At Halloween, kids dress up as scary monsters, pushing back their fears by acting as the creatures that scare them. Often they’re afraid of things we know to be unreal, like monsters under the bed or in the closet. (My favorite comes from a TV fantasy episode where they warned against “head spiders” that have human heads on spider legs and crawl up closet walls to lie in wait for the next person to open the door.)
But we know better. Still, why should kids have all the fun? Grown-ups can thrill themselves with real-life terrors, such as these:
• Black widow spiders bite us because they can. Most other spiders also have venomous fangs, but they’re too small and weak to penetrate human skin. No doubt they try, though … especially at night, when you’re asleep and they crawl across your body, searching for something to eat.
• Speaking of the night, bed bugs are making a comeback. They can get into your house by hitchhiking on your travel clothes, or inside a mattress you got from a friend. Suddenly your bedroom is crawling with the little things — they look like miniature cockroaches — and while you slumber they scramble onto you, burrow into your skin, and suck your blood.
• In statistics, the odds that anything will happen, given enough time, approaches “unity”, or 100 percent. This means, for example, that at least one of the bombs in the world’s nuclear arsenal, no matter how safely kept, eventually will go off. Millions will die, their bodies vaporized in an instant, to leave only shadows on walls. It’s coming, and yet we keep these weapons around us, often near major cities. Tick-tick.
• The Ebola virus reproduces by causing human blood to coagulate and induce small strokes throughout the body, so that the blood, having nowhere else to flow, begins erupting through eye sockets, mouths and noses. Meanwhile, larger and larger portions of the victim’s body become necrotic — dead sections of skin, muscle, and internal organs beginning to rot and give off noxious odors even while the person still lives — so that, dulled by brain damage, the victim looks and acts like a Zombie. Often the patient, in a paroxysm of death rattles, coughs up blood that becomes aerosolized, floats across a room, and infects the next victim, who has only hours to find medicine before it’s too late. But there is no cure. The death rate is 90 percent. If a Zombie-like human, coughing blood, stumbles into view, you’re already doomed.
• A single teaspoon of seawater contains ten million viruses.
• Smallpox was eradicated, right? Wrong. In secret vats in Russia, the U.S. and elsewhere, the virus still smolders — “for research purposes”, we’re told — and, as with nuclear weapons, eventually an accident will occur and the virus will escape back into the wild. By then, almost no one will have any immunity against this dread disease, which incubates and spreads through its victims by tenfold every two weeks, so that in less than six months the entire planet will be exposed. Half the population will die horribly, pustules dotting their bodies while fever cooks them to death.
• Countless are the examples of animal species that, given the chance, push aside or kill off competing organisms. Humans, no exceptions, have damaged or destroyed every ecosystem they’ve invaded, and have killed off untold millions of other humans whenever civilizations have met for the first time. It is probably a rule of life that the stronger organisms attempt to dominate or destroy the weaker when they compete for the same resources. Humanity has been broadcasting news of its nascent technology to the stars via radio and television for several decades. What would prevent a technically superior alien civilization from listening in, discovering the loveliness of our rich planet, deciphering our relative weakness, and launching an armada to invade and destroy us, so that they could thrive on Earth instead of us? They’re out there, somewhere, planning our utter destruction. It’s just a matter of time.
…So let the kids enjoy their fantasy monsters this Halloween. Just don’t tell them what we really know about life’s horrors.