomplished this given the simplicity of the script, but that movie remains two of the most terrifying hours I ever spent as a child.
"Don't just stand there!" we'd scream at the hapless victim, frozen in fear, on the television screen, because we knew that being frozen in place was the worst thing you could do, because that is how the monster gets to you. "Run! Jump! Fly!" we'd holler.
My sisters and I never learned the name of the movie, and we never even learned the name of the monster, because we didn't speak Japanese, and with this movie they didn't bother to dub it with English or even add subtitles. There was no need. The terror was conveyed so effectively by other means, such as the claustrophobic confines of the set, the eerie violins in the soundtrack, the empty clothing littered around waiting to be stumbled upon in the dark and the panic.
So my sisters and I simply named the monster "Stuff," and for years afterward, if we wanted to frighten each other, we would wait until late at night, when each of us would be in our respective beds located inches away in the same room, and we would whisper, "I see Stuff coming in under the door," or, "Stuff is right there by your foot," or, "Mom and Dad just got killed by Stuff, and now it's oozing up from the cracks in the floor." The result was always the same; we would curl up under the covers and shiver until the wave of fright passed us by.
My brother, though, was impervious to the movie. "Fuck Stuff," he'd say, "What's to be afraid of? There's no blood, no guts, no head on the end of a hatchet. It's just clear liquid, for chrissakes."
But he was wrong. Stuff was scary, and today I continue to marvel how apt the image of that movie remains, because today I believe the essence of fear is rooted in the loss of yourself and those you love. For example, I remember when my father died, from a heart attack and not the attack of a Japanese movie monster, and I remember him later laying in his coffin, his body as empty of himself as the clothing left behind by the victims of Stuff. "Where did he go?" I thought. Regardless of the generic eulogy delivered by the funeral-parlor preacher who never met my father, there were no certainties, none except that he was gone, and there was only emptiness in his place.
But when you don't die young, Stuff creeps up on you over time anyway — under the door and through the cracks in the floor — it happens a tiny bit at a time; a piece of you is lost here, another there, and before long, if you aren't careful, you're nothing more than walking laundry, and the people who love you are looking at you like they're wondering where you went. Sometimes you even ask yourself, "What happened to me?" even though you know the answer: Stuff got to you.
At this point you become terrified not of the things you lost, but of the things you might find, because all those lost pieces of yourself are still littered around waiting to be stumbled upon in the dark; dreams, longings, loves, aspirations and other evidence that you were once fresh and unfettered by stuff that had been so heavily crapped on you over time. How terrifying it would be to encounter these things laying around, bloodless and disembodied, so you think the best way to keep yourself safe is to not encounter anything at all, to simply remain in place, weighted.
But I am here to tell you that being frozen in place is the worst thing you can do, because that is how the monster gets to you. You have to run, jump, fly. You have to say to yourself, "Fuck Stuff."
Hollis Gillespie authored two top-selling memoirs and founded the Shocking Real-Life Writing Academy (hollisgillespie.com).