YOU SHOULD SCARE YOURSELF MORE OFTEN
By Rebecca Deczynski
Published on October 10, 2017 on Snapchat Discover
I spent the summer after my 18th birthday chasing ghosts. With my high school diploma in hand and no clear plans until my college move-in date, it seemed like an obvious way to spend my time, in spite of having an aversion to scary movies and spooky stories. At the threshold of what I considered to be Adulthood, I decided that scaring myself was a good idea.
My friends and I pored over a copy of Weird New Jersey, a book that patches together tales of hauntings that have occurred throughout the state for decades, in some cases centuries. There are only so many ways to spend bored summer nights in the suburbs. Getting a good scare was a more thrilling option than going to bad house parties, staying up too late in the McDonald’s parking lot, or other mundane acts of teenage rebellion.
Every place has its own folklore—legends that first circulate by word of mouth, and later through the annals of the internet. I was in elementary school when I learned about the Jersey Devil, one of New Jersey’s most iconic urban legends. The story, about a woman in the 18th century who gave birth to a flying demon, scared me as a kid. As an unemployed 18-year-old, I felt the time was right to explore the other hidden myths and horror stories in my home state.
My friends and I decided to visit a handful of nearby Weird New Jersey sites one starry night, when the atmosphere was especially eerie. We set out in multiple cars, heading toward a local nature reserve known for—in addition to its hiking trails—a cemetery, a deserted village, a bumpy road where 13 witches are rumored to be buried, and a haunted water tower.
With about 10 people in our group, we walked through the darkened woods, first to the graffiti-covered water tower. It was nicknamed “Suicide Tower” because in 1975 a 15-year-old boy from a neighboring town murdered his parents and took his own life by jumping from it. This tall, looming structure that seemed to sprout up from nowhere in the woods was part of a truly tragic and dark history. We approached it with the nervous laughter characteristic of teenagers feigning bravery. Some of us scribbled our names on it in Sharpie. I timidly scrawled a John Green reference: “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.”
Making a loop around the tower, after lingering mostly in silence for several minutes, we continued around the reserve, bumping down the witches’ road, each of us holding our breath as we counted 13 soft, subtle concrete hills. Re-entering the forest for a late-night hike, we split into two groups with just a few flashlights each.
The evening unraveled into a game of scaring one another while catching, every so often, a glimpse of some imagined horror that none of us could have anticipated. The hairs on our forearms rose as we reached an old family cemetery from the early 18th century. A spike of adrenaline set our hearts beating faster when a broken tree trunk looked like a lone hiker, watching us in the dark distance.
We snaked through the woods, letting out the occasional wolf call or shout to spook our friends, who hiked under different trees. Then we happened upon the deserted village, a historical site we had all visited on a field trip during elementary school. In the darkness, things like the visitors center—which we knew was probably not haunted and probably not hiding some unexpected terror—seemed far from safe. The supernatural may not be supported by science and rational fact, but there’s something about the woods at 11 p.m. that makes you question what’s real and what’s fake.
An hour or so later, we emerged from the forest unscathed but not unshaken, our shallow laughter covering up our residual fears. We might have happened upon a ghost or a demon or any other unspeakably creepy thing that night. Instead we made it out OK. We persevered with our teenage audacity and suburbia-induced boredom.
I don’t scare as easily as I used to, but I’m still a paranoid person. Occasionally I fall into an internet rabbit hole like Reddit’s No Sleep, and then find myself repeatedly looking over my shoulder in my own room. I’ll see a horror movie and walk a little faster to the subway to get home. But, much like when I was a teenager, I don’t avoid the supernatural terrors that make up our cultural folklore. I stare straight at them and feel a rush of adrenaline that keeps me on my feet for hours after.
Fear is an evolutionary tactic—it keeps you, hopefully, out of danger’s way—but fear can also be paralyzing. It can stop you from living your life, from following your goals, or even just following the trails of rumored ghosts with your friends. I’ve learned how to embrace my fear, and because of that I feel more alive.