If I want to watch a horror movie, I have to wait until everyone’s either in bed or away from home. When one of these two conditions is met, then I have to search carefully for a movie that’s worth watching: so many are compromised by poor acting, or they rely too heavily on special effects, or they peaked in their previews so there’s no good material left unseen in the actual film. So many commit the fatal error of showing too much; the terror’s in what you can’t see. For any number of reasons, really, it’s difficult to find a solid, truly scary movie, one that fulfills its implied promise, thereby making you afraid to enter dark rooms or look into mirrors. And I can’t leave out the real terror: feeling like I’ve wasted a precious hour-and-a-half. Generally, for me these days, watching a horror movie at all is a precarious endeavor.
Last night, however, the fates aligned, it would seem. Everyone was in bed. I had roughly an hour-and-a-half before I’d start falling asleep upright in my chair, and I already knew of a couple of titles I wanted to try. Scrolling my list on Netflix, I settled on I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, a film with mediocre reviews but that I’m curious about anyway. The dark, opening screen appeared, accompanied by a spooky-sounding female narrative voice-over; the ghostly image of a standing girl in-profile, translucent, slowly glided backward across the screen, her face leaving a spectral smear of ectoplasmic mist; a baby cried out. What? Yeah, a baby. My daughter was awake and nearly distorting the monitor in the kitchen with the intensity of her crying. This was no couple of cries and then back to sleep; she was awake-awake, and from the sound of it, hungry. Being the one of her parents still conscious, it was only right that I get her (though I was tempted to linger in the hope her mother would get there first).
Her face was puffy and red from the crying, and from having just awakened. Her eyes squinted tight as I moved from the bedroom to the lamp-lit living room. The cries quickly tapered to nothing. I wiped and kissed her cheeks, snuggling her against my chest. For the briefest moment, she rested her head on my shoulder. Then she raised her face to mine and smiled, wielding a power I’m sure she’ll always have–the power to absorb my attention fully. In an instant, none of my movie-watching plans even mattered.
People fade. This topic drifted through my head all weekend, sinking at times into forgetfulness, then carried by currents into different subconscious zones, rising unexpectedly to bob at the surface for a while. I’m not talking about the gradual forgetting that happens by successive generations after we die, I’m talking about the out-of-sight-out-of-mind phenomenon that happens very much while we’re still alive, the one that’s going on right now. Think about folks you knew in grade school, folks you’re not even friends with on social media–haven’t they faded for you? If and when you remember them–and that’s a big if–they’re as you last saw them, paused in youth or young adulthood. The truth is we rarely have significant reason to remember most the people we’ve forgotten, and that’s largely okay, I think. But then there’s the occasional someone we never thought we’d forget–a best friend, a former love, an adult that seemed like a third parent. Of course you remember them–who they were, what they meant to you–but it’s in a detached kind of way, like the way you remember a character from a television show you watched religiously.
This would hardly be worth writing about if it weren’t so strange–the way someone essential to our happiness twenty years ago is now such a non-factor as to almost never arise in thought. I guess it’s sad, or is it? I can’t decide. I do know this: it’s completely natural. Whether sad or not, it’s something as natural as eating. I’ve thought about lost relationships on occasion, wondering if I should mourn them or maybe try to recover them. But, tellingly, there’s little motivation to do either. Is this a flaw in my character? (Don’t answer that.) I suspect, too, it’s part of an emotional healing process. Except the rub in the healing theory is that often there’s little actual desire to heal. When things end naturally, often our response is simply to let them. Or in more famous words, to live and let die.
Has this ever happened to you? You associate a song or a band with a particular era in your life, and so forthwith, whenever that songs is played (and it’s almost always unexpectedly, finding you in the dentist’s chair, for example, with some old 80s ballad falling softly from the overhead speakers, reminding you of a pre-adolescent crush—something you used to hear at Thelma’s Skateland during the ritualized and awkward hand-in-hand skating segment known as “Snowball Couples,” whatever that means), you’re filled with a nostalgia so potent it drives you to seek it out. And now that we have the technology to find exactly what we want and can listen to a band’s entire discography just by paying a small monthly fee, it’s become easy to find any and all songs we might want to hear at any time.
So say you put in the minimal effort of typing a song title into your Spotify app, and then there it is. You listen, and it’s great—it takes you right back to junior high, and memories of those girls or boys you thought you couldn’t live without. You can almost feel yourself slam into the skating rink’s carpeted walls.
But then something else happens: about two-thirds of the way through, the experience falls flat. That potent nostalgia that earlier threatened to floor you completely becomes a little too sweet, a little too artificial. Like a soda made with aspartame, it just isn’t the same. It’s like the song collapses under the weight of the associations you’ve placed on it; like the memory of the song now means more than the song itself. The song has become its own obstacle. Only in the human mind can such transformations occur: old songs defeat themselves, and we remain our own biggest mystery.
Nevertheless, I still find Peter Cetera’s voice compelling, though you’ll never catch me listening to him.