Personal Essay: Dagny Paul
When people ask me how I got into horror, I have a stock answer.
“When I was in fifth grade,” I say, “I had a really fantastic English teacher. That English teacher had a small library in the back of the class. One day, looking through the books, I saw one with a cover that intrigued me. I picked it up. I checked it out. That book was Carrie.”
(An aside: Mr. K, I hope you’re retired now, because while you could get away with keeping Stephen King in a fifth-grade classroom in 1992, you sure as hell can’t now. And also, Mr. K, if you are, by some miracle, reading this essay: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Endlessly.)
I’ve told this story dozens of times. It’s a great answer. It’s succinct, it’s snappy—just the kind of narrative people like to hear. A life changed in an instant. One day, you’re one thing; the next day, you’re something else entirely.
When I really think about it, though, my fascination with horror began much earlier. At seven, in some kid’s sweaty living room in Florida, I watched a cheap Alien knockoff. I was terrified. My friends, older and much cooler than me, laughed at the crummy special effects while my mouth went dry and dread paralyzed me from my toes to the roots of my hair. I had nightmares for almost a month. But I found myself replaying the worst scenes in my head on an endless loop anyway, intentionally. Fear was a good escape.
When I was maybe four, I stayed the night with my godmother—or was supposed to, at least. We watched Gremlins, which frightened me so badly my parents had to pick me up. But a week later, I begged my dad to rent it from the video store, and I watched it again. Again, I had nightmares. I’m pretty sure I wet the bed more than once, and I’m pretty sure my dad regretted capitulating.
See, the thing that I’ve never understood about most horror fans I meet is that they insist they’re not scared. They’re never afraid to stay in hotels by themselves or get into the shower without locking the door or go into a basement with a busted light switch. They like horror, but they can rationalize it. It doesn’t frighten them.
Me, though—I’ve always been afraid. I’m in my thirties, and a good horror story has me looking over my shoulder and thrashing in my sleep.
There’s nothing quite like that feeling. It’s addictive. I’ve heard people say it helps us remember we’re alive, and I don’t think they’re wrong.
The first Pseudopod episode I heard was “Turbulence,” by Scott R. Jones, read by Siobhan Gallichan. I was in my car, making the long drive home from work, and that old, familiar feeling began to steal over me. The shallow breaths, the goosebumps, the tingle of blood rushing to my fingertips—all there.
Fear is like falling in love, almost.
I got home and parked my car on the street and sat there until the episode ended. My palms were sweaty. I didn’t want to get out of the car in the dark, to walk up to my porch, into the light, so I listened to another one. If my husband hadn’t come outside and knocked on my window, I might have done it all night.
Pseudopod gives me what I’ve always wanted, though I didn’t always know I wanted it. It’s an intimate thing: I sit down by myself, and someone tells me a story. It’s just the two of us. And by the end, I have the feeling I need.
I hope Pseudopod does that for you, too.
Dagny Paul is a teacher, writer, failed artist, comic book geek, and associate editor/occasional host of Pseudopod. She is guest editor for Pseudopod’s Artemis Rising 3 event in 2017. She lives in the middle of nowhere, Louisiana with her husband, son, and cat. Follow her on Twitter for no good reason @dagnypaul. Listen to her story “There is No Road Through the Woods.”