Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Only Thing We Have To Fear...

I have a fear of clowns.

Over the years, this fear has extended to pretty much any masked character.

Halloween is difficult.

I don’t know where the whole clown thing started. As a child, I remember being terrified of my Jack-in-the-Box. To this day, just hearing “Pop Goes the Weasel” makes me a little queasy.

When I was living in Minneapolis, one of my best friends worked for Mystery Science Theatre, based in the Twin Cities. One night, she and her sister invited me to an MST Party. The party was hosted by Joel Hodgson at a bowling alley. I was promised beer, bowling, and lots of cute guys in flannel shirts.

As my friend parked the car, she and her sister gave each other that Sisterly Look, and then turned their heads towards me in the backseat.

“Okay,” her sister Kathleen said with dead seriousness. “I think you should know that there is going to be a clown there.”


“I’m sorry. But we knew you wouldn’t come if we told you before…”

“It’s was Joel’s idea,” her sister Ellie explained. “He thought it would be funny.”

“Clowns are not funny,” I tried to explain. “Clowns are scary.”

“Well…just…you know…” Kathleen stammered. “You might want to avoid the clown.”

This seemed like my best bet. After all, I was now stranded at a bowling alley in Chaska with no way back home.

And then it got worse.

“Joel told his friend to dress like a clown, get really drunk, and accost women. His name is Fondles. Fondles the Clown. Just stay away from Fondles.”

As I crept carefully into the wood-paneled bar of the bowling alley, my eyes immediately spotted Fondles.

He was the creepiest clown I’d ever seen.

Luckily, by the time we got there, he had already downed about six Leinie Bock longnecks and was currently slumped over the cigarette machine, making sexually inappropriate comments to women as they walked by.

A few minutes later, he lost his grip on the cigarette machine and slid down the side to the floor. One of the writers propped him back up---just in time to grab some woman’s ass. And then, he fell again. He drunkenly pulled himself back up onto the cigarette machine and ordered another beer. A few sips later, he tumbled to the sawdust floor.

Kathleen (who had also grown up Catholic) turned to me and said, “Fondles Falls For the Third Time.”

I immediately cracked up.

Stations of the Cross references always slay me.

Two years later, I attempted to get over my fear of clowns by writing and shooting a short film on the subject---a comedy that also tackled my completely irrational fear of John Davidson.

It was titled “Fear, Loathing, and John Davidson.”

For one particular scene, I needed a real clown who could make animal balloons. One of the photographers at my day job suggested the perfect clown.

“She’s nice. You’ll like her. She does children’s parties. I did some headshots for her and she’s not scary at all.”

Steve, the photographer, slipped me her number and I gave her a call.

Right away, I explained my fear.

It should be noted that this was the SECOND time I’d explained my fear of clowns…to a clown.

But she was the first clown that understood.

“They warned us about this in clown school. That some children---even adults---will be afraid of you. And the instructor told us, ‘Don’t think that YOU’RE going to be the clown who gets them over the fear of clowns.’”

She understood me! The clown understood me!!!

My only request was that she not show up for the shoot in costume.

“I think,” I explained over the phone, “that if I meet you and talk to you before you put on the make-up, I’ll be okay.”

I’m sure she thought I was completely batshit. But she agreed to the stipulation.

The night before the shoot, she left a message on my machine.

“I’m SO sorry! But I booked a children’s party for tomorrow afternoon and I’ll be going straight from your shoot to the party so I have to show up with my make-up and costume. I know it’s going to be hard for you, but really…I promise, I’m not scary. You won’t be scared. And we can talk tomorrow morning over the phone, if it makes you feel better…”

You know---you hear those stories about what Scorsese went thru in the desert shooting The Last Temptation of Christ Or Herzog pulling a ship over an Amazon mountain in Fitzcarraldo Or Francis Ford Coppola wrangling natives, the Vietnam War, and a fat Marlon Brando for Apocalypse Now

But NOTHING can compare with what I went thru that morning as I prepared to meet Sneaky the Clown.

I tried to act normal. Whatever normal is when you roll out of bed on a Saturday morning and meet A CLOWN!!!

Okay, in case some of you still don’t quite understand, let me explain.

First off, I will do anything to avoid running into a clown. I have been known to walk several blocks out of my way to avoid a clown passing out flyers on the corner. If I DO have to walk past a clown, I avoid eye contact. I keep my eyes on the ground, focus on my breathing, and try to move past as quickly as possible. I live by the hope that if I don’t bother the clown, the clown won’t bother me.

These few Clown Rules are usually enough to keep Bozo away.

But if I do encounter a clown, what happens is something along the lines of the “flight-or-fight-or freeze response”. I’m like a deer-in-the-headlights. Then my heart starts pounding like it’s about to burst out of my chest. I hyperventilate. Indecipherable sounds resembling a moose-cry emerge from my throat. My hands shake. My whole body shakes.

At best, I chatter in non-sequitors and back-away.

At worst, I’m in the fetal position with my head between my legs breathing into a paper bag.

Once, I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned around, and it was a clown.

What happened after that, I have no idea. I seem to have blacked it out.

But clowns are not my only fear.

In the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, Charlie Brown visits Lucy’s Psychiatrist booth:

Lucy Van Pelt: Are you afraid of staircases? If you are, then you have climacaphobia. Maybe you have thalassophobia. This is fear of the ocean, or gephyrobia, which is the fear of crossing bridges. Or maybe you have pantophobia. Do you think you have pantophobia?
Charlie Brown: What's pantophobia?
Lucy Van Pelt: The fear of everything.
Charlie Brown: THAT'S IT!

Over the past few years, I’ve developed a case of pantophobia.

I wake up afraid.

Yesterday morning, I was afraid of the questionable date on the Half & Half, the pile of tax papers sitting on my desk, the new deodorant I bought, my computer printer, the fancy boots my Mom bought me for Christmas that I haven’t worn for fear they might pinch---but most of all, that unknown thing that could jump out at you at anytime and yell “Boo!”

The Jack-in-the-Box that is Life.

Oddly, to get me thru my fears, I’m not afraid to smoke.

It’s all completely irrational. My computer printer is not cursed. If it doesn’t want to print the designated pages, it’s because the hp company simply wants me to buy a new one every three years.

And yesterday, I said Damn the Torpedoes!---and I wore my boots.

No, they’re not the best boots to wear while walking across sheets of ice… But my gay friends thought I looked like a dominatrix and the older Hindu guy at the drugstore asked me to marry him.

AND---they didn’t pinch my toes! They were perfectly comfortable boots.

What’s my point?

Over the course of the past 24 hours, I’ve begun to examine some of my fears. And today, I conquered one. The wearing of the boots.

Well, actually---two. I took a chance on the Half & Half. It smelled okay, so I went for it.

A friend of mine once suggested that I had a fear of success.

THAT is completely untrue. What I have, is a fear of everything.

Pantophobia is a real word. According to Wikipedia:

Panphobia, from the Greek 'pan' and 'phobos', also called omniphobia, Pantophobia or Panophobia, is a medical condition known as a "non-specific fear" or "the fear of everything" and is described as "a vague and persistent dread of some unknown evil".

In my family, we simply call this “Being Eastern-European”.

I remember reading John Lukacs Budapest, where he describes it so tersely:

"Temetni tudunk - a terse Magyar phrase whose translation requires as many as ten English words to give it proper (and even then, not wholly exact) sense: 'How to bury people - that is one thing we know.’"

Trust me, the Polish version is even worse.

It’s a vague sense of dread that is not related to depression in any way. It’s an acknowledgement of the sadness in life. A respect. Like the respect that must be given a wild animal.

Life is wild.

Today, I put on my boots, and set off into the wild brush.