When I was a child, I believed that I lived in one of the creepiest towns on the face of the earth.
This belief probably started the very night we arrived. My father had just retired from the military and decided we would live near one of his last surviving relatives in a tiny town in Massachusetts, in the eastern United States. It was late at night when we finally rolled into the town that would become my home for the next fourteen years. I remember sitting in the back of the family station wagon as we drove past a very spooky graveyard, its iron fence framed with bare-limbed trees. In the middle of the cemetery sat a huge earth-covered crypt with padlocked metal doors. In the short drive through town it seemed we passed one cemetery after another… and then a funeral home, and another. We had moved to the town of the dead, or so it seemed.
It turned out this was not just a child’s imagination at work. The next morning, the relative told us there were five cemeteries in a town that was so small it barely qualified for its own postal code. Within a one-block radius from the house my parents eventually bought, there were not one but two funeral homes.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the house my parents bought was an old, rundown Victorian that had served as a rectory in which, we were told, a minister’s wife had once died in the room that would become my parent’s bedroom. When my parents brought us to look at the house after settlement, we children went through every floor, from the dank stone basement to the bare rafters of the attic. The attic was far and away the most creepy: a huge brick chimney stood in its center and next to it was an old chest, so big that any of us could’ve easily been shut up inside like Houdini. It held clothing from another era, items that a child would find odd, like a man’s fedora and a woman’s fur stole, well cared for and inexplicably abandoned by the previous owner. The individual pieces were harmless in themselves but to a child used to living in rather stark military housing on an Army base, it all seemed very exotic and spooky. And, as it turned out, made a lasting impression.
I no longer live in that area, where Colonial-era farmhouses and Victorians are the norm; where I live now, most houses are less than thirty years ago and don’t have that same dark character. Unfortunately, they seem to have little character. Cemeteries are open and green, often with no headstones allowed, making them look more like parks than anyone’s final resting place. And – perhaps it’s all coincidence – children don’t seem as preoccupied with ghosts and the supernatural as my friends and I were when we were young.
As I type these words, I realize that the spooky parts of my youth have made their way in some form or another into my stories. The crypt I saw on my arrival in town – the humpback mound of earth rising over the Tim Burton-esque landscape – would show up in my debut novel precisely because it was so ominous and singular. The lonely attic’s rafters and brick chimney also make a cameo appearance, and hopefully these childhood memories have been made all the more chilling with some carefully chosen words.
I suppose some people might think that a house like this would not be a good place to raise children, that it might predispose them to melancholia or set them up to be fearful later in life. I’d argue that, in my case, it ended up being to my benefit: my imagination was nurtured there, fed at an early age by stories of ghosts and witches and raised in an environment that made it all seem plausible. I imagine that dark images and scary stories provide more interesting and challenging fodder for the imagination than, say, a stuffed purple dinosaur. The dark and unexplained probably resonated better with our ancestors’ brains than a fluffy bunny or a field of daffodils, so it’s probably no surprise that our memory would latch onto a strong image, like a spooky crypt, and construct narratives to explain its mystery, training our natural proclivity to tell stories.
Imagination, I would argue, is one of an individual’s most important resources. It’s the wellspring of creativity, which in turn is key to problem-solving. Nurture a child’s imagination and not only does the child’s world open up, but he betters his prospects for success in life, whether it’s finding an answer to a difficult problem on the job or in the course of daily life.