There’s a tarantula that follows me around. When scads of elongated thoughts plague my sleep, I feel it crawling up the sheets of my bed. A looming work deadline that depends on the cooperation of flakey coworkers is when I find that tarantula atop my showerhead, ready to pounce. It scurries behind me on the couch as I wait . . . and wait . . . and wait . . . for Netflix streaming to load The Lady Eve (1941) so I may continue my Barbara Stanwyck education. Even now, sitting outside at a lovely café in San Francisco on an early summer evening, lending letters and words to this tarantula brings it to life, and I sense its presence on the plant bed behind my table.
This menacing spider doesn’t appear often in the daylight, and it prefers my bed to most environments. Its presence jolts me out of that subconscious state that borders true deep sleep, but like most sanely rational people, I blame The Brady Brunch. If memory serves, despite my attempts to block such horrors, the Bunch once vacationed in Hawaii, where one of them finds a cursed tiki idol. Assumed to be a good luck charm, instead it leads to several close-call catastrophes, one of those being a deadly spider that winds up in someone’s bed. Full disclosure, if I’m off slightly on this storyline – this one of the few times when I absolutely refuse to do any form of online fact checking. Suppose I stumble upon an image or, heaven forbid, a video of the Brady family and this repulsive creature? Why on earth would I want feed the beast?
I have no knowledge of the tarantula’s diet, nor will I begin to research such grisly information. I do know that when my company was sold a few weeks ago and the final sliver of job security vanished, my tarantula not only increased in size and speed but also felt the need to up the frequency of bedtime disruptions. Whether it stems from a 1970s family sitcom or a deeper psychological scar, evidently my fear manifests itself in arachnid form. If we need to climb on the therapist’s couch for a moment, perhaps a useful aspect of fear is its scrawny little finger that points us towards the areas of our lives where there is room for growth . . . (insert “blow a raspberry” here). But what about those other nagging fears that told us not to swim out too far from the beach or take deliciously tempting candy from that smiling stranger? If some fears exist solely to keep us from physical and, perhaps, emotional danger, how do we know which fears serve as our friendly lifeguards and which are the stalking tarantulas?
Horror movies. Suspense flicks. Carol Burnett in Annie (1982). They provide us with the thrill and adrenaline of fear, all without any true physical threat to our person. For decades, filmmakers in the suspense genre have used one single plotline to perturb their audiences, forcing us to shut our eyes or hide under the covers for a few extra seconds – the possibility of offing the children. Director Fritz Lang opens the film M (1931) with a group of children playing a counting elimination game while singing a song in German about a child murderer. More haunting than “One, Two, Freddy’s Coming for You” in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the tune virtually summons the murderer from the shadows, and within minutes, the latest in a series of a young victims is declared missing.
While the petrified town grows suspicious of any single man who so much as glances towards a child, the frustrated murderer whistles his own little tune, as he writes a letter to the newspapers announcing to all that he has not “finished.” A reward of 10,000 Deutsche Marks is advertised immediately following the letter, and soon both the authorities and the farmisht underworld on the trail of the whistling murderer played by the talented and abundantly eyed Peter Lorre (who, it turns out, could not whistle). Marked with an “M” on the back of his coat by one of his trackers, our murderer flees from both the good guys and the bad guys, a welcomed break in cinematic formulas. Gradually the level of suspense shifts; we move away from attempts to predict the actions of this monster and begin to wonder if ever he will be apprehended. It is during that shift orchestrated beautifully by Lang that we began to root for this villain, smashing our moral compasses with the final scene . . . in those unnerving 15 minutes, I took not a single breath.
And my tarantula? Oh, it never watches old movies.