The Thing That Worked by Ben Jolivet

most memorable ribbon october 2011Imagine grainy video of a man walking through an airport. Jagged, staccato, new-agey music plays underneath. A narrator explains that a man rushed to catch a flight, but he suddenly stopped––not knowing why. He decided not to take the trip. An hour later, the plane crashed in flames. Cut to a woman sleeping in a floral bedroom. She tosses and turns. The narrator explains a British woman dreamt of a mountain moving, with children trapped inside. Two hours later, the narrator says, an avalanche of coal buried a Welsh schoolhouse full of kids. “Coincidence, or something more? You decide when a new volume arrives every other month. Keep only the ones you want. Cancel at any time.”

So ran the 1988 TV commercial for Time-Life Books’ Mysteries of the Unknown seriessomething I always associate with my first time. I was 9. And by “first time”, of course, I mean the first time that crippling panic consumed me. After seeing that ad, I couldn’t sleep for months.

That’s not to say I’d ever been brave about anything before my first meltdown. When I was maybe four years old, my mother macraméd a wall-hanging of an owl. She made it for me because I liked owls. She hung it on a wall in my room, proud of her work. That night she tucked me in, turned off the lights, and left me alone with the super-sized bird. I lay staring at it, growing increasingly alarmed, until screams erupted from my throat.

I never saw the owl again.

And once, as a toddler, I pooped in the tub, didn’t realize it and thought a snake had slithered out of the drain to attack me. I wailed until my father came running in and lifted me out of the bath.

I’ve always been a giant wuss. But everything up to that point had been short-term terror. Nothing—nothing compared to the sustained panic these commercials foisted upon me. Bedtime turned into a prison sentence for everyone in the house. I forced my father to set up shop on the floor of my bedroom, and he had to stay there until I dozed off. After a week or so of sleeping there—and with the marble pattern of my bedroom rug permanently embossed on his face—he knew something had to be done. But what do you do with a kid who is petrified of an advertisement?

Around that time, Mom and Dad developed a taste for religious music and Christian cassettes appeared in their collection at an astonishing rate. In developing a scheme to help me sleep, they realized I might drift off more easily if lulled by this music. Since I believed the books came from the Devil, I conceded that maybe Jesus music would be a logical antidote. So up came the tape player and the song stylings of a sort of folk-rock, Jesusy James Taylor type. It worked for maybe a night or two, but not much more—after all, we sent in a troubadour to do the work of an exorcist. There’s only so long that music written for a guitar mass can hold Beelzebub at bay.

Things got worse when I attempted to impress a classmate by explaining the premise of the commercials (leaving out how terrified they made me). I should have known that he would try to top me, and top me he did: with a story of a haunted house just minutes away from where I lived.

“The last night they spent there,” he incanted, “the kids begged the father to sleep on the floor of their room”—just like my father, I thought—“and all of a sudden, the beds levitated into the air, and the face of Satan appeared in flames on the floor. They left that night and they never returned.”

I knew exactly which house he was talking about, too, because it remained there, boarded up and unsold. Nobody was allowed to go inside.

“They won’t knock it down,” my friend said, “because anything they build there would be haunted, too. See, it’s built on an ancient Indian burial ground.”

Now if somebody told me that story today, I would demand the teller explain just how it is that the Christian devil inhabits a Native American cemetery. And while the storyteller stammered, trying to come up with a response, I would berate him for subscribing to a white mythology that contorts the spiritual beliefs of the Narragansett people into a vengeful alliance between “heathens” and the Prince of Darkness. But back then, not knowing any better, I believed every word. My screaming at bedtime that night rivaled anything hitherto known by my parents. I would not be at all surprised to learn that they considered shutting me away in a Valley of the Dolls-style asylum.

This was before most white, lower-middle class New England parents would consider taking their child to a counselor—or even medicating him. Nobody did that then, particularly with kids who were terrorized by the television. So they did the next logical thing: they moved the fish tank up to my bedroom. That sounds like an odd solution, but the slow, soothing motion of the fish always rapt my attention in the tank’s current home. My parents thought the bright light in the lid of the tank coupled with the languid movement of the fish, all underscored by Christian folk-rock, would eventually lull me to sleep—and that, at long last, they would be able to resume their normal evening activities. Why not, I thought, it might just do the trick.

But it didn’t.

I did doze off, sure. But the terrifying events described in the TV commercial filled my dreamscapes—only now, they all took place under water. And when I woke, all the fish in the tank somehow seemed to be staring at me with evil, psychic vision. I darted from the room, dashed down the stairs and headed for my parents’ bedroom once again—but knowing the look of disappointment and frustration that would greet my tentative “Mom….? Dad…? I had a bad dream…” I paused in the dark. I couldn’t face their exhausted reaction. I resolved to solve the crisis myself. I turned to go back to my room and immediately came face-to-face with two glowing eyes.

“Ebony!” My uncle’s cat—a black cat, incidentally. He wanted nothing to do with me, but I knew I’d feel better with the cat sleeping in my room—so I scooped him into my arms, flew up the dark stairs and returned to bed, clinging to Ebony the whole time. I held the irritated cat close, and he was surprisingly accommodating of my neediness—I did indeed drift back to sleep. Of course, as I drifted, my muscles relaxed and that’s when Ebony saw his chance: he clawed my hand and ran from the room. By this time it was so late I decided to stay awake until the sun came up and, for the first time in my life, I bounded up at seven o’clock to get ready for school.

Staying awake that day zapped all my strength, and by dinner I was so exhausted I almost fell asleep at the table. But when my parents suggested an early bedtime, I fought like a savage. That’s when they finally reached the end of their collective tether. Mom put on her slippers and stalked down into the basement, returning with an old black-and-white television she’d had in her room before marrying my dad. She cleared off the top of my dresser and plunked the TV down on top. I stared, horrified. The commercial (and, with it, Satan) entered my life through the television; my mother literally brought the offending device right into the midst of my bedroom!

“But,” I stammered, “but-but—what if the commercial comes on?? What if I see it??”

She looked at me, haggard. She desperately wanted to sleep through the night. So did my father. And I felt for them both, I did. But what would I do if it came on?

“We’ll put on the Home Shopping Network,” she said, searching for something—anything—that would quiet my steam-engine brain. “That’s all commercials, and they don’t sell those books.”

“But what if they do now??? What if they start selling them???”

“Then,” my mother said, citing one of her favorite lines, “you’ll just have to fight your fears.”

That quotation always signaled the end of the discussion. Mom adjusted one of the UHF knobs on the television and found the Home Shopping Network.

“Good night,” she said, “I think this will do the trick.” She shut out the light, and left the room. Why don’t you just macramé another terrifying beast and leave me alone with that, I thought. But I settled back into bed, keeping my eyes glued to the suited and big-smiled salesman. He talked into the camera, extolling the virtues of some tacky piece of knick-knackery, warning me that I only had 3 minutes and 47 seconds to make this purchase. But he encouraged me, too; he took my emotional hand and advised me that operators were, indeed, standing by when I was ready to participate in this exceptional deal.

And somehow, somehow, this was the thing that worked. This was the silver bullet we’d all been searching for. And for the next three years I fell asleep to the hyped-up pitches and teased hair of the hosts of the HSN. Not only that, but I emerged as an expert in their products. At parties, I could be found telling my parents’ friends all about the beauty and craftsmanship of Cape di Monte pottery or the exquisite quality of cubic zirconia jewelry. When my mother considered returning a sequined top in the shape of a butterfly (an HSN impulse buy that looked like a combo of Bea Arthur’s Golden Girls formalwear and the costumes for the original production of La Cage), I convinced her to keep it. “Because it’s beautiful,” I said, “and because you bought that during a lightning special and supplies were limited!” (I may also have convinced her to keep it because I wanted to try it on.)

Somehow, a 24-hour shopping network saved me from the terror of Mysteries of the Unknown. (It also instilled a tacky, drag-queen taste that still makes me marvel at anything shiny or sequined—but some things can be lived with.) And I did eventually grow out of watching the HSN. I found other things to fall asleep to. Strangely, at some point, my bedtime shows-of-choice became Unsolved Mysteries and In Search Of—two shows that mirrored the format of the terrifying Mysteries of the Unknown series: the same cheesy re-enactments, the same kinds of scenarios, the same kinds of eighties new-agey music. Somewhere along the line, I’d come full circle and had fallen for the very things that used to terrify me. My tastes still run to the ghostly when it comes to movies and books.

But, then, aging does that. Ghosts and supernatural things may terrify a child, but as an adult those things become comforting. The older—and, thus, more mortal—we get, the more helpful it is to think that there’s something out there that’s greater than what we know. I’m still a nervous wreck, but it’s the natural that scares me now. Bring on the haunted stuff—what can a ghost to do me? Reality, on the other hand? That can do a number on a guy. At this point in life, I wish the only thing that scared me was Mysteries of the Unknown.

Ben Jolivet is a writer and occasional performer whose plays and essays have been produced and published in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. This autumn he will perform his solo play, Lizzie Borden is a B!+@#, at the Seacoast Fringe Festival in Portsmouth, N.H.  You can follow his random musings on Twitter (@BenJolivet) and Facebook.
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  • BKSch

    Great good funny essay about overcoming a childhood trauma. Lovely folding of the trauma into adult life.

  • Amanda Pedersen

    Great essay!  For me, it was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.  My parents wouldn’t let me watch it, but my grandmother did. My parents were right. I shouldn’t have seen it. I was afraid to leave me bed at night for fear of hands reaching out from under my bed.  I’m not sure what eventually got me over it, but it would be great to only be afraid of that one thing. 

    Thanks for the trip back into childhood. Adulthood is terrifying.

  • Love this! You really recreate that child’s-eye-view so well. My first terror? Hearing the plot line of Amityville on a dark street one evening. Brrrr!

  • Donnatalarico

    For me, it was Bloody Mary–where in front of a mirror (in a dark room) you turn around three times chanting her name, and she is supposed to appear. To this day, I get freaked out sometimes when I pee in the middle of the night! Don’t like mirrors in the dark.

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  • Will

    The Time Life Mysteries of The Unknown, How Can You Explain It? With the Grey Aliens did it in for me!!!

    I was 8 and I was watching Mr. Ed on Nick At Nite, Around the first week of September of 1988 the Time Life Commercial came on, I liked the first 2 that came on the first one was with the sock puppets, and the tomato stealing shoplifter, you were watching the second one which I liked the most. It went like How Can You Explain it, a woman in Wisconsin was doing the dishes while suddenly, followed by the grey aliens. The 1 minute version of How Can You Explain it aired first, followed by the longer 2 minute version of with A Man heart stops beating in the Hospital which aired on Trapper John M.D. back in January of 1989. I had nightmares for weeks. Watch the YouTube video of Mysteries of The Unknown, it has both the episode you just mentioned that came on in the Fall of 1987, and the one that did me in from Sept. 1988

    I wish someone had the very first episode of that series. Cover your eyes after 2:21!

  • Kitsana

    Great story. I, too, had an interesting childhood when it came to sleeping. I was freaked out after watching the movie “Candyman,” and the only thing that made me feel better was the television set in my room.