No matter how hard they try, parents are always going to unknowingly scar their kids even though they’re just trying to help. My parents were no different. My mom is extremely kind and loving, but when I was nine she made a well-intentioned mistake that scared the crap out of me and changed the way I slept for years: She let me watch “Night of the Living Dead.”
My mom isn’t a monster — in fact, she only suggested “Night of the Living Dead” because she knew I loved monster movies as a youth. Godzilla was my radioactive favorite, and I dug classic creeps like the Wolfman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. A beloved black-and-white zombie movie seemed like it would’ve been the perfect flick for a kid like me, but Romero’s 1968 film was in a totally different league from those other creature features, and she’d forgotten just how disturbing it really was.
My friend Henry — another junior horror fan who claimed he had seen “The Exorcist” and “hadn’t even been scared” — came over to watch. We made popcorn, excitedly pressed play, and unwittingly ruined our childhoods.
Henry, as my mom later recalled, willed himself to sleep — not because he was tired, but to escape the nightmarish film and retreat to a zombie-free dreamland. I, on the other hand, watched the movie up until the part where a recently zombified girl shanked her mother to death with a garden spade and began to chomp on the remains.
“I think I would like to be done watching this,” I said, my voice trembling just the slightest bit. My mom obliged, no doubt realizing she had made a huge mistake as she ejected the VHS.
It would be years and years before I worked up the courage to revisit the movie and see its brutal twist ending. In that moment, I didn’t have time to worry about how it ended; I needed to worry about sleeping through the night. There was no way I was going to be able to go to bed, in the dark, knowing for certain that there were shambling corpses outside my door, waiting to floss with my intestines. Then, maybe they’d turn on my younger sister when it came time for dessert, but that was her problem. I had to protect myself.
I did what logical, scared shitless kids do: I hid. At first, I thought it was imperative that the zombies not be able to see or hear me as I ducked under my covers. But my beloved stuffed animal sheep, which had comforted me ever since I was a baby, had become a liability. A small cowbell hung around his neck, and I feared it might alert the dead of my presence if I stirred during the night. That’s the thing about being badly frightened: it casts even the most innocent things — the bedroom, a cherished stuffed animal — in a different light. The sheep had to go.
Sleeping with the lights on didn’t work either, because all that did was make it easier for the zombies to spot me, obviously. My family cat napped with me most nights, but he made it clear that he would do literally nothing to alert me to zombies or help me in the event of an attack. Nothing would help.
Eventually, though, willful ignorance became my new plan of attack: I just needed to make sure I couldn’t hear them, and then everything would be fine.
I’m not sure whose idea books on tape were. (Let’s just say it was my mom’s idea, if only to make up for her initial mistake) I began listening to a few old cassettes, including classics like “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” on a nightly basis.
The logic was, I guess, that zombies lurking in wait on the other side of my bedroom door would be scared off by the sounds of literature. Or maybe they’d just patiently wait to listen to the whole chapter before murdering me. I don’t know. Kids are dumb.
But it worked. Listening to books on tape distracted me from thinking about the constant threat of shambling corpses as I went to sleep. I learned about ancient Greek myths, classic children’s tales, and as the years went on, listened to more modern adult books as well. I was a voracious listener, replaying my favorites over and over again even as my audiobook collection swelled. It didn’t really matter what the book was, after a while.
I wasn’t just defending myself from a threat — I was turning nighttime into a refuge of learning. The habit certainly helped make me a more creative person, and my mom likes to joke that I did well in school and went to college because I listened to books every night. There’s probably something to that, but then again, she might just be atoning for accidentally starting this whole mess in the first place.
Over the years, the zombies slowly became less and less frightening (although commercials for the “Dawn of the Dead” remake set me back quite a bit). But I didn’t kick my nightly audiobook habit until the summer before college, when I realized that my future roommate might murder me himself if I pumped up the volume of a literary classic in our cramped dorm.
These days, I sleep in silence, save for the hum of a fan during New York summers. Zombies don’t scare me anymore, but sometimes I miss the safety of a book on tape. Listening to something alone in the dark makes a nervous little kid feel a little less alone, and opens up whole worlds and possibilities beyond the edges of a twin bed. Now, the closest I come to having that same feeling is when I’m tuned into a podcast while stuck in a subway car, deep underground, where the zombies belong.