Fabricating Fear

By

We searched for a lake monster on the shores of Lake Superior. This was sometime last July. My wife Meredith, son Henry, and I had headed north from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in the hopes that the vacation town of Duluth, Minnesota might momentarily insulate us from the horrors of the world.

It didn’t. Didn’t drown out the drone missiles in Pakistan, or silence the Syrian uprising.

In the days prior to our trip, I’d found I could hardly turn on the television without learning of the latest in a long line of disasters—flash floods in Russia, drought in West Africa, a car bombing in Kandahar. Not to mention an earthquake in New Zealand and Ireland’s torrential rains. For days on end, cable news had little trouble confirming that every last vestige of the planet was crumbling or washing away.

Except, of course, Duluth.

By the time we arrived at Minnesota Point beach, we were disheartened to find that we’d already lost most of the daylight. Nevertheless, my seven-month-old son and I used what little light remained to search for monsters.

“Keep your eyes peeled for an arched neck,” I said as we sat in the sea grass, “or a couple of dark humps in the water.”

Henry knew little of lake monsters, though I, his cryptid-loving father, knew plenty.

I filled him in the best I could, but Henry’s interest had little to do with the lake or the creatures that may or may not have inhabited it. Instead, he focused on the sand, deemed it edible, and proceeded to sprinkle it into his mouth.

Sighing, I put our monster hunt on hold to deal with more pressing matters.

“We’ll try again tomorrow,” I said, scraping the sand from his tongue. “Surely the monsters will wait for us.”

***

Was it Dr. Spock who said parents should scare the living daylights out of their kids in order to expose them to fear? Perhaps I misunderstood. Nevertheless, I manufactured our lake-monster hunt for the same reason my family has instilled fear in its offspring for generations—because, much in the way a flu shot works, we believe a small dose of fear in a controlled environment is far safer than the alternative.

Though I fancy myself a fiction writer, my mother’s fictions were always the best, especially her creation of Mr. Green—a much-feared, nonexistent neighbor who terrified both my brother and me throughout our childhoods. We never so much as glimpsed the guy and knew startlingly little about him, yet the mysterious Mr. Green became the manifestation of everything that scared us. Our imaginations concocted a creature so vile, so cruel, that we never dared cross my mother for fear she’d make good on her bluff to introduce us to the man.

Except for the time my brother did cross her.

Who can remember his transgression? All I know is that the punishment could hardly have fit the crime. I watched helplessly from the windows of our home on Breconshire Drive as she buckled him into the backseat of the Ford Taurus and drove toward Mr. Green’s supposed house.

My brother later recounted all of it. How our mother pulled into Mr. Green’s alleged driveway, turned off the engine, and waited.

And how as he sweated bullets in the backseat, my brother prayed to the God of little boys that Mr. Green might take pity on a wretch like him. I’ll never be bad again, I’ll never be bad again, I’ll never be bad again… Miraculously, God answered.

My straight-faced mother had put on quite a performance, but just as my brother’s anxiety reached its apex, she shrugged and reversed the car out of the drive. “Looks like he’s not home,” she said, shaking a finger at my brother in the rearview. “You got lucky this time, mister.”

***

As my son and I sat in the sea grass on that Sunday night in Duluth, I realized just how much I needed him to believe in our lake monster. I needed it the same way my mother needed us to believe in Mr. Green. I felt that if I could expose Henry to a tiny dose of a lesser fear, then I could shoulder the heavier burdens myself. And not just your everyday, run-of-the-mill global upheaval, but the more pressing matters, the threats that hit closer to home. Such as the burden of knowing that any number of once seemingly innocuous household objects—from bookshelves to coffee tables—take on a far more menacing role when a child’s in the room. And the burden of recognizing that even if I did manage to beat the needle-in-a-haystack odds at successfully childproofing our child’s life, it was impossible to childproof his future. There were simply not enough latches or plug covers or anti-bacterial soaps. Not enough bubble wrap, or water wings, or luck.

Despite teeth brushing, and hand washing, and practicing stop, drop, and roll, I would never be able to predict when the drunk driver might barrel into our lives. Nor would I know which dog would bark and which would bite and which of the two had rabies. Would never know which square of sidewalk would bloody the knee, or who would break whose heart in the schoolyard. I am not alone in my worry. All any parent can predict is that none of our children will ever be immune to everything, and that at some point, our years of nonstop parental anxieties might just come to fruition as we’d feared.

And so, for that brief moment in Duluth, I fabricated a fear for him that I could still control. I assured myself that fabrication would serve Henry well down the road. That a lake monster would shield him from drone attacks and flash floods and car bombings in Kandahar. But more importantly, it might also make him think twice before leaping into the bacteria-filled lake, or choking down any more sand castles. I was just being a pragmatist. Just a pragmatic, monster-hunting father.

My mother likely confirmed the value of her own parental indiscretions with similar rationalizations. Sure, a bit of minor therapy might be in order as a result of our Mr. Green-induced traumas, but wasn’t it a necessary means to the end? Was it not better for her to frontload our fears rather than expose us to a larger dose of a harsher reality? After all, thanks to my Mr. Green anxiety, for several years I was able to naively believe that the two Gulf Wars were fought exclusively with nine irons and putters. Ultimately, I was no worse off for my mostly bubble-wrapped childhood. I lifted the lighter load, while Mom bore the weight of the world.

***

That night on the beach, we saw no evil, we heard no evil—there was none. Though months later, there was plenty of it. Televisions piped horrors into households from Duluth on down. Thankfully, Henry was still too young to know the difference between Sandy Hook and Hurricane Sandy and the sand he devoured in Duluth.

There will be plenty of time for differentiating later, I thought.

For now, when the news reports on the latest tragedy, Meredith and I carry our 28-pound boy to his bed and return him once more to the safety of his room.

On one particularly depressing news day, we take to his Legos and construct our Lake Superior monster, complete with arched neck and dark humps.

Henry laughs at our creation, and we laugh, too.

“We’ve found him!” I say. “We’ve found that scary scalawag at last!”

But the very next moment, he’s destroying that monster faster than a flash flood, striking it like a drone missile.

As we watch him, our stomachs tighten and our own worst fear pulls into sharp focus: no matter how hard we try—or how much we love him—the fear we fake for him today might well turn true tomorrow.

***

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B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently The Road South: Personal Stories of the Freedom Riders, Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds, From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. Hollars serves as a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and the founder and executive director of the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild. An associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, he lives a simple existence with his wife, their children, and their dog. More from this author →