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Every Creeping Thing

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    When I hear the word “creepy,” my heart skips a beat. Sadly, the term is often squandered on bootlickers who suck up to authority, or pests who bother women. There are plenty of names for these guys. Call them fawners, flatterers, lurkers, or stalkers. You can even call them creeps or creepers. But why waste “creepy”—that odd, resonant word—on the unworthy?

      The modern adjective comes from the Germanic Old English crēopan, which referred to movement of a body near or along the ground. Most creatures that creep—crabs, snails, worms, and insects—are invertebrates. When we learned to walk upright, we raised ourselves above these lowly creatures, above our own nether regions, the anus and genitals. It’s the spine—an extension of the brain—that gives us dominion, according to Genesis 1.26, “over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

          The backbone is the cerebellum’s tail; it holds up our heads, heavy with human reason. We dominated the animal world by repressing our bodily demands, which we have learned, or so we believe, to control. One day, perhaps, we’ll manage to shed them altogether. We forget that we, too–both as a species and as individual embryos–were also invertebrates, all body and no brain. The echo in our own bodies reminds us. Creepy things bring us out in goosebumps; they make our flesh crawl. They take us by surprise, giving us the impression that the creeps came on suddenly, when in fact, the feeling builds up slowly, deep in the reptile brain. Creepy things, unlike those that are shocking or horrible, move at a measured pace. You can’t creep swiftly. Creeping creatures lurk, they skulk, and writhe; they may squirm and scuttle briefly, but they never scamper.

      Unlike more overt or explicit forms of horror, creepiness is subtle and subterranean. For a feeling everyone recognizes, it can be curiously subjective, and is usually evoked by something glanced, grasped or acknowledged briefly and indirectly, rather than head-on. For these and perhaps other reasons, although movies, music, and other forms of art can be supremely creepy, the sensation is most readily evoked by prose, and the short story in particular.

       The creepy is a close cousin of the uncanny; both words refer to what Freud, in “The Uncanny” (1919), describes as “all that arouses dread and creeping horror.” Freud makes the case that the feeling is produced when we re-encounter, in an unfamiliar form, something we once knew very well. It’s the uneasy sensation we get when we meet an old friend from childhood who’s changed almost beyond recognition. This may explain why so many creepy stories involve objects and elements drawn from childhood—dolls, clowns, puppets, wind-up toys—that seem to have a life of their own.

Young children don’t make a sharp distinction between living things and inanimate objects. To them, there’s nothing scary about the idea that dolls have feelings; toddlers often talk to their toys and treat them as if they were living things, like pets. Adults, however, can distinguish living creatures from objects; they have forgotten all but a faint trace of their childhood beliefs. To the rational adult, a doll that comes to life is a terrifying prospect.

      Freud’s example of an uncanny story is “The Sandman” (1816), an elaborate and convoluted tale by the German fantasy author E.T.A. Hoffman. “The Sandman” isn’t an easy read. The plot is loose, the characters stiff, and the tale unfolds in a world which is part nineteenth century Germany, part folklore-land. Still, the mood of the story is hard to shake, and its images are mesmerizing: dark figures creeping around the house late at night; baby birds feeding on children’s eyeballs; a repulsive lawyer and his double, an itinerant barometer-seller; a strange and beautiful girl who turns out to be a wind-up doll.

       “The Sandman” contains a double as well as a doll, but dolls themselves are often twins, doubles, or proxies. Children, girls in particular, love to pamper their dolls, dress them up, and treat them as they themselves would like to be treated. A doubly worrisome dummy lurks at the heart of Daphne Du Maurier’s “The Doll” (1937), in which the distraught narrator recounts his obsession with Rebecca, a mysterious violinist. There’s something machine-like about Rebecca; she’s cold, indifferent to the narrator’s passion. Her playing is notable for its technical perfection, and she plays with “her eyes wide open, her lips parted in a smile.” She seems defiantly less human than the odd dummy she keeps in her bedroom for secret purposes—a clockwork doll with a “foul distinctive personality” and a “wet crimson mouth”.

   “The Doll” is a bizarre story, but part of its strangeness is in the telling. The narrator is so anguished and desperate that we can’t be sure where his account is exaggerated by emotion. The tale may be a twisted one, but it’s set in an everyday world we can recognize, however much its stability may be undermined. This is true of all creepy stories: they’re set in a stable and reliable world, but one where, every so often, things seem slightly askew. Shadows may be more than shadows. They may be ghosts, or the stirrings of madness, or something seen on the periphery of vision, or not seen at all. Truman Capote’s “Miriam” (1945)—a story that includes the creepy trifecta of doll, double, and eerily precocious child—includes a series of such moments, which build into a darkly threatening mood.

        Part of what makes dolls so unsettling–especially they take the form of puppets, mannequins, dummies, or mechanical toys—is the unnatural way they move. Their jerky clockwork joints remind us that own bodies sometimes do things we don’t want them to, betraying us in embarrassing ways. And if our bodies aren’t “us”, what are they? Where do the boundaries of our identity begin and end? The same questions are raised by images of dislocated body parts, especially the parts we identify with most closely. It’s no coincidence that eyes play a part in many creepy stories; “The Sandman,” for example, is full of plucked-out eyes and vacant sockets, as well as eye-related prostheses like spectacles and telescopes. It’s through our eyes that we recognize ourselves, and each other; the plucked-out eyeball, like the eyeless face, is both us and not us at the same time.

       Teeth, too, can be disconcerting. They have roots, like plants, but they’re embedded in bone. While we’re alive, our teeth can get infected, go bad, rot, and fall out, but once we die they remain intact, sometimes for hundreds of years. Bite marks, like dental records, are clues to who we are. Teeth hold secrets, which is why they’re used in talismans and amulets. Of all the creepy stories involving teeth (and there are more than you might think), one of the creepiest is Edgar Allan Poe’s “Berenice” (1835). While Poe’s ornate prose isn’t for everyone, it’s pitch-perfect for this story of obsessive monomania. Like many of Poe’s protagonists, the tale’s narrator, Egeus, suffers from a strange disorder of the senses. his malady causes him to become preoccupied with “frivolous objects” like the marginal embellishments in a book, or words that, when repeated many times, become nonsensical. These obsessions are intellectual, not emotional, so it’s a bad sign when Egeus’s attention turns to his healthy young cousin Berenice. Before long, Berenice, too, becomes ill, and the sicker she gets, the more she fascinates Egeus. Ultimately, he becomes fixated on her “the white and glistening, and ghastly teeth”, and his obsession becomes delusional. (“The teeth! –the teeth! –they were here, and there, and everywhere, and visibly and palpably before me; long, narrow, and excessively white, with the pale lips writhing about them…”). In brief, Berenice’s teeth continue to fascinate Egeus long after the lady herself is in the grave, and the story ends with “thirty-two small, white and ivory-looking substances” scattered on the floor.

           While teeth may contain clues to who we are, it’s the head we identify with most completely. Even more troubling than the thought of a decapitated body is the image of a severed head, especially if the face remains intact. A head without a body is far creepier than a brain in a jar—it seems closer to sentience and consciousness. One of the scariest stories involving a severed head is “Pollock and the Porroh Man” (1895), by H.G. Wells. This chilling tale opens with Pollock, an English tradesman in Sierre Leone, being cursed by a Porrah Man (a kind of witch doctor). Although he doesn’t believe in the curse, Pollock is bothered by it, and he pays a local thug to kill the Porroh man. When the thug brings him the Porroh Man’s decapitated but still grinning head, however, Pollock realizes he’s made a big mistake. The only way to lift a Porroh Man’s curse, he learns, is to kill the Porroh Man yourself.

       The Englishman buries the ghastly head and tries to forget the curse, but it’s not so easy. When he wakes up the next morning, the first thing he sees is the Porroh Man’s head, which has been unearthed by a dog. “Ants and flies swarmed over it. By an odd coincidence, it was still upside down, and with the same diabolical expression in the inverted eyes.” Each time he thinks he’s got rid of the head, it comes back to him. When Pollock returns to London, the head pursues him. It may be real, or it may be a delusion; either way, the terrible head is everywhere he turns.

In “Pollock and the Porroh Man,” the forces of ancient ritual make themselves felt in the modern, everyday world. Encounters with such powers are uncanny because, however rational we believe ourselves to be, we all resort to magical thinking in times of fear, grief, and uncertainty. Even if we recognize our own superstitious thoughts, it’s one thing to see them in ourselves, and quite another to see them in the other people’s gods, especially those venerated by people we consider uncivilized. In a number of unsettling short stories, ancient spirits often appear as cursed objects like the severed head of the Porroh Man, or the runic cipher that summons up a supernatural entity in the unsettling tale “Casting the Runes” (1911), by M.R. James. In some stories, rather than bestowing curses, these talismanic objects grant wishes. But as we learn from “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs (1902), the Bottle-Imp (1891) by Robert Louis Stevenson, a wish come true can be ghastlier than a curse, and as difficult to break.

            Of course, some short stories are creepy in a more palpable way, causing the reader to shudder in disgust. Usually, these tales describe unwelcome encounters with crawling things: worms, cockroaches, spiders, maggots, or snails. Many people are disturbed by the mere thought of such creatures; when they invade our space, we kill them without hesitation, by laying down poison or just crushing them underfoot. It’s not just the fear of dirt and contamination that leads us to loathe creepy-crawlies—it’s our unacknowledged kinship that disturbs us. After all, we, too, have slimy parts. It’s unsettling to think these creatures we happily exterminate are also sentient beings, like us, with their own needs, desires, and appetites. Patricia Highsmith’s two stories about snails, both published in 1970, are especially nasty (Highsmith was fascinated by snails, and bred them as pets). In “The Snail Watcher,” a meek banker named Peter Knoppert gets interested in snails when his wife brings some home for dinner. After watching a pair perform a mating ritual, Knoppert is reluctant to eat them. Eerily fascinated by their “sexual activity,” he starts to breed snails in his study. Before long, the room is “teeming with snails,” and a “fishy smell” pervades the house. Knoppert’s wife is repelled, and refuses to set foot in the room. His hobby keeps Knoppert occupied until the Summer, when he gets very busy in the bank and doesn’t have time to visit his snails for a month. When, finally, he gets the chance to enter his study, he quickly regrets doing so, but it’s too late (“He was in hell! He could feel them gliding over his legs like a glutinous river, pinning his legs to the floor”).

Even more repulsive, possibly, is “The Quest for Blank Claveringi,” another story that reminds us to be careful what we wish for. Professor Avery Clavering, an ambitious professor of zoology, is eager to discover “some animal, bird, reptile or even mollusk to which he could give his name. Something-or-other Claveringi.” In search of an as-yet-undiscovered creature, he travels to a small island not far from Hawaii which—according to local folklore—is the home of giant, man-eating snails. When he explores the uninhabited island, Professor Clavering is “awestruck” to discover that the monstrous snails are not only real, but even bigger than imagined, with shells twenty feet in diameter, and “moist bodies” that would be “six yards long when extended.” He declares to one of them, “You are magnificent!”. When he discovers his boat has drifted out to sea and he finds himself temporarily stranded on the island, Clavering isn’t worried. At first. But when one of the creatures creeps up behind him and he feels its antenna “moistly” brushing against his leg, Clavering realizes he’s underestimated the cunning of the snails, and the carnivorous capacity of their “clamping, sucking mouths.”

I first read “The Quest for Blank Claveringi” and “The Snail Watcher” when I was a teenager, many years ago—I was sick in bed at the time, which made the stories additionally disturbing—but all I remembered was the lingering sense of disgust they evoked. Until I rediscovered them a few years ago, I had no idea what their titles were, when they were written, or by whom. It’s no coincidence that I first encountered many of these creepy stories in similar circumstances. In fact, I’ve come to consider it a sure sign of creepiness when the mood of a story stays with you much longer than the tale itself. If a story’s truly creepy, something about the atmosphere persists even if you found the plot unconvincing, or the writing heavy-handed. Creepiness clings. Like a curse, it’s impossible to shake off.