by Trent Rentsch
The scream made me shoot straight up in bed from a dead sleep. The realization that the terror had loudly poured from my own throat, that my body was covered in sweat, and tears were pouring down my cheeks all had me fumbling with shaking hands for the light switch. Scared as hell, scared of… what? As light flooded my bedroom and stabbed at my eyes, I tried to find the source of my fright. All alone, save shelves of books, the ever-growing pile of media trade magazines on the floor, and the wizard statue on the nightstand that my Angel gave me to “guard over me.” Usually he does a heck of a job, but that night he had let some demon slip by him. My heart pounded in my chest, like some angry neighbor beating on the door, demanding to know what was going on. Luckily, my heart continued to be the only thing pounding. As I sat there clutching my pillow like a child might a teddy bear for comfort, I realized that it was a monster in my own mind, a nightmare that had turned this nearly 40 year-old man into a trembling, terrified 8 year-old again.
I don’t remember the details of the nightmare. There was a dark house, and I was trying to catch something before it caught me. That’s all my fevered memory would let me hold onto. It was enough. I kept the light on and couldn’t bring myself to close my eyes until 4 a.m., even with the threat of a long workday beginning at 7. I felt stupid and childish. I had BEEN a child that last time I’d had anything near this, for crying out loud! Still, whatever had been tracking me in that twilight world had made me throw all adult logic and reason out the window, had scared me back into this reality, and certainly didn’t make me anxious to return to dreamland.
Believe it or not, despite the near heart attack and sleep deprivation, I wish I knew what created such primal fear. I don’t mean the underlying cause, like stress or the spicy sausage on the pizza before bed that night. What I want is to meet the abomination, face to face (assuming that it had a face). If I only knew what lurked there before the panic, perhaps I COULD capture it, make it my slave and command it to scare the hell out of others.
Human emotions are a funny thing. Love, hate, anger, happiness… they all seem so simple and obvious on the surface, so easy to notice in others. Our conversations are filled with knowing observations, “Did you notice her face? She is pissed off!” “I’ve never seen anyone so happy!” “From the sounds of it, he obviously hates her.” But for all of our brilliant perceptions, it’s impossible to know all the clowns and devils that drive people to “feel” a certain way. For instance, I’ve known people that feel that clowns ARE devils; they terrify he child inside these people.
Every breath, every step, every second adds an experience that determines our emotional reaction to each new situation. One genius example of this came in the opening moments of the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Young Boy Scout Indy (a brilliant youthful parody of Harrison Ford’s character by the late River Phoenix) absently picks up and tosses aside a snake—the very animal that has long been known in the movie series as a basic fear of the Senior Indiana. Some scenes later we see where his 180 occurred, as he falls into an entire boxcar full of serpents. Who wouldn’t utter lines like, “Snakes! Why’d it have to be snakes?” in later life after a bath in pythons?!
Each person’s perception of the exact same situation can be clouded by diverse emotions, and rule their future emotional reactions. While one twin might be continually attracted to red heads because his first kiss came from the little red haired girl down the street, the other twin might have an eternal distrust of red heads because he felt some childhood jealousy, that the other twin “abandoned him” for that little red haired girl.
All human beings have the capacity for the same emotions, but it’s the triggers that differ from person to person.
The challenge of any creative is to pull the audience in, make them feel an emotional attachment that will keep them with the story, give the message meaning. It takes careful study of the audience to find those common triggers that will stir the largest number of souls, bring the intended emotions to the surface and make them real. In a radio commercial, it might not be a laundry list of loss leaders, but instead the happy laughter of children, the sounds of cooking and, “Mmmm! Smells great Mom!” A family talking and joking, with an underscore of soft guitars, punctuated with Dad saying, “Great roast, Honey!” and a chorus of kids chiming in with, “Yeah, Great!” “Everything tastes good!” “You’re the best cook, Mom!” All followed by a warm, rich voice reminding the listener that “Acme Foods wants to bring your family together for dinner tonight.” What a gift from Acme Foods, in a time when it seems that the words “family together” are oxymorons!
Because there is no magic formula, no Holy Grail of emotional inspiration, the job of moving people, motivating them, is difficult, yet so rewarding to a Creative when it works. For me, it’s what has always made the Theatre of the Mind a true art form worth doing well, coming from the heart, the soul. The object of my night terror certainly understood that. So, I’ll continue to search for that kindred spirit in the night that knew how to scare the sleep out of me. It’s all there, inside each of us.