by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator
It’s okay to be scared; but it’s never good to be afraid. What’s the difference? We like to be scared. It can be fun, and allows us to feel brave as we face our fears. Being scared can also lead to learning and experiencing new things. The unknown can be scary, but it drives us to that sense of discovery that so often leaves us wanting more.
Fear has its uses; it helps protect us from things that may be dangerous like, for example, the edge of a cliff. Fear makes us approach things with caution. Knowing the danger helps keep us safe – accepting it and working past it allows us to grow. Being afraid, on the other hand, paralyzes us, prevents us from acting, and keeps us ignorant.
Almost every culture has its own mythology, most of which is filled with monsters and supernatural beings. If you look below the surface of those stories you’ll possibly find something deeper in that most of these stories attempt to explain something. What that “something” is, varies from story to story. Subject matter ranges from natural phenomena to the complexities of human nature. At their core, however, they all serve the same purpose of helping us makes sense of the world around us.
As someone who teaches history and science to children (and adults, for that matter) I am occasionally quick to dismiss superstition and myth. When a second grader wants to know if any of the old buildings in the museum’s Heritage Courtyard are haunted, it’s kind of cute. When the same question comes from an adult, it’s a bit disconcerting. Perhaps, I should ask, “Are they serious, or are they simply looking for a good ghost story?”
Growing up a somewhat timid child, I don’t have to look beyond my own past to understand the power that the unknown and frightening can have. I remember feeling left out when all of my friends discussed the classic monsters of the films shown during Horror Week on the local Dialing-for-Dollars afternoon movie. (Trust me, this was a special event. It may be hard to imagine for anyone growing up in a post 1980’s, zillion-channel world of on-demand cable, Blu-ray disks, and YouTube, that there once was a time when you would have to wait for certain films to air on broadcast television. If you missed them, you missed them. Better luck next year.) I, alas, hadn’t missed the films, I had been too afraid to watch them.
I knew that characters like Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster were scary, but I didn’t know why. I decided to arm myself against the things that haunted my nightmares, not with the traditional garlic, silver bullets, and mob of villagers carrying torches and pitch-forks; but, with knowledge. My weapon of choice – books.
Soon, I was steeped in the history of the monsters of the silver screen from the original silent films like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu, the Vampyre, to the appearance of the Universal Studio’s monsters in comedy films. Once they met Abbott and Costello, it was difficult to take these creatures of the night seriously, ever again. Along the way, I picked up quite a bit of information, ranging from history and geography (how many of you knew that Transylvania was located in Central Romania?), to mythology and science.
I also picked up some interesting skincare techniques and trivia. Did you know that Lon Chaney Sr. washed his face in bleach to achieve his ghastly appearance in the Phantom of the Opera? Closer to home, Lon was born on April 1, 1883, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. If you’ve never seen Chaney as the Phantom, you owe it to yourself to do an image search. That’s not make-up. Lon Chaney not only bleached his skin, he inserted painful wire hoops into his eyes to make them bulge, and appliances into his nostrils and cheeks to make his visage more skeletal. Talk about suffering for your art.
I would have never encountered this information if I hadn’t decided at an early age to face my fears. The same also applies to real science, with similar motivation fueling my interest in dinosaurs, snakes, and sharks. Fear can be a powerful tool, knowing this I was able to turn my fear into understanding and knowledge of the things that once frightened me.
When dealing with the students that visit the museum, I encourage them to learn about things that might seem scary and to develop their own opinions. Many of them have gone on to dissect a squid, eat a bug, and enter an historic building; no longer haunted by the ghost of doubt, but moved by the spirit of discovery.
Embrace the things that are scary.