My youngest son Wynn, who will turn six in June, has started having nightmares. These nightmares are almost universally about Pennywise, the scary clown from the It movies. Wynn has never seen Pennywise in this house—those movies are terrible, particularly the second one; oh yes also they’re incredibly inappropriate for a five-year-old but I’ll confess to being a critic first and a dad second in this regard—but apparently there’s a kid at school who is obsessed with Pennywise and thus got Wynn obsessed with him. It started with Wynn coming home and doing the Pennywise dance one day, being all cute, and next thing you know he was waking up in the middle of the night terrified that Pennywise was under his bed. It is amazing that the book that scared the piss out of me as a 12-year-old is still causing little kids to shoot up in their beds at 3 a.m., thirty-plus years later.
It got hairy there for a while. One night, when my mom was putting him to bed, she had to lie in his room with him and hold his hand until he fell asleep. She let go for a moment when she thought he was out, and he began screaming “G-Ma, no! Pennywise!” We’ve since come up with a system for Wynn’s nightmare management. We’ve explained to him that Pennywise is not real, that he’s just a figure in a movie, like Sonic or Forky. But the key move: Now, every night before bed, he requires a sip of his “nightmare juice,” It is simply cold water with a splash of lemon juice in a label-less plastic bottle. But it works for him. He won’t fall asleep without it.
Wynn is not a particularly sensitive or overly emotional child. His signature personality trait, generally, is a lack of fear or self-consciousness. (He’s more apt to defend his older brother on the playground than vice versa.) But something about Pennywise got in his head. He has never seen the movie, as far as I know, and it’s not like he’s allowed to go look him up on the Internet himself. Who knows how kids come across things anymore? Characters like Pennywise, the killer clown who eats children, can exist in the air. They’re scarier the less you know about them.
The first movie that truly horrified me, that kept me up at night, was Creepshow. I was eight years old when my parents recorded that film off HBO and inexplicably let me watch it. They had a television in their room in our old house back in Mattoon, one that was mounted to the wall with some metal contraption my father had cobbled together out in his garage. It hung 12 feet in the air, and watching it from the floor as a child made it feel like it was being beamed from space, that the images were being projected directly on top of me. Everything I watched while looking up from that floor felt immersive, all-encompassing.
And Creepshow was too much to take. The one that scared me the most was the one where jilted husband Leslie Nielsen (!) took revenge on the younger man (Ted Danson!!!) who was sleeping with his wife by burying him up to his neck on the beach and waiting for the tide to come in. I was afraid of taking baths or getting in pools for years after that. It’s possible I still am.
Creepshow was written by Stephen King and directed by George Romero, a big(ish)-budget combo between the two leading names in horror at the time. (King was far more mainstream than Romero, in the same way that Steven Spielberg was far more mainstream than Tobe Hooper for Poltergeist, another terrifying movie parents mistakenly allowed their children to watch.) Seeing Creepshow again a few years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by how tongue-in-cheek it is; the film is really about nostalgia for those old scary comics that boys hid from your parents during those two or three formative years right before they hid pornography from them. It's funny at times -- Stephen King's extended cameo as yokel Jordy Verrill is almost like a Three Stooges routine -- and has a good pop sensibility for a film directed by one of cinema's most fiercely independent voices (I mean, seriously, there's a segment in which Frank Drebin buries Sam Malone alive).
But to an eight-year-old, it was just about the most horrifying thing I'd ever seen. There was something about the comic books morphing into real live ghouls, at the beginning of each story, that got to me; I knew comic books, I had comic books, and in my comic books they never did that. The movie is a collection of creepy crawly gross-outs that cut straight to our primal fears. Being eaten alive by a fungus. Being buried in the sand and drowned. Being decapitated and fed to cannibals and ghouls. Being attacked by a monster from the depths trapped in a crate and desperate to come out and claw out your intestines. The scariest is still, in a segment that still has the capacity to mortify even the mildest of germaphobes, the one with a wealthy recluse (E.G. Marshall) who traps himself in his high-rise Manhattan apartment, hiding from those down below whose lives he has destroyed … and from bugs, bugs, everywhere bugs. It's just as disgusting and hypnotic today as it was in 1982. What’s wrong Mr. Pratt … bugs got your tongue?
It is a sad, undeniable fact of American child rearing that, as a child, I was able to watch endless hours of movies of people getting their brains eaten or being mowed down by machine guns without facing much resistance, but if there was even a threat of a woman’s breast being shown on screen I was immediately shooed out of the room. I was young enough watching Creepshow that I remember getting a little bit confused about what happened to the actors in the movie after their characters were killed off. Did the actors have to die too? Or did they just get to leave the movie? Something about that scared me even more: Not only did you die, but the people who killed you took video of it and showed it to eight-year-olds in their parents’ bedrooms.
Wynn hasn’t seen anything that terrifying, but I had a few years on him. But I don’t think my older son William, who is eight, has seen anything like that either. He certainly hasn’t in this house, and when he spends the night at friends’ houses, they just stay up late playing sports video games, where he won’t see anything that violent unless he’s playing a game against the Orioles. I am sure that they’re both a lot more worldly than I think they are, that they’ve seen and heard about a lot more than I’m ready for them to have seen and heard about. But if they’re going to come across it, they’re not going to come across it because of me. I’m probably too worried about that; I do not think watching Creepshow has caused me any sort of long-term issues, other than an annoying habit of saying “I … want .. my … cake” every time I’m at a birthday party, a reference only I get but I can’t stop from making anyway. The boys are not surrounded by darkness. They are going to be all right.
But that won’t stop nightmares. Nightmares will come no matter what you’ve seen, no matter what you know, and I don’t have the heart to tell Wynn that they don’t dissipate as you get older. They get less viscerally horrifying, but they get a lot more urgent and raw. My nightmares as a kid usually involved my teeth falling out while falling off a cliff after being chased by rabid dogs. Now they’re about realizing that I never did finish off my college diploma and, because of that, they’re now foreclosing on my home, banning me from writing and taking my family away from me. (While my teeth are falling out. That one persists.) It reminds me of what an old friend told me about why he doesn’t get stoned anymore. “I used to get stoned and think about what all of this was supposed to mean,” he said. “Now I get stoned and panic that my boss hates me and I’m going to get fired and my children are going to starve.” The last couple years have brought back some old Nuclear War Is Breaking Out nightmares that I’d thought had been long retired; sure is nice to have those back. Our deepest fears are less vivid and overtly macabre now than they were when we were kids. But they’re a shitload more terrifying. All told: I’d prefer the rabid dogs. The whole world feels like nightmare fuel sometimes.
Wynn is back to sleeping through the night, and Pennywise is starting to recede from our household. Which is good. Because I could use the nightmare juice myself.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
The Cascading Lunacy of Baseball’s Sign-Stealing Scandal, New York. We have officially reached the cuckoo-banana-pants point of the “banging scheme,” and I tried to explain why, and why it’s not all that bad, here.
Your Big NL West Preview, MLB.com. These take half the day to write, but they are extremely fun and the perfect way to prep for the season.
Give Yasiel Puig a Chance! MLB.com. Baseball is better and more interesting with Yasiel Puig in it. Heck, I’d be delighted if the Cardinals gave him a shot.
The Thirty: 2020 Breakthrough Candidates on Every Team, MLB.com. I was discussing this piece on MLB Network on Wednesday and totally blanked on one of the names on the list. I hope you weren’t watching. Live television is a trip.
Debate Club: Best Universal Horror Remakes, SYFY Wire. We picked The Mummy, but not THAT The Mummy.
Grierson & Leitch, we discussed Downhill, The Photograph and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Seeing Red, no show this week. We start weekly shows on Monday. If you need a fix, I was on Fangraphs’ Effectively Wild podcast discussing the Cardinals last week.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week. Taping next week.
We take one question a week around these parts: Send yours to email@example.com. This one comes from Kyle in Havertown, Penn.:
During the baseball offseason, I’m always trying to fill these cold, hot dog-less months with baseball books. Are there two or three baseball books that may have flown a little under the radar that you might recommend?
While I’m open to new suggestions, Are We Winning? will always remain in the rotation. I loved it already but it will take on a new significance now that my wife and I welcomed twins (boy and a girl) last May. Our first game together will be this Spring. There will be tears.
Thank you for all the years of entertainment and quality work.
First off, thank you for the kind words on Are We Winning? Since I’m going to beg you all to buy the next book, I might as well remind you you can still buy the last one.
Also: Congratulations on the twins! Let’s see, they’re about nine months old now. You’re still totally in the shit. I have no idea how you can even got to a computer to send this.
I can’t speak to “under the radar,” but here are three baseball books that always get me through the winter.
As They See ‘Em, Bruce Weber. No, not that Bruce Weber. (Not that Bruce Weber either.) I’ve had a lifelong empathy for umpires, thanks to reading Ron Luciano’s books when I was a kid and this book as an adult. Weber, a former theater critic for the Times, just hangs out with umpires and describes what their life is like, and why they do what they do, and how hard their jobs are. The only reason anyone could sign up for life as an umpire, or a referee, or an official, and take all the abuse they receive for of it, is because they deeply love the game itself. The refs are the good guys, people.
The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James. Probably my favorite baseball book of all time. I know James has gotten cranky and reactionary in recent years, but this book—now 17 years old—is written with warmth and humor and intelligence and passion. It reminds me every time I open it up how much I love the sport. I wish he’d update it, but in lieu of that, Jay Jaffe’s The Cooperstown Casebook is a reasonable replacement.
The Roger Angell Baseball Collection, Roger Angell. This is cheating, because it’s a Kindle compilation of his three best baseball books … but I can’t choose between them. So just read them all. It’s Roger Angell.
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
I got on such a roll this week that I answered every single one of these. So send more please.
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Fall on Me,” R.E.M. Every few months, I fall into an R.E.M. rabbit hole. It’s highly recommended! I’ve been into the “R.E.M. at the BBC” series on Spotify of late. They were on such a heater in the early-to-mid-’90s.
We’re tourney-bound, everyone.
Have a great weekend, all.