My First Darkness (Part 1): Night Terrors, Junkies, and Gore Films

Darkness is Rising by Victor Gregory (Creative Commons)

Darkness is Rising by Victor Gregory (Creative Commons)

A winding and informal journey through a life of invited darkness.

My first adventures in the altered reality of the dreamscape were unsettling encounters with the darkness of my deep consciousness, struck as a child by what my parents called ‘night terrors’. Manifesting somewhere between wakefulness and sleeping, I remember these experiences as obscene hallucinations of disportionate spatial dimensions, like a sickening feeling of absolute panic when comparing a toothpick to a phone book.

As sleep almost took hold, an unsettling sensation would arise in my body. It had a smell and a taste like metal in the back of my throat. My visiual perception would alter and feed into the unsettling sensation and my reality would transform. The hallway would become long but tiny, my doorway massive but the frame small. Overwhelmed, I would go into my parent’s room completely distraught and they would hold me; my mother’s head tiny and her body the size of canyons, like a fisheye lense but horrific in a guttural way.

In describing it here, the surface content of these experiences seem ridiculous to be afraid of, but it wasn’t the content itself that was so terrifying. It was the uncontrollable shifts in my awareness. As a small child, the subtle shift would frighten me and that fright would feedback into the experience to a point wherein that subtlety would quickly crescendo into something like a prolonged panic attack. Thankfully as I grew older, apart from sleepwalking and the occasional sleep paralysis (where I would be unable to move, staring at monsters looming over me), these ‘night terrors’ evolved into ordinary nightmares.

This early history of terrors and ‘mares may of been the activation of primal fears logged into my genetic memory; or maybe they had to do with the fear of demons and the ‘battle between God and Satan’ instilled by my parents belief system at that time (though I feel I may be inappropriately retrofitting the latter). Whatever it was that I was facing, I probably needed a transpersonal child psychologist, or a hypnotherapist or a shaman of some linage. But, being that my parents were conventional, working-class Canadians, the only support they knew to offer me was emotional reassurance when I woke up, and to let me sleep in their bed if I was afraid (they were/are great parents).

Most of nights I can remember from that time in my life were met by those encounters, and the resulting fear of going of sleep travelled with me throughout my childhood. That fear exists now as mostly just implicit echoes of childhood paranoia, though some of it remains explicitly available to me, like flashbulb memories, burned into my mind. One such memory is of a nightmare/dream experience that came the night after I first watched the 90s remake of The Adams Family. This particular dream is a very important one, as it changed everything for me. And now, over 20 years later, I am still influenced by it.

I was alone and wandering an old victorian-style home, dark and dusty with gothic architecture and the emotional tone of an early Wes Craven slasher film. Walking down the hallway, sure that I was being watched, I turned to see Wednesday Addams as a human-sized, mutant Black Widow spider-women. Dark, viscerally detailed and dripping with undetermined slime, this spider creature launched at me and in a violent shock of pain, horror and body tremors, I woke in my bed drenched in sweat and slept the rest of that night with my parents.

The following day, in an unfortunately familiar state of post-nightmare uneasiness, something sparked a new idea in my head. I realised (as a 5 or maybe 7 year old kid) that if I befriended what I was afraid, it had no reason to hurt me. This concept stayed held in deep attention as I went to sleep that night. The very same dreamscape from the night before manifested again, where all the plot points and other characteristics were the same except for one specific factor: I was not afraid. When the spider woman appeared, I was excited and made friends. I even became a spider too. I was now longer afraid of the monsters because I was one. Me and that which I once feared were one because I chose to welcome it as a source of power. This was the first stage of my conscious journey with the Shadow.

After that experience, I stopped having nightmares, apart from the occasional fright of falling or insect-crawling dream. I even began to idolise monsters in the scary books I read and the horror films I wasn’t allowed to watch. My parents were of course unsettled and opposed to these interests but the more they tried to ban me from them, claiming it all “demonic”, the more interested I became. What they didn’t understand was that through the objective medium of horror films and books, I had found a external means by which I could control the transformation of internal processes of fear, into practices of courage. This had offered me confidence and helped me feel as though I was powerful when I felt powerless.

Freddy Krueger, for example, became my anti-hero and the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise a large inspiration for my creativity (even though they scared the hell out of me). It wasn’t what Krueger did, he’s a ghastly character, it was what he represented. An expression of absolute evil, he attacked when his victims were most vulnerable, while they were unconsciously dreaming. With the absolute power of lucid control over another’s dreams and the dark magic capacity to turn those dreams into reality, he would literally kill you through a process of weakening you psychologically and emotionally. He did this by convincing you of the reality of your own deepest fears, in the landscape of your own mind! Krueger was an ultimate expression of the Monster I needed to befriend and I did so in a way that allowed me to identify with the protagonists of the story. Freddy Krueger wasn’t my hero, he was the anti-hero in the way that he represented the essence of what I learned to face with courage. Through my infatuation with the movies that surrounded him, I could participate with the protagonists as they discovered the strength and capacity to dis-identify with the false reality of fear he created, and empower themselves to face and destroy him. (Also, the development of the storyline and imagery in these films has aged really well, except for maybe the first one.)

As I got older, I went in and out of phases where I was more or less oriented to the darkness. At certain points, before I was old enough to watch Freddy movies, I was into Are You Afraid Of The Dark? and Goosebumps. But then I‘d go through other phases where my primary excitement was for Sailor Moon and Pokemon. As I entered high school, a time when I felt increasingly powerless due to the broken social structures of public high school itself, I fell in love with aggressive rap music, Eminem specially. Eventually, that evolved into Slipknot, Korn, Limp Bizkit (forgive me, I was an early teen in 2001) and other groups like this. I aligned myself with this music because its darkness and aggression was a surrogate source of empowerment and confidence. It allowed me to feel powerful through befriending the darkness in the same way that it did through horror movie monsters and reading goosebumps.

Where The Wild Things Are by Greg Westfall (Creative Commons)

Where The Wild Things Are by Greg Westfall (Creative Commons)

This continued to evolve as I got older, my interest in aggressive music got me into the the culture and community around Hardcore, Grind, and Death Metal. In that community, I learned to stand in my confidence as an adult in a non-school social environment. I also learned to stand my ground in the kind of Hardcore Mosh Pits that existed in the era just before Emo got popular; when it was cargo shorts, hoodies, balaclavas and wrapped knuckles, and most people left the dance floor bleeding.

Falling out of the metal scene in my early 20s, I became more involved with horror films again, this time with a focus on hyper-violence and gore. I became recognised in my community as being a connoisseur of the gore-genre. I even ran an underground (free) cinema out of my house for a little while, “James’ Horror Movie Mondays”. I felt empowered by my capacity to see things that would make other people sick, even at times gastrically reciting violent scenes of movies in conversation and make other men uncomfortable in order to compensate for a sense of inadequacy. I had almost completely invested my sense of self-confidence into the surgant of these films.

Along with these movies, my lifestyle took me deeper and deeper into the underbelly of society though investing myself into a reckless drug abuse culture. By my mid 20s, I had unconsciously put myself into increasingly more disturbing and dangerous situations, all the while reminding myself to be courageous. I once even, high on pills at an illegal rave, got stabbed in the hand with a broken bottle while being robbed by thugs (seriously). I suppose in hindsight that this was my self-facilitated initiation into manhood; the dangerous result of missing those initiations in the Western world.

Around this same time in my life, my investment into these surrogates went so far that I began watching Mondo films. The final straw with my horror-gore fascination came after watching portions of Traces Of Death for 3 days in a row, leaving me with a dark, grey, wrong feeling in my awareness. It was the results of those days watching authentic death caught on camera that brought me to the realization that I had crossed the line somewhere and needed to turn back towards normal. This lead me to the nearly complete elimination of horror, gore and all that stuff from my life. It also marked the entrance into (and thankfully rather quick exit from) my “it’s all love, the darkness is wrong” New Age phase.

But, let’s jump from this highly selective life history and onto the point here. Until recently, I hadn’t realised that I am still creating obtuse experiences of fear and darkness in my life in order to feel strong and confidant. Yet now, instead of shady back alley smoke-sessions and gore films, I have been using entheogens to stimulate this shadow-work. In an intentional space, I have been using entheogens to open myself into a type of psychic vulnerability and point my awareness to where it hurts, allowing them to catalyze massive movements of latent fear (inadequacy, loneliness, anger, etc) through and out of my body via direct catharsis. This current means to practice the confidence of facing fear certainly holds a more mature tone, acts less like a surrogate, engages a direct knowledge of self, and thus seems to be healthier, but is it?

Part 2 of this article is being published next week. James is currently running an IndieGoGo campaign to raise the funds to publish his new book – which we’ve had the delight of reading a draft of – The True Light of Darkness <- Check it out.

James W. Jesso

James W. Jesso is a public speaker and author who pulls apart his psyche to weave stories out of the process. Deeply versed in the psychedelic experience, his work draws on the wisdom and insight distilled in facing the turbulent reality of his own darkness.

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