Happy New Year’s Eve! The last day of 2019, a time to look back and look ahead to (hopefully) more good times. Do you feel any sort of dread or fear when a new year rolls around? Too many expectations? Resolutions? Another year older?
Or do you find a new year exhilarating? A chance to start over, conquer your fears, try new things?
Whatever your feelings toward ringing in a new year, I wish you all the very best in 2020. May all your spooky dreams (and, ok, non-spooky dreams) come true.
To say goodbye to 2019, I have Dana Diehl here today to talk about her fears and anxieties. In reading some of Dana’s answers, I identified with her on a number of levels, especially the anxiety pieces. I, too, am a worrier. It’s hard to conquer those types of fears.
Dana and I both went to Susquehanna University for undergrad, though at different times, so we share that as well. And Dana is a fabulous writer. Her stories are delightful and surprising and original, and I’m so pleased to feature her here today.
Let’s darken the lights and chat. In 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1……
What is your earliest childhood memory of fear?
As a kid, I was afraid of heights, and robbers, and snakes in my bed.
But the most intense fears I had were of all the ways my body could fail. I remember one night, sitting in the hallway, back against the wall, gasping because I’d convinced myself I couldn’t breathe. I remember watching the episode of Arthur in which the cartoon aardvark gets his glasses, and then spending an afternoon testing my vision, terrified that my eyes had stopped working, too (I wouldn’t actually need glasses for at least another five years).
I have vivid memories of the summer the kids next door all had chicken pox, and I searched my arms and stomach for red welts every morning, horrified at what could spring up from under my skin. The more I learned about the body, the more it seemed full of hidden traps, an enemy lying in wait.
Do you believe in ghosts? Why or why not?
I both believe and don’t believe. There’s a line in an Amber Spark’s essay, “Magical Thinking for Girls,” that I think answers this question for me: “What I mean to say is that I have never believed in ghosts, but I have always been afraid of ghosts.”
Recently I was talking to a friend who has had experiences with spirits, and I told her that I’ve never seen a ghost and never want to. It would be too scary for me. She suggested, as others have before her, that maybe that’s why a spirit has never presented itself to me. To be honest, part of me does want ghosts to exist, because I love magic and mystery and because I believe in my friends’ experiences. But another, bigger, part of me doesn’t, because I don’t want to live in a world where I’m afraid of what might grab me from the shadows of my own home. Because I’m afraid that my version of reality is wrong.
Here’s an almost-ghost story: When I was in middle and high school, I had a friend who lived in a farmhouse next to this incredible old barn. I think her dad used the barn to store tractors and tools. It also contained some pet rabbits that we’d pet with our pinkies through their wire cages. My friend told me, in secret, that both the barn and her house were haunted. The ghosts spoke to her at night. As proof, she showed me a crude carving of the house etched in one of the barn doors. It looked spooky. I slept over that night but couldn’t drift off as I waited for the ghosts to talk to me, too. In the morning I knew my fears had been silly, that my friend’s stories couldn’t be true. But in the dark, I had believed.
“I don’t want to live in a world where I’m afraid of what might grab me from the shadows…”
Do you have a recurring nightmare?
I have recurring nightmares about being on the top floor of a too-tall building. A building so tall it sways, threatens to snap.
I also dream regularly about being back in high school or college. In the dreams, I’m usually running late to class. Or I can’t remember my locker combination.
In other dreams, I’m not a student, but I’m a teacher. And I realize at the very last minute I’m not wearing the appropriate pants! Or maybe I’m showing my 4th graders a video but don’t realize until it’s too late that there’s cursing in this video, and the projector won’t turn off, and now the kids are upset, and I’m going to get so many angry parent emails!
What’s the scariest movie or TV show you’ve ever seen?
In high school, my friends and I had regular sleepovers in a friend’s basement. We liked to go to Blockbuster and rent the scariest-looking movie we could find from the horror section. It was fun to turn off all the lights and huddle together on the couch, laugh-screaming and covering our eyes with a shared blanket.
We rented the movie Signs in 2003 when I was thirteen. It wasn’t the goriest or most suspenseful movie I’d ever seen, but it genuinely unsettled me. The scariest part was the home video of an alien stalking through a kid’s birthday party. The way the horror was brought into broad daylight. It showed me that fear didn’t just exist in haunted houses or dark cornfields or thick forests—it could show up at any moment, when you feel your safest.
Is there any fear you’ve overcome in your life? How has that changed you?
I’m not sure if I’ve overcome any fears, but I’ve gotten better at understanding my fears. And at sorting the useful ones from the ones that don’t serve me.
In my early twenties I was diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder. Like when I was a child, worried that I might suddenly forget how to breathe or be struck by chicken pox, my worries are often directed at qualities within myself instead of at anything tangible in the world. I worry about the choices I’ve made, about hidden illness, about if I’m honest enough or good enough at what I do.
I have an Ursula K. LeGuin quote on a broadside on my wall: “To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.” Figuring out which questions (or worries) are helpful to pursue and which aren’t has made me a happier and less fearful person.
Who is the best villain?
I’m a sucker for the bad-guys-turned-good-guys trope in fiction. I love villains like Spike from Buffy, Loki from The Avengers, Snape from Harry Potter, and Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. I’m hoping Kylo Ren from Star Wars will make this list, too (by the time this interview is published, I’ll know!).
These characters are fun, because even when they’re good, they’re still a little dangerous. They still don’t like to follow the rules. There’s always a chance they’ll go back to the dark side.
What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever written?
I just published a story about a woman who starts dating a man whose city apartment is full of nothing but tons and tons of dirt. She’s kind of into it at first. But then some spooky stuff happens where he starts looking like her ex-boyfriend. And then she finds objects from her past buried in the dirt.
My editor described it as “powerfully unsettling” and my “darkest, for sure,” which made me very happy to hear. I’m hoping that my writing continues to get even spookier over time!
Dana Diehl is the author of Our Dreams Might Align (Splice UK, 2018) and the collaborative collection, The Classroom (Gold Wake Press, 2019). Her chapbook, TV Girls, won the 2017-2018 New Delta Review Chapbook Contest, judged by Chen Chen. Diehl earned her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared in North American Review, Passages North, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere.