Isn’t it odd what scares us? Oh, this is not to be a discourse about death, doctors, dentists, or dogs (some folks seem to be horrified of them). I am fascinated and quite intrigued by the unusual things that scare us, especially harmless ones that, under just the right circumstances, can be bone chilling. You know what I mean. A perfect example? Clowns. What could be more cheerful and fun than a clown? Unless, of course, the clown has daggers for teeth and lives in a neighborhood sewer. Even the most innocent clown can be frightening, particularly to small children at birthday parties. Must be all that makeup. There are plenty of full-grown adults who shiver at the sight of a clown.
Then there is the terror that is invoked by certain elements of situations, environments, or settings. An illustration is the best way I can describe what I mean here. A colleague and I were riding home one night through the dark countryside. It must have been overcast, because the only thing we could see was the portion of the road illuminated by his headlights. For some reason it occurred to me that seeing something on the side of road in the headlights for a brief moment could be terrifying, like a little girl in a white dress, all alone, just standing there watching us as we pass by her.
Why should a little girl like the one pictured here in this 1935 oil painting by Rose Trellis Caracciolo be so frightening, standing on the side of the road on a pitch-black night, perhaps with even a faint smile on her face? I asked my colleague, the driver, that very question. I will never forget his answer, and it is as good an explanation as I have ever heard for the situation. “Because you know she ain’t supposed to be there.”