Fear is not the enemy. Fear is the inspiration.
On the hottest day of summer 2003, I was chainsawed out of a theatre toilet.
I had deliberately entered this toilet without my mobile phone. I was twenty-one, one of those ‘adult’ creatures I’d read so much about. It was time – I decided – to leave my phobia of being locked in things far behind.
I sat down, did what needed doing, wondering as I did whose great idea it was to put a full-length mirror opposite so you watched yourself use this (oddly long) smallest room. I would probably have forgotten all this pretty quickly, along with the ‘helpfully’ automated features like the dryer that kept turning itself on and off every couple of minutes. But I haven’t forgotten a thing about it, because when I returned to the door I was confronted with a featureless metal circle overlapping door and wall, giving not the slightest clue how to get out.
Okay, I thought. This is an opportunity not to panic. Turn it one way? Nothing. Turn it the other? An even more ominous nothing. As this went on, I was treated to the extra effect of watching own my face in the mirrored door getting more and more panicked. By the time I realised the only option was screaming, I’d been watching the tears and panic for what was probably no more than a couple of minutes.
The gap between starting to scream and one of my colleagues doing the get-in for the theatre production a floor above me coming down and asking the immortal words “Are you alright?” was, in real-time, less than five minutes. But this is fear we’re talking about, which in common with depression and anxiety takes a lot of its power from our sense that we can’t put a definite end on feeling like this. The sense of being trapped in the state you are now, time as well as place, made this a temporary but no less perfect storm.
Why am I associating this with the publication of Twisted Branches, twenty years and two months later? No being trapped in toilets figures in the story cycle (although a toilet does figure prominently in one story). None of the circumstances or characters are real (except the pear tree outside the kitchen window, which was my grandmother’s). But the reality every single event and every single person is based on is a real fear. I’d argue the true reason “Where do you get your ideas from?” gets the eye-rolling bad press it does from us all when we’re asked it is because the answer, the truest answer, is not the most comfortable. There is no more reliable muse than “What if?” and that’s as much about personal horror as fantasy.
I had walked into that toilet with the intention of proving my fear wrong. In a way, I’d say by doing that I’d missed the point. It’s not about proving our feelings wrong. Feelings aren’t wrong. What I do these days (and I suspect have done every day since then, though I don’t remember making the policy decision) is tell people. I tell them I have this phobia, and this and other memories around it. I tell them where I’m going. I ask them to come and find me if I’m not back in ten minutes, because even though I have (religiously) got my phone with me, reception is not always reliable and it is, like everything is, not about shame but about communication.
We all fear something. We are all probably tempted at some point to push that fear or insecurity right down and let the energy go into sweating to keep the door shut on it – rather than letting it out, looking it in the eye, asking ourselves what the fear is telling us, what it’s asking for. The horror of Twisted Branches revolves around characters who don’t learn to do that. To me, true horror is the prioritisation of how we appear over who we are, and the half-lives and permanent stasis that results. The stories we write about others in our heads, rather than see the three-dimensional, flawed human beings in our friends, family and wider communities, allow us to create straightforward baddies in life that would be too 2D for art. It’s easier to believe in baddies, than to dare to share our own vulnerability.
I did get out. Obviously. Eventually. After talking me through how the lock worked failed – and before they arrived with what would turn out to be a large chainsaw – Fiona waited with me, talked to me about I’ve no idea what, and kept me from the sense of isolation and powerlessness that is at the heart of all horror. The new landlady of the pub on the floor beneath the theatre we were working came in and introduced herself, shook my hand under the toilet door through the gap that was an inch (a bloody inch!) narrower than my own head so I couldn’t use it to escape. She offered me a drink (my asking for tap water when London-price alcohol was available speaks more to my state of shock than the rest of the story). When they returned with the chainsaw, and I backed to the end of the (no longer “too long”) cubicle and the door fell to be replaced by freedom, they found that the lock had fused in the heat. It hadn’t been my dyspraxia or my panic; it really was the heat, the door.
I’m not glad I got locked in that toilet. But I’m also not completely un-glad I don’t live in an alternate reality where the lock worked, where I went right on suppressing my fear and keeping it in the depths of my head and heart, rather than communicating it to my immediate world.
Fear is not the enemy. Fear is the inspiration.
Twisted Branches Book Launch, Barnes Bookshop
Thu, 26 Oct 2023 18:30 – 20:00 BST
98 Church Road
Join Rachel Knightley at Barnes Books in celebrating the release of her new short story collection Twisted Branches, from Black Shuck Books.
Twisted Branches by Rachel Knightley
Twisted Branches is a dark domestic noir on familial love, poisoned loyalty and how we, knowingly and unknowingly, mess up and light up each other’s lives.
Artist and matriarch Effie clings to the house five generations of her family called home. But are its ghosts haunting her or is she summoning them? With Effie’s death, rejected protégé Kerry-Alice and daughter-in-law Veronica fight to lay her influence to rest in their own lives, but who is truly haunted and who is doing the haunting?