Why is it that some things creep you out and others don’t?
Poison’s always done it for me. I have heard that people are sometimes haunted in this life by violent, dire and dreadful things that happened to them in past lives: a person who died of thirst might drink too much; a person who was imprisoned in a dungeon for long, long years might be claustrophobic in their present life. So, perhaps I was poisoned. Alternatively, perhaps I was one of the Borgias and poisoned everyone else – in which case this lifetime’s faint fear is an echo of long-ago guilt.
Whyever it is, scenes – even talk – of poisoning have always haunted me. As a child, I walked round Nan’s garden with her. When we came to the foxgloves she explained – firstly how those beautiful, long purple spotted flowers might make gloves for foxes and secondly how the seeds were the basis for the a poison called digitalis, and that it was with this poison that Socrates, the Greek philosopher, had been commanded to poison himself.
In this I believe she may have been wrong, since Socrates poisoned himself with hemlock, an innocuous looking white plant, whereas foxglove makes digitalis – but the effect on me was the same – fright. The world was not a safe place.
I later – accidentally – read the account of a similar ‘state execution at a distance’ in the form of Tacitus’ account of the death of Seneca. No Stephen King novel could match this for sheer creepy nastiness.
We were due to go to a carol service at the Methodist. I was seven or so and waiting in the living room of a schoolfriend’s house for her to finish getting ready and come downstairs. The TV was on – a tiny, flickering, black and white box in those days. It was a cowboy film and there, in the middle of a clearing, languished a cowboy who had been bitten by a deadly snake. Engrossed, unable to look away I watched him struggling against the effects of the poison. After that, snakes got added to my list of things to be terrified of, although I retained an idiosyncratic fondness for anacondas. There was an wonderful colour plate of an anaconda in my Odham’s Encyclopaedia (the magical ‘ae’ was sill around in those days) – luxuriously dangled around a tree. Anacondas only crushed their victims to death by wrapping their coils around them and squeezing, and then swallowing them whole (they can unhinge their jaws). This results in a victim-sized lump that moves slowly down the snake as the days pass. Nothing scary about anacondas at all, as far as I’m concerned.
And at some point – oh joy – I was taken to see Peter Pan in London, and when it got to the bit where Tinker Bell – inexplicably played in this production not by a proper fairy actress but by a torch beam and a bell from off stage – sacrificed herself by drinking the poison intended for Peter, how unexpected and terrifying that was. The torch beam/bell combination entered into the glass of “medicine” to which had been added by the vile Captain Hook – according to the book – “a yellow liquid quite unknown to science, which was probably the most virulent poison in existence”. How I hated Captain Hook, and how I worried for Tinker Bell/the offstage torch-beam as she faded, faded, fluttered, fluttered… and all in defence of the bumptious Pan. Any boy less worth drinking imaginary virulent yellow poison for would be hard to imagine.
And then of course we were all forced to clap to show we believed in fairies because children believing in fairies is what keeps them alive. Even then, there was a whiff of circular logic about this claim, something deeply suspect… but how could you not clap? Just in case the torch-beam/bell was really a fairy?
What were you most creeped out by as a child?