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Fear Begins Outside

The percentage of Africa that is wilderness: 28% (now get this...). The percentage of North America that is wilderness: 38%.

When you're little, the basic laboratory of scariness and mystery is a tent in the backyard. The 30 feet from the tent flap to the back door spans an immeasurable distance, mentally; a ghost story told at the kitchen table is an anecdote, while the same story told by flashlight late at night in the tent howls with the darkness all around. Love and learning and charity may begin at home, but, for most humans, fear begins outside.

As a young man I sometimes used to fantasize about how great it would have been to wander the American continent before civilization ruined it. I dreamed of seeing the Great Lakes before industrial pollution, the Appalachian hills before strip mining, the Great Plains before the railroad, etc. Sure, the wilderness is beautiful. But it can also frighten you out of your mind.

The fantasy has been common in the years ever since most real American wilderness disappeared. At the end of the movie Shakespeare in Love, for a recent example, Gwyneth Paltrow walks slowly from the sea across a broad, white beach in the 1590s, a horizon ahead of her as big as the American future. The actual people who saw that kind of horizon didn't react to it with joyful anticipation all the time. They didn't know the Great Lakes and the Plains and the Rockies were out there. They saw only the dark tree line at the border of their stump-filled clearings, and they were afraid.

Anything could be out there, anything at all. The first Europeans on the land didn't have the science to conjure UFOs in the wilderness, but they certainly had the theology to imagine a wilderness of devils, a boundless waste occupied by Satan and his works. The most wild-eyed among the settlers wouldn't even admit the consolation of shared humanity between themselves and the original inhabitants; in the words of Cotton Mather, the Puritan divine, American Indians weren't human; they were "tawney serpents."

The terror of the unknown continent took physical form in these presumedly wild men. Indian raiders would sometimes descend on frontier cabins like a sudden localized hurricane and, after dreadful, fast destruction, disappear with captives of whom no trace would ever be found, except maybe a baby's bonnet, a piece of ribbon, or the blue eyes of a half-Indian child met at a trading post years later.

Mysteries terrify, especially mysteries that extend from who-knows-where right to the edge of town. The progress of us new arrivals clear across the country has been a persistent attempt to stamp out the mysteries and submerge them under pastures and softball fields. For some reason, people can accept the worst mishaps and violence in built-up places, and yet still become electric with fear at the thought of getting jumped by a wild creature in a place without roads. As anxiety sufferers know, ordinary fears, even bad ones-fear of your husband leaving, of financial reversal, of news from the doctor-can seem small and manageable compared with the dizzying spiral of unspecified fear that bores through you when you have nothing real to be afraid about.

One evening, several friends and I were walking along a wooded trail on our way back from fishing at Argyle Lake, in a rural part of central Illinois. The subject of the Argyle Monster, a local legend, came up. Dave said he had seen it once, at a distance. Rick said it had once followed him through the woods for several miles. They described it as a large cougar that walked on its hind legs because both of its front paws had been damaged in a trap. Also, they said, the Argyle Monster screamed like a woman. Half kiddingly, I was asking them for more particulars. At that moment we came around a bend and heard a weird sound. We saw where it was coming from, but at first couldn't make sense of what we were seeing.

A large water snake was writhing on the surface of a small pond. Sticking out of the snake's mouth was the front end of a very large frog. The frog's front feet and widespread toes were clawing in the air, and it was making a noise from its wide mouth-a noise of amphibian protest, outrage, desperation, and horror beyond any emotion you would expect from a frog. The noise locked tight on our nerve endings, bypassing the ears entirely. We all must have hollered, because the snake recoiled in surprise and spit out the frog, who then frog-kicked calmly across the pond to some weeds, his dignity regained.

As we continued down the trail in the gloom, whatever had been ironical or theoretical in the Argyle Monster tales was gone. The woods had become foreign woods, not ours. I didn't believe in the Argyle Monster, but that was the opposite of comforting, because I believed even more in the scariness of the woods in general. I believed not in the monster but in the scream. At the back of my mind I kept deleting images of tree branches like bony fingers and knotholes like staring eyes. My friends and I talked nervously and little, hurrying to get down the trail while there was still enough light.

In short, my friends and I had caught a case of the yips, also known as the creeps. Outdoors, especially when you imagine you're far from anywhere, the yips are ready to get you at any time. The man who walked in circles in a blizzard and collapsed ten feet from his barn died of exposure, but what brought him to it was a case of the yips unhinging his mind. People are subject to the yips because, even in moderately far-flung places, what one knows for sure is gigantically outnumbered by what one doesn't. Behind the thin line of logic, panic is waiting to stampede. All it requires is a flicker of disorientation, an unexpected jolt, or an encounter with a mystery too spooky to explain, and it's off.

At such a moment, imagination is not a friend. Adventurers who accomplish the most outdoors are often the dullest to talk to. Kit Carson, the famous mountain man, had a life of wilderness adventures enough for 50 movies, but when he recounted his exploits in his autobiography, you'd have thought he was describing going down to the corner for cigarettes. Clearly, if he had been the sort to let his mind run away with him, in some of the situations he got in he would've frightened himself to death.

Sooner or later the mind will do what it wants to, however, no matter how you try to rein it in. It has its own affinities and its own momentum. And the mind is irresistibly attracted to mysteries, being one itself. I had a neighbor - a quoter of the Book of Revelation - who often told me creepy things. Once as we were walking back from getting our mail, he told me that there was a nest of witches in the area. He pronounced the word nest with quiet, sinister relish. I laughed, and he said I could think what I wanted, but if I ever was driving on a deserted road and came upon a line of people with their arms linked across it, I mustn't stop, but must run right through them, because that's how the witches waylaid their victims.

When he told me information like this, my neighbor always gave me a narrow-eyed look that was both piercing and foreboding. Nobody could darken the woods the way he could. After I talked to him, the lichen-hung firs, the muddy road, the overcast sky all seemed to pulse with unnamed fear. Eventually my neighbor moved away. I was relieved to see him go. Upscale ranchettes began to spread their orderly clearings where he'd had his goat pastures and double-wide trailer. With him gone, the woods' dark enchantment lifted. They became landscaping. And of course the spookiness and darkness and remoteness that first drew me there had left, too.

We go to the woods, or any place out and away, for the mystery there; sometimes, for a dose of fear right below the level of toxicity. Usually the object is to restrain it. But in benign circumstances, when you don't have to take care, a case of the yips can be fun. Let the panic stampede, let the unexplained mystery scatter your reason. You know that's what the Unknowable really wants of you. Constantly it undermines the rational stops constructed to keep it back. It wants so much for you to quit trying to figure it out, and just accept the incoherence, and come unglued. Mystery has its own ideas for you.

Do you enjoy the jitters and the feeling of prickly goose bumps? Do you like to be so scared out of your wits that even the sound of your own breath makes you shudder? Do you live for the nameless terror that grabs your heart on sultry moonlit nights? Do you love what you fear.

Fear reveals itself in a variety of forms: we turn pale, our teeth chatter, we get goose bumps or jitters, our hearts pound, our stomachs churn, our breath becomes short. Fear can be unpleasant. At the same time, fear is important. Fear helps us stay alive, for it's fear that keeps us from stepping out in front of a bus or a speeding train. People who fear too little die too soon. They are sometimes called heroes, sometimes fools. It's certainly not a disgrace to be afraid of something, nor is it ridiculous. In fact, a trace of fear is absolutely necessary to enjoy monsters. No fear, no monsters - wouldn't that be a pity!

Haunting has no season it occurs throughout the year, and in the most unlikely of places. The world's most haunted, horrid, ghastly and ghoulish places are places where things do more than bump in the night. Beyond your doorstep lies a world of dark and weird unknowns.

To step into a true house of horrors, descend below the streets of Paris, France into Les Catacombs. These dank, dark passages stretch for miles under the city streets and have existed since the Roman times; now they're the resting place of up to six million souls, many of them victims of the Black Death. Stacks and stacks of bones arranged in orderly patters line the hallways, interspersed with tidy rows of skulls and gravestones with arcane inscription.

Both generals and soldiers lost their lives in the great battles that had once divided the United States-but not their souls. Reports of military ghosts roaming the fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, are legion. But the truly haunted part lies in Spooks Hill. Locals insist that the reason cars roll uphill is because a battalion of Union soldiers perpetually reenact their laborious effort of pushing of a cannon up that incline. (A side trip to near-by Burkittsville may give you a more modern scare, though sightings of the infamous Blair Witch are unlikely.)

Ghosts don't need to lurk in Alcatraz to make the place seem haunted, but some say the deserted corridors of the infamous rock in the San Francisco Bay are still inhabited by the souls of prisoners that met a violent end within its walls. A more residential retreat lies in nearby San Jose, where Ms. Sarah Winchester built her fabled Mystery House. With stairwells leading nowhere, doors opening into space, and some 10,000 windows, this labyrinth of crocked corridors is rumored to have been constructed to isolate Ms. Winchester from those who had fallen victim to the rifle that bares her name.

Hawaiian Uhanes: In Kauai, say aloha to the "Marchers of the Night," souls that separate themselves from their host bodies while they sleep and wander through the darkness, paying visits to the corporeal world. Tradition says that it's fatal to gaze upon the Marchers of the Night as they pass, unless they are your relatives or friends. Otherwise, you must strip naked and prostrate yourself. If luck is on your side, they'll pass over you. Fortunately, the local Kahunas know how to send the marchers back home again.

It's a regular bruja-ja in Escazu, the witch capital of Costa Rica. Grown men refuse to cross the bridge that spans the Tiribi River for fear of encountering the infamous "magic monkey." While 60 witches are still rumored to live in Escazu, U.S. witch lore lurks more in the past. Salem, Massachusetts, reigns as the "kitschy" witch capital, but little evidence from the real 17th-century trails still remains.

While it may be easy to get wasted in the South's steamy party capital, the geographical reality of New Orleans makes being literally dead a tricky proposition. The city lies four to six feet below sea level, which makes burial in the traditional six-foot hole something of a macabre parade: bodies (both in and out of coffins) had been known to literally rise from the ground and float through the city streets. This unsightly problem was solved with the creation of aboveground tombs. Now the city cemeteries offer miles and miles of marble tomb mazes. Get lost at midnight and try to convince yourself that you're not scared. We dare you.

Home to the ill-reputed witch trials of 1692, Salem, Mass., is, according to legend, still haunted by the women executed. Spirits-both good and evil-are part of everyday life in Bali. Exorcisms to drive away evil spirits occur daily, while the most elaborate ritual, Eka Dasa Rudra, takes place every 100 years, providing a ritualistic purification of the whole island. More theatrical is the intricate dance-drama known as Calon Arang, performed to get rid of those nasty witches, especially Rangda, the bloody-fanged Queen of the Underworld.

Probably the spookiest places around-even in the daylight-are cemeteries, both infamous and not so known. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil made Savannah's Bonaventure Cemetery the city's most famous site. The potential for a real-life poltergeist looms large in Indonesia, where a portion of Jakarta's Tanah Abang cemetery was plowed over in favor of new development.

Some 40 miles east of Prague, in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutna Hora, Czecyh Republic, lies a ghastly ossuary has become famous for its d├ęcor-which uses the bones of some 40,000 people excavated from the overcrowded cemetery. Highlights of this morbidly inventive solution include bones arranged in bells, the Schwarzenberg coat-of-arms, and a chandelier constructed from every bone in the human body.

Everyone has heard of the Bermuda Triangle-that mysterious oceanic abyss blamed for swallowing a slew of aircraft and ships. Also known as the Devil's Triangle, the term loosely refers to a triangular sea span with its apexes at Miami, Bermuda and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Dozens of peculiar marine and aviation mishaps have occurred at a disproportionately high rate here. Among the more sensational stories, an entire squadron of 1945 Navy bombers is thought to have disappeared here without any wreckage or drowned corpses. Some attribute the strange occurrences to anomalous electromagnetic energy, while others believe that aliens are using the area as a portal to visit the planet.

A forgotten city lies beneath Edinburgh's South Bridge. It is an underground maze of chambers, vaulted rooms, tunnels and passageways. The darker side of Edinburgh's medieval history is literally buried beneath your feet. It opened in 1788 but was virtually unknown to the thriving city above it before being rediscovered in 1985. Twenty or so rooms and merchant quarters have been excavated. The cavernous hollows contain oil lamps, smelting metal, animal bones, wine bottles and other haunting remnants of the people who lived here. Not surprisingly, the vaults are famous for their strong paranormal presence, as well; many visitors swear they've seen wraithlike ghost shadows down below.

As the Old Town slums grew ever higher on the volcanic mound that surrounds Edinburgh Castle, a labyrinth of squalid and disease-filled alleyways spread deeper-and with it tales of horror and suitably gruesome deaths. The recently opened underground vaults beneath Mary King's Close are said to be one of "Britain's most haunted locations." Perhaps you'll sense the presence of Annie, a child ghost who wanders in rags lamenting the loss of her plague-stricken family. Or you might hear the desperate cries of entire 16th-century families who were entombed behind sealed doors to quarantine the spread of the plague, left to die in dark corridors that have since been described by one psychic as "the unhappiest place ever."

Fall River, Mass., was the location for the 1892 ax murders of Abby and Andrew Borden, allegedly by their very own daughter, Lizzie. The scene of the crime has now been converted into a bed-and-breakfast that allows visitors to stand in the spots where Lizzie's stepmother received 18 blows to the head and where her father endured a slightly less brutal 11. While circumstantial evidence tied Lizzie to the crime, she was ultimately acquitted, and the case was never solved.

Who hasn't gotten goose bumps from reading or watching Steven King's thriller The Shining? Built in 1909, the Stanley Hotel is in fact a grand estate with a spectacular Colorado mountainside location, old-fashioned rooms with impressive vistas, top-notch amenities and an award-winning restaurant. What makes this place unique and a tad creepy, however, is the presence of otherworldly residents. Flora Stanley, the first owner's wife, can still be seen and heard wandering around the lobby. Plus, the entire fourth floor teems with strange after-dark commotion.

It's hard to deny the fright factor of fanged, bloodsucking vampires who awake in the night from coffins to hunt their prey. This western province of Romania (Transylvania) is considered to be the home of Count Dracula. The daunting Bran Castle, an eerie 14th-century bastion that's said to have briefly housed the Romanian prince on whom the great fictional vampire is based.

Jason Daley & Tim Sohn. The O Files. Outside [Print + Kindle] . October 2003.
Tim Neville & Tim Sohn. Case Cold. Outside [Print + Kindle] . November 2006.

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