I used to scare myself on purpose.
I’m at a mini-mart separated from my mother. I’m 4. The dog is ready to pounce, ready to rip apart anyone unlucky enough to be caught in its territory. I creep up to it slowly, stretching my arm as far as I can, keeping as much distance between us as possible. Then I quickly jab at it and the tinny, automated roar sends me running, looking back at its hideous, plastic face. I have a knot in my stomach, but beyond that is triumph. I survived.
The dog is ready to pounce, ready to rip apart anyone unlucky enough to be caught in its territory.
“How close can I get to the scary thing?” is a recurring theme in my life. I read Stephen King, but only the ones that diluted horror with something else — the thriller-tinged Misery or the apocalyptic fantasy The Dark Tower. I want to know all about Freddy and Jason, but I know I won’t sleep if I actually watch the movies. Instead, I read reviews and plot synopses, trying to glean everything. Just enough to scare me, but not so much my mind will run away with the images.
This backfires when I happen upon Clock Tower, a survival horror videogame for the PS1. I get my hands on online guides written by those who had played Clock Tower. I devour every detail, committing them to memory.
Here is where you need to go, they said.
The Scissorman’s appearance is randomized.
It can’t be predicted from game to game.
If you make too much noise, he will come for you.
If you touch certain objects, he will come for you.
If you are still for too long, he will come for you.
He will come for you.
The directives are like a mantra that freezes my blood. The game seems real, as impossible as that is.
At my after-school job at the library, I find myself still thinking about it: an unrelenting force that can’t be reasoned with, because it has no logic behind its grudge. You are not a person. You are meat. I carry those thoughts with me out into the stacks, prepared to spend a few hours in silence reshelving books. Paper is more familiar to me than human skin, and infinitely more comforting.
I am a short, pale, chubby kid who buys men’s jeans and spends every night willing my body to stop developing the curves that first emerged when I was 9.
This human body is meat, a prison for my brain. I drag it along after me every day, feeling trapped. It shuffles as I move through the rows of fiction. Crichton to Faulkner. Harris to Jones.
I am thinking about my body when I feel a hand brush my ass.
You are not a person. You are meat.
My pulse jumps. It’s nothing, I tell myself, watching the older man who is now beside me casually picking out a book. You imagined it. The space between shelves is tight. Hands are at butt level. Don’t make something out of nothing. I move to the next shelf: King to Melville.
Five minutes later, the man is here too. Again he brushes past me to get at a shelf of books. Again, I feel a brush of contact.
This time, the hand squeezes.
Don’t make this into something, I tell the panic in my nerves. Don’t make a fool of yourself, I tell the nausea in my gut. Two times could still be a coincidence.
The third time it happens, I pivot with the cart of books and retreat to another floor. Game over.
I don’t tell anyone. I feel sick and ashamed, certain that if I tell someone at the desk, they and the man will both laugh at my wild imagination. My arrogance.
Don’t stand still. Don’t move. He’ll come for you.
I start sleeping on the couch in the living room because I am having nightmares about Scissorman. A 40-year-old man corners me in nonfiction. He asks me out, then pesters me with questions when I stammer a no. I hide in the bathroom for 20 minutes.
Certain evade points will make him go away. But only for a while.
I start reading more horror. Watching more movies, the silly and campy ones that have aged badly enough that the nightmarish becomes comical. Containable.
I can’t tell you when I started greeting every approaching stranger with a flinch. I am finally left alone when I stop smiling at people who approach me. It’s bad customer service. I am thrilled. Eventually I stop sleeping on the couch.
By the time I leave for college, I think I’ve mastered how to keep people from trying to touch me. But then it happens in the bookstore where I work. I don’t even think to tell anyone; instead I count to ten, let my heart stop racing, and place this bearded old man in the growing file with the rest of the creeps. I reason that I am actually lucky. I’m unassuming. I’m trans. Compared to someone in a big city, someone stunning, my file is small.
There is no other way to put this: Clock Tower is a stupid game.
Years later, I find a Let’s Play video of Clock Tower. It’s made by two women from my generation, talking about the game with nostalgic fondness. And they are laughing their asses off.
There is no other way to put this: Clock Tower is a stupid game. By the time I heard about it in the mid-2000s, copies were rarer than gold. What a convenient excuse. With the Let’s Play I can limit how much I see, how much fear I let myself face.
Of course I’d been fascinated by the concept of a slasher film done as a videogame, starring a helpless protagonist (blatantly modeled after Jennifer Connelly), with no way to defeat her implacable stalker. She could only run. Being the one in control of the victim meant the gap between audience and killer was narrowed. I felt the frantic beat of my heart as the little polygonal avatar ran for her life.
And now that I’ve watched the Let’s Play, I get it. It’s actually quite easy to defeat the Scissorman. You throw a blanket over his head, or you hide in a toilet stall. It doesn’t even matter that your feet show. It is clumsy and goofy and endearing. To quote the actual Connelly, it has no power over me.
I file that victory away, another childhood fear conquered.
But next to that is the other file, the one with the fears that are not childish. The file that keeps growing because there are still hands that grab, hands that touch your body and take a piece of you back with them. Those are the ones that you can’t just walk away from. The file in my mind that will go on growing, month by month, until I die.