Be Still, My Bleating Heart

My heart screams, unheard.

I felt this silent scream while talking about a Halloween event  I went to as a kid.  An event hosted by a penitentiary.  There was a haunted house,  a corn field maze, and a haunted hayride all operated by the prison inmates and guards.

I told this story as if it were normal.

I tell a lot of “normal” stories.  This time I realized I needed to unpack this particular story because it’s just one brick making up the foundation I stand on.  I realized my childhood was unlike any other because I was completely transformed by fright.

Horror is my first love.

Scary wasn’t fun at first.  I was scared of everything.

So, when did fright get fun?  Friends of mine.  We liked to scare each other.  We still do.

I remember the first time I went to his house.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Names have not been edited to protect the guilty.

Keil’s house ended up being my first haunted house.  It was a mad scientist lab of makeshift toys, art projects, and a massive backyard that dipped into a creek on the edge of a forest.  He invited me to a Halloween party.  I was a nervous a wreck going to any social event.  I have no idea how my mother got me out of the car and left me there with him and friends from school.  I was too old to believe people were different in the dark, but that didn’t change the fact that I believed the kids I went to school with were different in the light of the moon, in handmade costumes, vanishing into the shadow of his house.

He doesn’t know it, but it’s here that I learned to laugh at myself.  It’s in his home that I learned to adore the macabre, to appreciate gore.  His house was the exact opposite of my own.  We crushed blood pellets in the backs of our mouths and drooled blood, we traded and compared monster masks, we ate homemade cookies and bobbed for apples.  He invited us one by one into a dark room where we felt the eyes, brains, and intestines of a dead witch.  I knew the eyes were grapes, the brains spaghetti, and the intestines were sausage links, but I realized it was more fun to give in to the fantasy.  A shrinking part of me did not enjoy this at all, but I laughed at it and said goodbye, digging my hands into cold pasta as if I were really killing a witch.

From then on we took random turns at each other, testing limits, and discussing afterwards.  I was skinny, so I could squeeze between bookshelves or under beds, reach out and grab my friend, his little brother, or anyone else to happen by.

Sometimes no one came.

One time we were at his aunt’s house and there was a scythe hanging on a wall in the basement.  I took it down, felt the heft; a good kind of heavy only old farm tools earn after decades of use and deserved retirement.  Sweat-stained wood soft as silk and a rusty curved blade like the sliver of a harvest moon.  I waited for anyone to come through the door, ready to feign a swipe and split a cheshire smile.  No one came for a good thirty minutes.  I found them eating dinner.

“I waited forever down there!”  I said and we laughed as we dissected a prank that would have sent most squares to the hospital for emotional distress.  That’s what we did, scares that succeeded or failed were pulled apart to see how they worked.  We looked at horror as both art and machinery.  Sudden screams were always good; driving in a car, reading together, walking through the woods all held the delicious tension of someone suddenly shrieking with a lunge at your face.

Keil developed a photography project based on this premise.  To get his best shot he burst from the weeds lining a creek as his brother and friend were canoeing, snapping the photo right when they were flailing in panic, oars flying into the air.  Time frozen where the zenith of terror and comedy converge.

Horror becomes comedy when you are given permission to ignore empathy.

One night my friend told me we were going to a haunted house.  His aunt worked at a penitentiary.  I either didn’t know this at the time or I didn’t think it was relevant.  I do remember that he said “she’s really fun to scare!”  He never mentioned the prison, I do remember that.  He never said anything about being scared by real criminals.

The grounds around the prison used to be farmland.  The barn was the haunted house, there was a cornfield maze of dead stalks and rope, an old tractor tugged along a creaking trailer over dirt paths for a haunted hayride.

We took turns scaring my friend’s aunt from the parking the lot to the line at the entrance.  It was overcast, foggy.  Horror perfection.  I had become a consumer of the macabre, no longer the kid scared of everything.  I wore this like a badge of honor.  The moment I felt scared I refused to run.  Returning to that cry-baby-scaredy-cat boy was far more terrifying than being shredded by Grendel, taken to hell by a demon, or slaughtered by serial killer.

His aunt screamed every time we scared her, but she laughed afterwards.  This was fun and safe.  Her coworkers, the guards who worked along side her, also scared her.  It only occurs to me now that if she did feel threatened she could’ve taken us all out thanks to prison sanctioned no-holds-barred martial arts training.

There was spiced cider warmed over fire pits.  Entry cost a quarter.  The moment we crossed the line my friends and I saw what you could do with real planning, what could be done when you really loved horror.

The first shock was during the hayride.  Execution by hanging.  A man didn’t plead for his life, he went to the noose with his head up, telling the prison officials that he would return… then the trapdoor dropped and he snapped midair, swaying there with the setting sun backlighting the show.  I knew it was fake, but it was so real.  Now’s the place where you want me to tell you these were low-level security inmates, but I have no idea to this day.  Maybe some of them were violent criminals.  Maybe some of them were even scheduled for death row.  Maybe… just maybe that inmate who played the hanged man was awaiting his own capital punishment.  Maybe he got it that night…

But, no!  Of course these were minimum security prisoners!  No one in their right mind would have a charity haunted house hosted by maximum security convicts… right?  Well, I don’t know.  I never cared to ask.  We were having too much fun.

The hayride proceeded with convicts chasing the trailer, spooky sounds echoed from the surrounding farmland and woods.  The ride circled back to the field where we entered.  Warm cider kindled our need for more fright.  We went into the maze, we were chased by demons in jailhouse chains, and survived.  Our only injuries were our smiles, which by then were painful to hold yet we could not stop.

Halfway through the haunted house the lights came on, the actors struck an “at ease” pose, and guards came through with flashlights.  They conducted a headcount of the state’s ghouls and goblins.  The guards left, the actors resumed their positions and when the lights flickered out it was back to business.

Prisoners enacted electric chair deaths, real cow parts served for a mutilated corpse, which were  poked and prodded by an inmate who shook a cow’s tongue at us, telling us not to run… no matter what happened.

After that we planned our own scares.  The random jolts were there, but we needed more.  We needed to go beyond random, individual pranks that were concocted in the lull of a dull moment.  These guerrilla style attacks always started with “let’s scare [insert victim’s name here]!”  Brainstorming commenced as we dissected our victim’s persona, what they were afraid of, what their routine was, and how best to show how much we loved this person by scaring him or her to death.  We really did this out of love.  The balance must be right; the end of horror should be timed so that the instant fear is felt it is also the same moment it ends.

We kept pushing that line.

I wasn’t there when it broke.

Keil was the mastermind for the scare that ended all scares.  He enlisted my friends and his father.  The victim was one of us, of course.  We never stepped outside our small ring of compadres.  I’d like to think I would have stopped this last scare before it got out of hand.  I thought my friends would have and as the story was related to me I saw they had every chance to end it before it went too far.

Sometimes the people working behind the stage believe they’re part of the play.

I believe what happened was that everyone involved got so familiar with the props and the stage management that they were too close to remember just how terrifying it would be to someone experiencing the scare for the first time.  Maybe they didn’t believe it would work.  For years we told jokes about elaborate scares we would pull off.  “Hey, when you fall asleep, we’re going to put you on a boat full of spiders and float you down the creek!”  Terrifying, for sure, but hilarious due to the impracticalities of execution.  But as we got older and more aware of our resources and freedom… well, in retrospect, things clicked.  At some point growing up means you pay for how you played.

As I look back I see this was inevitable.  We kept adding layers to our pranks to one-up each other.  No one had even thought of picking up a real weapon before me, when I hefted that scythe and skulked in the shadows.  Keil developed a two-fold prank where one person leapt from around a corner or from a dark room, scaring their quarry, cutting the tension just so and then – ROAR! – a second prankster scared the victim, again.

Before that night in the cemetery no one had thought of creating a narrative to steer a victim.  No one had ever thought of doing a scary activity to disarm someone before actually putting on the real scare.

Like technology, we got increasing returns of paranoia from haunting each other.  We stopped trusting each other.  Following a friend into a room could trigger a scare, leaving a room alone was dangerous, walking through the woods was tense unless all your friends were in sight.  Hide-and-seek took on a whole new meaning.  Swimming in the dark pond close to Keil’s home was a nightmare.  It was always there.  Card games, building camp fires, talking about school and girls, but always wondering two things as if we were implanted with a passive sub-routine: Are they planning a scare?  How can I scare them before they get me?  Even to this day I go to work and wonder if the crazy bum trying to talk to me is part of some sleight to distract me from their real scare.  I wasn’t with them when the fun ended, so I can’t quite believe the scares are over for me.

Part of me hopes they still scare each other now that they know the absolute limit.  I see Youtubers devoted to playing this sort of game on strangers.  I feel sorry for the strangers roped into a selfish social world without consent.  My friends and I had perfected the “Art of the Scare” since the days before the Internet.  My friends and I consented to being scared.  We never scared strangers.  People on the outside had to prove their worth before they were gifted with a good scare.  There had always been an understanding that this behavior within our group was okay, mandatory, even.  It’s why we gravitated to each other.  We traded scares like some kids traded cards.

I guess I can’t pontificate anymore until you know what happened.  No one died, no weapons were involved.  It started with wonderful intentions (by our macabre standards) and ended with the killing stab of reality.  I asked Keil to write his first-person account and I’ve copied it below.  My own thoughts will be in Italics for clarity, fact-checking, and humor.  Feel free to take breaks and hug something or someone.  This is intense.


In 2009, I was home visiting from LA. For the occasion, Aaron came home from college at Penn State, along with his [then] girlfriend Steph. Eric was working in NYC, and he planned to come visit while I was home. Thus, we decided to set up a prank before his arrival…

Because we were in rural PA, where we often talk about fearing the gun-toting, Deliverance and Texas Chainsaw-reminiscent locals, we hit upon this idea: make a human dummy, wrapped in plastic and slung from a tree, and stumble upon it in the woods to imply that we’ve discovered a murder… and then suggest that the murderer knows we’ve seen his handiwork! So, in about an hour, Aaron, Steph, and I made a life-size dummy and wrapped it in black plastic. (I recall making the key suggestion of wrapping the head in white plastic to set it apart, thinking a black-wrapped object might not be obviously a body unless it clearly has a head.)  [specifically recall they not only used white plastic for the head but they placed a prop skull inside so that the plastic conformed to the bone.  Maybe it was an elaboration told to me at the time years ago, but I do love that level of detail.]

Before I go on, two important contextual notes: we are a group of friends who relish pranking each other, and we believed that it would be difficult to convince our victim that this was real (having a history of practical jokes, and how this required some unorthodox setup). So we felt that our friend Eric was a consenting target.

Eric was set to arrive in the evening. Before the sun set, we enlisted the help of our dad, Nick, and drove about five miles from our house into the State Game Lands, a remote section of wilderness [allow me to stress this point even more – the “middle of nowhere” is only five miles away from their house, or in other words: his house is the only “somewhere” for miles around.  Cell phone reception at this time was non-existent, weak dial-up internet was the only sign of modern civilization, when driving around it wasn’t uncommon to glimpse an outhouse or Amish community, but most of the time you never saw another living soul and that’s all before getting into these game lands]. We cruised dirt roads until we found a sufficiently isolated stretch. We stopped and threw several lengths of rope over tree limbs so that they hung down across the road — this would serve as a marker for us to find the right spot that night, and as an ominous sign of something weird from the point of view of our victim. Then we hiked uphill from the road about 50 yards. We tied a rope around the “ankles” of the dummy, and hoisted it upside down into the tree so that its head was about as high as ours. By daylight, it looked sort of ridiculous.

Back home, we waited for night to fall and Eric to come. He ended up being later than expected, which stressed us out because we didn’t want someone else to happen upon the body and end up being collateral prankees. We also knew that the later it got, the harder it would be to convince Eric that we should go for a joyride. When he finally came, everyone was tired and low-energy, and it had started to drizzle. In our minds, it would be a clear red flag if it was crazy late, rainy, and we then proposed our plans for the night: “Hey, Eric, good to see you after many months of separation! Wanna go to the cemetery and freak ourselves out?” It was kind of a strange suggestion, since it wasn’t a common pastime — we could much more easily just stay home and play games or shoot each other with pellet guns [technically airsoft pistols… soft they are not] or watch a movie [most likely horror] or… really anything else [like scaring Eric in the house?]. Eric was instantly incredulous. He had just rode a subway to a train to a long car ride to get here. But Aaron was especially enthusiastic: we wanted to go to Katy’s Church, a nearby cemetery [technically graveyard for it’s size and church occupying the same property.  The church is an odd wooden structure I’ve only ever seen backlit by the moon.  The memory is eighteen years old, a battered mental polaroid dissolving in its own development.  A small, sharp-edged cottage that bisected the moon with its steeple.  The tombstones are old, sticking out of the ground at odd angles.  Classic romantic horror] that was rumored to be haunted, and even though none of us are supernaturalists, we knew we could freak ourselves out just by being there — and that would be fun. (Here it’s also important to note that Aaron, myself, and Steph divided ourselves up into different “roles” — Aaron was to be his usual over-enthusiastic self, Steph was a more grounded voice of reason, and I would be an aloof, unafraid, naive version of myself [they’re not acting, trust me]. We hoped this mix of energies would be useful in pushing Eric along in our plot. So, with that combined pressure from Aaron, Steph, and myself, Eric agreed to go for a late-night ride.

We got into our stick-shift Nissan according to plan: I was driving, Steph was in the passenger seat, and Aaron was in the back left behind the driver. That’s so Eric would have to take the back right seat, which would end up being front-row center for falling into our trap. Driving through the back roads, we worked ourselves up by telling made-up urban legends [this should’ve killed the prank right here, there are no urban legends about this area that I’m aware of, so maybe they made one up about Katy?]. We mostly just laughed — but it seemed to justify our “mission”. About halfway to Katy’s Church, I slowed down… pointing out ropes dangling over the road. We agreed it was strange, but kinda cool. I stopped the car, idling. “Cool! I’m gonna swing on ‘em,” Aaron said as he jumped out. Bathed in the headlights, he grabbed a rope and tried swinging from the bank out over the road. It looked genuinely fun. But Eric was already uncomfortable, uttering uncertainties and growing a little annoyed at Aaron’s exuberance [Aaron’s exuberance doesn’t require fear to be annoying]. Then I turned off the car, leaving the lights on, yanked the keys and jumped out to join Aaron. We swung a few times on the rope, then got back in the car. Eric was already unnerved. The ropes were pretty weird, not something we see all the time [any sign of human life out here is deeply unsettling]. I started the car, but before driving away, Aaron interjected — “Hey — what’s that light up there?”

We looked out the window up into the woods about 50 yards, where a lone light was shining. In the darkness of the woods it was hard to tell if it was really close or miles away. Eric was already creeped out, and said, “Who cares? Let’s go.” But Aaron, Keil [the author of this deposition for this one sentence turns third-person – why?], and Steph were intrigued by the strange light up in the woods. “What if it’s a hiker or somebody who needs help?” It was kind of a strange hypothesis, and it required a combined effort of realistic-acting to justify getting out to go investigate [Keil, Aaron, and Steph are not exactly out of character, either]. Eric was so (understandably) against the thought of leaving our car to go see about a mystery light in the woods. It was that sort of horror movie moment where everyone is shouting at the dumb kids to not make obvious mistakes. But we took about 15 minutes of impromptu discussion to compel Eric to follow us [this should have exposed the prank because fifteen minutes is a long time to be chilling out here, unless you’re hunting, fucking, lost, or killing]. He eventually came just because all three of us (at different times and different levels of enthusiasm) decided to leave the car and go check it out. But we did, and Eric followed — more because he didn’t want to be left alone.

We hiked up into the woods toward the beacon of light. We let Eric point out the two other ropes dangling from trees along the way. As we got closer, it became clear that the light wasn’t a faraway house foisting an optical illusion: it was very near, and it was a flashlight lying on the ground. That was unnerving in itself… who leaves a lit flashlight on the ground in the middle of nowhere? And it must have been recent enough for the battery to still be good. These questions ran through our brains as we arrived at the fallen flashlight. Its beam reflecting off our bodies was just enough to illuminate the hanging corpse — but Eric hadn’t seen it yet. So we stood, staring, waiting. Then, slowly, he looked up and his brain started to make sense of what it was seeing: just at the edge of the light illuminating this patch of woods was a human corpse duct-taped in plastic and hanging upside down from a tree! [and if we can believe the omitted detail that there’s a life-sized replica skull under the white plastic head wrap then THERE’S THE FACE OF DEATH STARING BACK AT YOU!]

Eric stared for an eternal moment, and said in a low, certain, horrified voice, “It’s a body.”

Then he turned and disappeared. All we heard were his panicked footfalls retreating toward the car. He moved really fast… we ran after him, giving chase, but his fight-or-flight level adrenaline gave him Herculean powers. He reached the car and jumped in the back [let’s take a breather here and remark on how polite Eric is – he goes right back to his assigned seat.  Also, let’s remember that he is at least five miles away from ANYTHING, especially decent human beings capable of empathy]. I remember as I was running feeling thrilled, and even laughing — it worked too perfectly!

We all jumped into the car. We were panting and faux-scared, and even laughing a little — but even that worked for the situation because it was so real and confusing, and laughter is bundled up with fear and strong emotion in the brain. Playing the dumb guy, and wanting to confirm that Eric really saw what we hoped he’d see, I asked, “What’s wrong? What did you see?”

Eric was [is] strong-willed, decisive. “I saw a body. Hanging. In a tree. Upside down.”

I laughed, incredulous. “Are you joking?”

Aaron asked, “Is this a prank? Are you serious?”

Eric confirmed for us: “I’m serious. I’m not joking. It’s not a prank. Let’s go!”

Steph and Aaron chimed in, urging us to get the hell out of there.

Still aloof and disbelieving, I sluggishly reached for the key in my pocket. But it wasn’t there. “Oh shit,” I said. “I don’t have the key.”

Aaron and Steph jumped in, growing panicked themselves. “Look for it!”

I checked all my pockets and the car around me. No key. I sheepishly realized the truth. “It must have fallen out when I was swinging on the rope!”

Everyone groaned. Except Eric — he was truly terrified, voice wavering but struggling to remain calm. The windows of the car were fogging up. The night outside felt really dark and deep. Steph and Aaron were whispering harshly about what to do. Eric was scared, but also calm, cool — in survival mode. He looked out the window, back up at the light in the woods…

Then, the flashlight MOVED. The light was picked up, and began moving toward us.

Oh shit. Now the killer knows we’ve seen his victim!

This is where Eric’s calm-and-collected survival instinct moved into morbid terror and deathly panic. But still he kept cool, urging me… “Keil, find the key. Just find the key. Find the fucking key. Is there a spare?” [for the city folk reading this harrowing account: in rural settings back in the day most people hid a spare key on the outside of their car.  There’s no phone service, no Lyft or Uber, no Net.  You go off hunting in the woods and realize you put buckshot where you normally stuff your keys, or you misplace your keys in your own home and need to get to work, or you drop them running from a killer in the State Game Lands, then you need a spare set because AAA and the cops won’t know, ever.  The spare key was (still is?) an element of survival in picturesque PA, usually attached via magnet in a wheel well or a bumper.]

Aaron, also incredibly scared now, nodded. “There’s a spare tied [tied?] to the front grill.”

Eric dropped into problem-solving mode. “Can you get to it?”

Aaron nodded. “Keep an eye out for me. And if you see anything, if that light gets too close, honk and I’ll run back.” He opened the door and slipped out of the safety of the car. He moved up to the hood, performing the fear so perfectly, too genuinely, keeping an eye on the approaching light in the woods. He crouched at the front of the car, reaching into the grill to find the spare. Eric and Steph kept an eye on the light in the woods — it was still being held aloft by someone up there, just wavering, shining down at us.

Sticks and twigs cracked on other sides of the car — making us wonder if there were more than one person out here?!

All our hopes were on Aaron. But he popped up in front of the hood, in the headlights, frustrated. He ran back and jumped into the car. “I can’t find it.” Everyone’s spirits slumped. The flashlight in the woods resumed its advance. We were all terrified, swept up in the charade. Steph was crying, though I suspected she was coughing back laughter behind the tears. I managed to keep laughing to release tension because I was playing a real doofus — every time Eric tried to solve the problem, I was incredulous, never taking the situation seriously, acting as though it was all in his imagination [I realize now that this is how Keil edits my writing.  Love you, bro!]. This gaslighting character made the ordeal not just terrifying but also incredibly frustrating. Thus incredibly funny.

But then, without hope, Eric’s fear turned a corner from pure terror into helplessness, he lost the strong, cool-and-collected problem-solver persona we had seen and became overwhelmed. That’s when we realized it was time to cut this short… I “miraculously” found the car key on the floor, and started the engine. That renewed Eric’s hope, which seems to be a key [ha!] ingredient in survival circumstances — he was back to problem-solving self-preservation. I managed to pull away, but was going slow. Eric wasn’t in the mood for my nonchalance. “Fucking drive!”

That’s when a pickup truck careened around the corner behind us. Everyone screamed. I sped up a little, but not enough to avoid getting rear-ended by an angry truck driver. (I forgot to mention the car we were in was a junker on its last legs that we already determined could do with some rear-fender scratches) [Keil forgot to mention this because sacrificing cars is a common theme within his family – filming an action scene?  Cool, ram car A into Van B – Dad always wanted to peel donuts and never got the chance as a kid?  Cool, let’s all climb in and take turns tearing up the yard – ever wonder if old buckshot can puncture metal or bust windows?  Cool, shoot the car and see what happens!] 

I [Keil] managed to shift the car into a higher gear and pull off, the truck faded away behind us along with our screams, and we rocketed down the dirt road. As we neared the stop sign leading to the main road ahead, Eric admonished me, “Don’t stop.” Still, I downshifted and slowed to a full stop even though we were alone with no other traffic for miles in every direction. Then I pulled out… and intentionally stalled. The car died. “Shit, shit, shit!” We looked out the back to see if the truck was still in pursuit. I managed to restart the engine.

Moving out onto the main road, we drove for a while. Eric was still in survival-badass mode. “What do we do? Should we go to the police? What the fuck do we do?” It was hard to imagine next steps — just go back to our respective houses? But what if the killer was tracking us, would we endanger everyone at home? All these uncertainties we aired in the car. Aaron, Steph, and I breathed deep. Now came the awkward moment… do we just keep this going and work through things, maybe extend it to the whole weekend? After all this escalation and effective pranking, which took almost an hour of in-character improvisation under intense circumstances, we hadn’t figured on an ending. We didn’t think it would get this far. We thought as soon as he saw the body he would know we were pranking him. From our point of view, it was obvious: we pulled him out here into the woods and now we happened upon some out-of-this-world shit. But we hadn’t counted on the effectiveness of a good setup, something that’s been confirmed by my experience with the Yes Men. If a “mark” swallows the hook — that is, if the reality of a situation is sufficiently established — you can push people incredibly far. Farther than you ever think possible. Once snared, it’s hard for anyone to pull out and think critically, especially if emotional or physical stakes are on the line. It’s probably a similar sort of effect as when people are snared by cults, or religions, or any ideology really.

So, not wanting this to keep going, we just started laughing. Slowly at first, then building. Pretty soon, with us laughing hard enough, Eric just looked at us, dumbfounded. He realized we’d pranked him, and the entire evening morphed in his mind to have a completely different meaning. We apologized, and told him we hadn’t thought it would work so well.

I turned the car around we started driving back to the scene of the crime, which to Eric’s shell-shocked mind felt deeply irrational; to drive back toward the threat. But he overcame that, and we arrived back at the spot where my dad, Nick, was waiting with the truck. We had hoped to show Eric the whole setup in a different light, but Nick had already taken down the body and ropes. Eric gazed into the truck bed at the body, lost in adrenalized confusion and amazement.

He may have said other things, but what I remember most was his stupefied expression as he turned to us and said, “Thank you.” Though traumatized, he was strangely grateful to know what it’s like to think you’re about to die.


That was by far so much better and worse than what I had heard years ago.  I think it was cruel in retrospect, but a cruelty without villains and without warning.  Every scare and prank to that point was welcome and asked for and there was no way to know for certain this was a bad idea beforehand.  It’s no good thing to be in a situation where you believe you will die, but it is incredible to discover how you will act in an emergency.  Not many find out.  Eric knows.  A part of me is envious.  A part of me knows I’m probably next.  Three reasons: I’m the only one they have not pranked, I’ve written this exposé, and the scares haven’t ended because Keil told me as much when he sent his deposition.  The thought of a true end to the pranks is too scary to fathom.  Eric agrees.

We did this out of love.  We scared each other to make apparent just how safe we are, that comfort is a touch away, that our victims would never be without love by virtue of the excellent human they had become.  Our friendship was kindled by giving each other a glimpse of life without that friendship.  Like the guards counting heads or gripping a familiar hand in the dark, the veil is lifted and returned.  The pranks are physical reassurances that you never left your peace behind.

You can touch this fire, marvel at it, and you will not burn.

But if you do burn, so do those close to you even if they were the ones offering fire.  We are each branded.  Even though I wasn’t there I know I bear the mark of that night.  Under some spectral blacklight we share a luminous design behind our eyes and every time we get together we see it.

Through my friendship with these imps of the veil over the decades I learned about fear.  I learned it is thinking that gets you out of trouble and through these scary exercises the necessary thoughts became instinctual action.  Until The Night in the Game Lands none of us realized our scare tactics were both training and proving grounds as well as ridiculous fun.  In a way we scare each other to see how we are progressing and growing as delightful humans.

Before these friends I was on a path of indoctrinated inaction.  Every problem could be overcome through prayer.  I was taught to trust in a great and boundless nothing to save me from anything, from bad grades to certain doom.  The scares were lessons on what it is to be in touch with yourself, your biology and being.  The scares refocused reality on what really mattered; good people and a nurtured self because when the veil drops this is all you have.  There is no Deus Ex Liber/Machina/Caelum, there isn’t a force field that will protect you.  There is only luck, yourself, and the hopefully dependable people around you.

What makes The Night in the Game Lands so profound is that this incident leveled all illusions about safety by creating a complete illusion of dire straights.  The event razed everything Eric could trust except for himself.  Every prank up to that point only took away one aspect of a safe life.  This last scare was overwhelming in its design – friends could not be trusted, unfamiliar territory, and a string of shit luck left Eric with only himself to get out of the situation.  Eric took control.  Eric felt panic, but he did not let panic dictate his actions.  We can only hope to be like him if we’re ever met with real danger.  For better he knows he won’t break, for worse Eric will be called upon for bravery from now on.  He’s proven himself and we know it, and now he will carry the burden of being the guy who didn’t break.

That’s the only apology he is owed.

From now on those close to him who get into trouble will have Eric’s number on speed dial because three maniacal geniuses pushed the “horror for humor” line too far and got a hero in return.

Eric was there when I was in trouble.  Years after The Night in the Game Lands, he visited Los Angeles on a business trip and spent the night at my place.  At the time I was in a shockingly awful relationship.  I was trying to hold the relationship together more out of fear of failure than love.  It was killing me and he knew it.  Eric listened and offered advice with incredible patience and tact, a quiet and calm bravery that helped me face the horror of the broken household I was trying to maintain.

I can’t remember exactly what was said.  I was in the grip of panic at first.  The gist of what he told me was it’s okay to feel panic or any negative emotion, what matters is how you act upon what you feel from the world around you, to analyze and act.  You have everything you need to get out of danger when you realize you can take initiative.  I imagined him in those woods, bolting at first and then coming to grips with the situation, delegating tasks, not giving up on getting back to normal even if that normality would be different from how things started.  He told me that’s what I had to fight for; a new normal that seemed unimaginable and unattainable, which made seeking it scary and daunting.

I’d like to thank Eric for teaching us all a valuable lesson.  Unfortunately, admitting that his crazy, terrible night was a gift will only spark more elaborate pranks for the rest of us.  So, let’s be honest and realize it doesn’t take a near death experience to bring the best out in people, or to know that you can be cool in the face of despair and terror by only getting close to death.  It doesn’t take years of scaring each other to navigate life successfully.

But we learned some valuable lessons over the years of scaring each other.  Such as, what manipulation looks like.  Such as, what it feels like when your body reacts to sinister stimuli before your eyes and brain register emergency.  These things and more are now part of our self-understanding.  It all comes at a price.

That’s why my heart cries out for more pranks with the gang.  That’s why I keep it muffled in my chest.  There’s a deeper reason why we don’t talk about our pranks with outsiders.  There is a flip side to our outlandish culture.  My friends and I simulate misfortune and emergency because we’ve had the good luck of never being in a dire situation.  At least I haven’t.  There have been close calls realized in retrospect, but nothing that compares to our planned scares.  Nothing that happened for real.  The Night in the Game Lands forced us to see a reflection of real danger, real bad luck.  Even after Eric saw that his terror was the result of an elaborate prank the fear was still there in him and in us because some people do experience this sort of thing for real.

Some people get into true horror and never come back.  Some do return.  Our pranks threaten to mock their real, terrible experience.  The pranks we pull on each other are an extension of love in our small group, but also a privilege to those uninitiated to our culture – especially to someone with firsthand experience of terror.  It seems that The Night in the Game Lands wasn’t just the most realistic simulation unleashed, but also the turning point we never saw coming.  It wasn’t until after, maybe years later, that we saw we were adults trying to reconnect with childhood fun.   We realized we had always been balanced on a razor’s edge between a fantasy we pretended we could not control and a reality that happens to people all of the time.  In retrospect, this sort of terror could have happened to anyone of us, and yet it visited someone else, leaving us free to explore horror without the consequence of trauma.

But that privilege is a consequence.  We cannot stop scaring each other because one day (or night) a real emergency will find us.  We need to keep honing edges that dull quickly in a safe life.  We need to keep having our fun in order to be primed when the fun ends…

Or if the fun doesn’t end.

Be still, my bleating heart.  If we must tempt fate then let us have fun so we remember where safety lies.