Oh the Horror: Writing into My Childhood Fear

I shouldn’t be awake. It’s too early. The good news, the improvement that has happened slowly over the past ten years and quickly over the past two months, is that I’m not awake after a fitful sleep all night. After seeking refuge and a mind cleanse from my favorite YA novel, Journey to the River Sea, I slipped past the creepy thought game and into sleep. But my mind still played the game.

What is the game? It’s an imagery recall challenge. 

Remember that monster? Can you remember every detail of its face? What about the way it stands? Great. Can you place it in the window? In the closet? Opening the door? Standing right next to your sleeping form? Open your eyes. Of course it’s not there!

This is all you, all your imagination at work.

Two days ago, I finished the first draft of a horror play I’m writing. It’s one of the most important plays I’ve written because it’s based on my own childhood fears. Namely, evil toys coming to life to follow, haunt, and terrorize me. When I first began writing the play, my mom wondered how I could do it. Honestly, writing the part of the terrorizing doll has given me back control and begun to work at the root of my fear.

The doll in my nightmares never spoke, or if it did, it never told me what I could do to appease it, what it wanted. It was simply always there in the house, either running towards me from another room or walking in front of me, always checking to make sure I was following behind.

I always know where to find the doll in the play; I put her there and I put the words in her mouth. Her victim does get hassled, harried, and threatened, but also a chance to fight back and to be reminded that though it feels this is all happening to just her, perhaps only in her head, she is not battling alone.

Doll Head

That being said, my mind began playing the games last night for the first time in years. It wasn’t the same as when I was a kid. I could feel myself playing the game and kept reminding myself in those late night hours that I could turn it off. Which only sort of worked. It’s a slow process, as it turns out, to defeat your childhood demons. Ten years later. Even if you write a play turning the tables around to control them.

The nightmares have returned because as a playwright, I usually like to read and watch similar texts to get in the mood and to see what tropes and conventions I can pull from the larger cannon. It must come from being not only an English major, but the quintessential English major who toured around as many literary sites when she studied abroad at Oxford (to the point of annoying the other Rice University English majors studying in London at the time, see?). But in this case, I can’t just sit down to watch Child’s Play and be ready to write the next draft. Case in point, last night’s nightmares were sponsored not by a horror movie, podcast, novel, or short story. No, research into one historical incident in Key West Florida about a real haunted doll and discussion about my dramaturg’s suggestion to watch Child’s Play triggered the creepy thought game to start a new round.

The difference is that when I woke up too early from those dreams this morning, I took out my notebook and started finding ways to apply them to the play. If I imagined certain things to be waiting by my bedside when I opened my eyes, why couldn’t my character imagine the same? Or worse? Or have that dreaded demon actually sitting next to her when she awoke?

I’ve always been told my over-active imagination is a blessing in disguise, a curse to be tamed into my greatest strength. In my pre-teen and teenage years it seemed like I would never gain control; I couldn’t even speak my fears out loud, couldn’t name them to my family even though they were the ones making sure I didn’t have to walk past Spencer’s in the mall (they placed Chucky dolls IN THE FRONT WINDOWS DURING CHRISTMAS which is just cruel) and more importantly, the ones staying up late at night to make sure I could eventually trick my brain into letting me go to sleep. Ten years later, I’m finally beginning to channel it and make friends with the doll haunting my consciousness for the past decade.

Yesterday afternoon I thought I was ready to dive in, to watch every movie and episode about living toys and dolls coming alive to terrorize the children who love them and adults who used to love them (by the way, Toy Story has somehow always been exempt from this category for me, go figure). Last night proves that I’m not quite ready. It reminds me why I’m writing a play and not a screenplay– I wouldn’t be able to watch the film I’d written, not at this point. A play, though not really less scary, I think I’m ready to handle. But over the course of the next year as I develop my horror play from first rough draft to performance ready script, I can begin to feed these movies, novels, short stories, podcasts, and episodes of The Twilight Zone to myself, conquering each one and turning it into creative fodder.

As it turns out, I can’t write a play to get rid of my deepest, darkest childhood fear. But I can write a play to turn those thrills and chills into something much greater. If I have to wake up hours before my alarm in the morning or in the middle of the night with nightmares spinning around in my head, at least I know that chill running up my spine can go directly into my notebook and into the next draft.


About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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4 Responses to Oh the Horror: Writing into My Childhood Fear

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