One of the most terrifying films I’ve ever seen is Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, a horror flick that popularized the idea of a “fast-moving” zombie. Boyle’s walking dead are not lumbering and dazed, arms perpetually outstretched. His zombies are agile and focused. They flail wildly and spew blood, propelled into a murderous craze to attack and sink their teeth into living flesh. However, for all their relentless hunting of humans, the undead themselves are not the most frightening aspect of the film; in fact, they aren’t so much undead as they are undone— by humanity itself.
As the protagonist Selena (played by the incredible Naomie Harris) refers to them, “the infected” are victims of a well-meaning activist heist to save chimpanzees from a research lab. Infected with a “rage virus,” and seemingly having watched hours upon hours of violent films and graphic news footage, the chimp attacks one of the activist who becomes Patient Zero in a matter of seconds. She then attacks her fellow activists, and so begins the dissemination of interspecies rage and the disentigration of civilization— or perhaps, or rather, it is the stripping away of veneers to reveal the underlying nature of humankind: self-serving, savage, unreceptive to the suffering that the infected cause as they are their own.
In less than a month, the island of Great Britain becomes no man’s land— and yet it’s not the deserted streets of London, or the church strewn with dead bodies and apocalyptic writing on the walls that frightens me the most. It isn’t Selena’s prediction to fellow survivor Jim (Cillian Murphy) that they’ll “never hear another piece of original music ever again… never read a book that hasn’t already been written or see a film that hasn’t already been shot.” It isn’t that Jim kills a priest and then a young boy (both infected), symbolizing the end of faith and innocence. It isn’t even the whole of Manchester burning up, the sky above it black in smoke and without, as Selena puts it, “fire crews to put it out.”
The true terror comes when Selena and her fellow survivors follow a radio broadcast that leads them to a military bunker, or rather a former manor house, its paintings, sculptures and other remnants of refined taste still in tact, still telling of the riches and excesses of a society who’d merely shellac-end and polished its baser instincts. The soldiers there want the survivors to help them rebuild “civilization.” They promise to protect and shelter them. Their message: “Salvation is here.”
But there is a price for this, and the ones who will pay are the women: Selena and her young charge Hannah (Megan Burns). At first they are indirectly asked to reprise cooking and other “female” domestic “duties.” Then, when the truth comes out– the radio broadcast was a trick to lure in women— Selena and Hannah are forced to dress up like garish dolls, to be gang-raped, in the name of repopulating the earth.
I began to fear for the female protagonists long before, when the survivors sit down for their first dinner with the soldiers and the somber Sargent Farrell asserts: “There’s no infection. There’s just people killing people.” He points out their world is nothing more than a little island, and humanity itself a speck of history, or rather a mistake, and once wiped out will things really return to “normalcy.” The other soldiers mock him as “New Age” and “Spiritual Guru” just before they hear the sound of alarms: some infected have managed to get on the manor grounds. After a successful defense of the bunker, Mitch, who is the most licentious and brutal of the group, struts over to Selena, takes away her trademark machete and says: “Listen sweetheart. You ain’t gonna be needing this anymore. Eh? Cause you got me to be protecting me now.” Wielding his machete, he asks if she wants to get her hands on a “really big chopper.”
In order to proceed with their plans for Selena and Hannah, the soldiers must do away with dissenters: Jim and Farrell. Mitch and another soldier take them out into the woods to execute them, even with supposed as few people are there left in the world. Among the dense, green canopy of trees, as the birds are chirping and the sun shining, we see man for what he is: the ultimate unfeeling killing machine, far worse than any “infected.”
The counterpoint to this inflated misogynistic world is Selena. Naomie Harris’s Selena is one of the most dynamic female characters I’ve ever encountered. In just a few scenes, we learn how she has survived a devastated, isolating, blood-thirsty world, killing anyone—including a long-term companion— who threatens her autonomy. She is not apologetic about the choices she’s forced to make, and she is not cuddly; she’s a badass zombie fighter who does not frighten to easily, who takes charge and leads the way before entering the bunker. It isn’t until she’s among the collective living again—embodied in the ultimate patriarchy, the military—that her body and her humanity are threatened. That her body which fought so hard to stay alive is now being taken from her. And ever the survivor, Selena’s best advice to the younger Hannah is to take pills, not to overdose and die but to make her “not care” during their impending rape.
What makes 28 Days Later so frightening is just how many ways our world can unravel, and how women’s bodies and independence are so easily sacrificed for “the greater good.” It’s an incredible film that, at exactly the right moments, shows this world is larger and more beautiful than what’ve we built. One image that has always stayed with me is a moment the survivors stumble upon a family of horses running through a field. They are yet uninfected by the virus, and most importantly, they are free, unconcerned with human tragedy. They endure; they are united.
Now, in the spirit of Halloween and inspired by this past article in The Atlantic, I wanted to ask fellow writers and poets to share their own ideas of fear, what they find truly terrifying and why. Here is what they had to say…
I’ve been stopped by the police. First, in high school, exiting Safeway. They thought I had a gun. Most recently: June 2014 in Alicante, Spain. He thought I was an undocumented immigrant. Asked what scares me, my mind rushed to these incidents. In both cases the thing that scared me most was how powerless I was: comply, control your tone, no sudden movements.
The poems “Forty-One Bullets off Broadway” by Willie Perdomo (for Amadou Diallo) and “when the officer caught me” by Nate Marshall exhibit similar concerns of powerlessness and fear. For powerlessness, one needs only see the beginning of Perdomo’s “Forty-One Bullets”:
It’s not like you were looking at a
vase filled with plastic white roses
while pissing in your mother’s bathroom
and hoped that today was not the day
you bumped into four cops who
happened to wake up with a bad
case of contagious shooting
We don’t go looking for trouble. We don’t plan to have our lives taken away from us. And social status? Doesn’t matter: “be you prince/be you pauper / the skin on your drum makes you / the usual suspect.” We’re marked: other, less than, fair game. The fear this causes is exemplified in Nate Marshall’s “when the officer caught me.” Marshall’s speaker “endure[s] the slip of hand / into pocket,” “crie[s],” “gulp[s] / answers to his questions” (I remember fighting back tears as the officer while being patted down). But “this is how black boys are baptized / into black manhood while they are still / boys & scared.” We’re conditioned into fear, made to tense at the sight of police cars, flinch at the sound of sirens.
That is fear. Knowing your life could hang in an officer’s hands. That you’ve been lucky so far. Praying that luck doesn’t run out.
“Forty-One Bullets off Broadway” appears in Smoking Lovely (Rattapallax Press, 2004)
“when the officer caught me” appears in Blood Percussion (Exploding Pinecone Press, 2014)
She was part of a book, galactic vision. Two figures on the cover facing away from each other, connected by a circular layered object – a shell? – sprouting in between. Did this cell share between two bodies (anatomically smooth, syntactical, symmetrical) become a birth?
Couldn’t find my book and trying to retrieve memory – paging through many books in a language I had yet to understand.
Her name was Catherine Matos Olivo and she had written across from those re-producing cells at page’s bottom,
“new paths are awaiting for me
thanks to the friendly hand
to the people that ask and send me
their get well wishes
the people that stay and left my life
In a flu-less future, now already past, Maja Ruznic re-balances bile. A method of dehydration, collapsing the past in drips.
If there is a boogeyman, she works on the floor. A war, and then no further information.
This was my aunt, this was your uncle.
In 2011, Olivo registered this (word-less) manuscript and reserved her rights.
This went on some more. A fear of losing sensation. Or when pinpricks occur.
I examine fingertips, wonder about the bone and the missing feel.
It is not true that the words do not appear.
In scratch (doctor’s): please kindly
evaluate this 31
year old women
with a local
what is upswept in the hand.
I find it hard to write here without being paranoid. Something coming to bite me.
Almost like wallpaper, this woman with an umbrella, this map with unusual growth.
Much outside commentary, a desperation of procedure. We say X-rays alpha-numeeric codes and scrapped medical-procedured papers.
fear me, the hand says
This is how I work, you say. Babaroga coming to get you.
Darrel Alejandro Holnes
Recently on Facebook, the poet Sam Sax posted this Gregory Orr poem, “Like Any Other Man,” that instantly earned my attention. It is a killer poem, in my opinion and starts out in such a dark place; the speaker is “born with a knife/ in one hand/ and a wound in the other” in a house where “all the mirrors/ were painted black” and thus unable to reflect. Although by the end of the poem the speaker is liberated by the you and his/her/their tongue, it reminds me of how so many of us are unable to see how we hurt ourselves in the dark, in the loneliness. Thankfully, I’ve experienced love and its power to liberate several times in my life, but I fear for those who haven’t yet and may never. I fear for those who have not yet known the love of another or learned to love themselves. I also think of this as a great poem because the speaker isn’t saved by light that counters the darkness, or a bandage for the wound in his hand or a guard for the knife; he is liberated by the soft key of a tongue, that tender curve on a tongue’s soft bed. I don’t think liberation always comes as the black to the white or the white to the black, in direct contrast to the oppressor. I think sometimes in life hope appears in an unexpected way to “unlock” the chains around your body or within your mind. This poem seduces me into believing anyone can be set free, and if you believe it’s possible, aren’t you in a way already free?
I’m not scared of the dark, but of what’s hiding in there. The lurking formless thing that will eat my soul. The thing that is under the bed, or up in the attic or down in the basement just waiting for darkness.
I used to have night terrors. I’d wake up to find that where the wall should have been was now a viscous throbbing red membrane. Heart pounding and short of breath, I’d blink to make it go away, but no such luck. Paralyzed with fear, all I could do was to close my eyes and pray. Eventually of course I’d fall asleep and in the morning my room was back to normal. This went on for months, each time being more terrifying than the last because I had no idea if it was real, dream or hallucination.
Which is why Come Closer by Sara Gran remains for me one of the most terrifying books ever. Amanda, the protagonist is either insane or possessed. At first it is just small things that signal something isn’t quite right. A not-very-funny practical joke on her boss. The unexplained “tap-tap” tapping in her home. The vivid dreams of a dark-haired women. Then a friend’s child tells Amanda she had been talking to “the lady who’s always with you.” And Amanda accidentally burns her husband with a cigarette. And the friendly neighborhood dog isn’t so friendly anymore. Even with Gran’s offbeat humor – a book mysteriously arrives entitled Demon Possession Past and Present complete with a “Are you possessed by a demon?” quiz – the tension builds as you wait for the next terrible thing to happen to or because of Amanda. It’s a short book, less than 200 pages, and I could have finished it in a single sitting. But because I started it just before bed, all alone in my apartment, with only my small bedside lamp for light, I had to put it down. It was a book, I decided that had to be read in the daytime, preferably a beautiful sunny summer day when the sun doesn’t go down until after 9:00 pm. Because, didn’t I just hear something? Tap-tap. Tap-tap.
“Wait for Me”
Confession: In fourth grade, I worried a vampire would entrance me, suck my blood, and turn me. Being a vampire didn’t scare me, it scared me because I wanted to be one. That year, during a sleepover at a classmate’s house, taps on the second floor bedroom window woke me. I felt compelled. A boy stood under the light in driveway with a handful of pebbles. My vampire. He waved for me to join him. I shook my head and he disappeared into the dark. He looked similar to the boy I shared a bed with that night, who I had a crush on. One I couldn’t confess to him.
Maybe Bram Stoker felt a similar fear when he wrote an affectionate letter to Walt Whitman because after writing it, he didn’t send it immediately. What if he more than admired the poet, what if he loved him. In Dracula, Jonathan Harker writes in his diary: “I doubt; I fear; I think strange things which I dare not confess to my own soul.” Perhaps this reflects Stoker’s struggle with his feelings for Whitman. Eventually, Stoker sent the letter. A correspondence began. Stoker sailed from Dublin to the U.S. three times to visit Whitman, which hopefully allowed him to fulfill a wish from his 1876 letter: “I only hope we may sometime meet and I shall be able to perhaps say what I cannot write.”
Confession: I read Dracula for the first time recently. It’s easy to see the parallel to Stoker and Whitman in it; to understand, now having done so myself, the willingness to open your heart to a man hundreds of miles away. Dracula crosses the ocean for love even if it ultimately takes his life — his fear of being unloved stronger than his fear of death.
For three years now, I have been unable to finish a book of poems because the subject—and the poet’s unflinching approach—have come to terrify me. What could be so terrifying about a poem called “On Joy”? A book called Houses Are Fields? Let’s start with the subject. Taije Silverman’s 2009 debut grapples with a mother’s slow, then fast deterioration due to brain cancer. I was about halfway into the book, captivated by its “drama,” when my mother’s chronic health issues suddenly worsened and her heartbeat was found to be irregular. Soon after, my partner’s mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. And a close friend’s mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Silverman’s approach is decidedly in media res, in the (almost?) unbearable moment of each incremental disappearance—witnessing a mother’s growing inability to recognize herself in the mirror, to remember who her family is. What is terrifying is realizing parents are mortal. What is terrifying is seeing parents realize they do not have much time left.
What is terrifying is the loss alongside the everyday continuation of newspapers, kitchen smells, sex, the beauty of “cornflowers, blue-bright as moons/in children’s books, all milky light.” What is terrifying is the mundane relentlessness of time, passing. What is terrifying is how even my grief does not last. I am capable of “moving on,” which is supposed to feel good, a relief, but it feels absurd, I feel guilty, sad, terrified that I can still feel joy. Yes, I feel pleasure from Silverman’s language.
Fear keeps me from finishing the book. Delight keeps me from wanting the book to end.
I keep the book open, on my desk, because it teaches me how to write about—and through—my own unavoidables, inexplicables.
As if it means to urge us, look. Love’s body must
be manifold. Black cricket shell, new summer air,
late light. The landscape’s all ablaze
with gentle strangers. Look. We’re standing in a field.
In the early hours of October 31, 1999, my paternal grandparents were killed in the EgyptAir 990 plane crash, 60 miles south of Nantucket and just into international waters. Ever since, Halloween and plane crashes—both inescapable parts of our culture—have been particularly fraught events for me, though, perhaps strangely, flying has never frightened me.
In fact, the deaths of my grandparents and the subsequent investigation revealed to me that my greatest fear is not of technical malfunction, human error, or even human evil, but of what the mind is capable of conjuring in the face of what it cannot know. If, as Rilke’s instruction to “Let everything happen to you” suggests, terror is the inverse of beauty, then, like beauty, it must grow more powerful within the inevitably lurid imagination, more dangerous. What’s worse: rendering my grandparents’ terror even more terrible than its reality, or failing to even comprehend its magnitude and depth? No matter how many times I try to write about them, the poem gets stuck there in their final moment, in the reflexive loop of the black box.
With a brutal and loving grace, Catherine Barnett’s Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced charts the grief and devastated aftermath that follows the deaths of her young nieces in a different plane crash. That they were children, of course, makes the loss that much more painful, but the narrative’s unrecoverability remains much the same : “You can read one version in the newspaper / and another in the courts / and a third in my sister’s face, / in my sister’s sisters’ faces, / in my mother’s face—” she writes in “Transcript,” and later: “How can there be no whole bodies?” How can there be no whole stories?
What versions do I have of the end of my grandparents’ lives? Only the words of the man who crashed their plane into the ocean and killed them (Tawkalt ala Allah, nine times), their columnist friend’s article about them in The New York Times, the US government’s official report, the Egyptian government’s conflicting official report, my father’s anger, my aunt’s panic. None of these overlapping accounts can protect me from wanting to attend to the gaps they leave, an impulse I can neither resist nor fulfill. Ignorance is an abyss.
The days of the dead do not come, because the dead are already here. They are the familial, ancestral, communal. I call out the name of my grandmother, Juanita Adorno León, who released her age to enter into agelessness, who prayed for my and our collective wholeness in the most challenging of times. I call out to the nameless ancestors, those who traversed the seas in chains and those that traveled on wood sea-mounts. I call out the names of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Christie Cathers, Eric Garner, Oscar Ramirez, Jr., Ricardo Diaz Zeferino. I call out, too, Keyshia Blige, Jasmine Collins, Tamara Dominguez, transwomen who were killed in hate for their daring to be self-true.
There are so many names of people impacted fear and power: the fear of the oppressed and black and brown peoples and the power of oppressors to squelch that fear by killing. Those acts are fruitless; they serve only to fan fear’s flames.
Audre Lorde once wrote in “Power”:
The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
instead of your children.
In that poem, she goes on to viscerally describe a speaker set in a space made desert through the rawness of wounds and the site of death reanimated in the act of dragging the body so that the poet pays attention and is drawn to make sense of what doesn’t make any sense. In that poem, we have a police officer who is blinded by blackness and the fear of blackness, because living while black, brown, or trans provokes fear and a need to erase in not seeing or in the violence that sees until it ends what it sees as an obstacle. That poem remains relevant in our times.
Claudia Rankine in “You are in the dark, in the car …” writes:
A man knocked over her son in the subway. You feel your own body wince.. She says she grabbed the stranger’s arm and told him to apologize: I told him to look at the boy and apologize. And yes, you want it to stop, you want the black child pushed to the group to be seen …
The day of the dead is not coming. It is here. In poetry, there is power to speak out, to change, for the cost is nothing less than our lives, those who are martyred and those, too, who in their turning away reveal that their sadistic, self-pleasing brutality.