Fears, frights, phobias - and the Willies!

We all have something that pushes our most primitive panic button. I’m not talking things like Tyrannosaurus Rex or the shark from Jaws or even 10-foot-tall, brain-sucking aliens with ray guns. Think smaller. Waaaaaay smaller. The very same human who will rescue a family of nine from a burning building or face down a burglar armed with nothing but a folding chair will turn to Jello on stilts in the presence of his or her personal demon. Said demon of course is not in its brimstone-chewing and pitchfork-wielding form, but in the guise of a deceptively harmless-looking creature such as a mouse.

And then it hits – that peculiar fear reaction known only to homo sapiens. An attack of nerves so complete that in ten thousand years of civilization we still can’t think of a single intelligible name for the condition. We’re assailed by the heebie-jeebies, the creepy-crawlies, the jitters, the all-overs, the jim-jams and the screaming meemies.

Me, I get The Willies.

While I have no reaction whatsoever to slugs, bugs, snakes, rats, mice, lizards, bats and even the inner workings of cows (don’t ask), I come down with a severe case of The Willies when confronted with a spider. I don't know why that is – some mis-mutated survival mechanism? After all, while I'm dancing around, rubbing my arms and legs, flapping at my clothes and yelling EEYEWW at the top of my lungs, the spider has plenty of time to run off. When I've finally finished with The Willies, my enemy is long gone, leaving me safe and sound – at least for the moment. Instinct triumphs again.

I'm ready for a different evolutionary leap though. Recently I stepped into the shower only to discover that I wasn't alone in there. Eight beady eyes met my gaze. If they’d belonged to four mice or four beetles or even four plumbers, I’d have reacted better. But nooooooo, not only did all eight beady eyes belonged to a single spider, but this spider was big enough to wear a t-shirt and I'm certain he had a tattoo. I immediately suffered an attack of The Willies that was so extreme, I leapt backwards out of the shower and straight into the nearest wall, braining myself with the towel bar. It might have been just the ringing in my ears but I could swear I heard high-pitched spider laughter as I crawled hastily from the bathroom, naked, whimpering and cursing. So much for that inner defense mechanism. Thanks a lot, Darwin.

It’s important to note that the adage out of sight, out of mind does not apply to situations like this. Once The Willies have been activated, they have to run their course. It took me half an hour of pacing, shaking and jumping around to get up enough nerve to assess the situation rationally. My rational assessment said that I was on my own. Have you noticed that scary-evil things only show up when you're all by your lonesome? Sure, husbands and boyfriends will save you from a charging grizzly bear, but it’s a perverse Law of Nature that they’ll never be on hand in true emergencies such as power failures, cars that fail to start or spiders in the bathtub.

I confess, I considered siccing my pug onto the beast (Kill, Scooby, KILL!) but finally decided against it. My benign pug has all the ferocity of an eggplant. The spider would be in no danger whatsoever unless Scooby accidently farted on it. Besides, if my pug did actually TOUCH the spider (Ick, ick, ICK!), then The Willies would render me completely unable to touch my dog for heaven knows how long. I'd have to hand him biscuits with a pair of barbecue tongs...

I next considered waiting the six or seven hours until my husband got home from work. I could go without peeing or brushing my teeth that long, couldn’t I? Then I remembered I had an appointment I’d waited three weeks for. With mounting horror, I realized just how many things associated with getting ready for the day were trapped in the bathroom with the eight-legged invader. Makeup. Toothbrush. Earrings. OMG, my bra was hanging on the back of the bathroom door! For a wild moment I thought I could make it without all those luxuries and then I caught sight of myself in the bedroom mirror. My hair was sticking up in a lopsided morning mohawk and nothing, but nothing, would render it fit to be seen but a shower.

I would have to confront the enemy.

The flyswatter looked too flimsy to be of much use and the broom couldn't be wielded within the confines of the shower. A hammer would be a little rough on the bathtub enamel and would also require too much precision. I finally decided on the bathroom plunger as my weapon of choice – it had a nice heft to it. Not as good as a baseball bat but I didn't have one of those. In retrospect, it was probably a good thing I didn't think of our deer rifles....

I opened the shower door carefully, praying the spider wouldn't be startled. Not because I cared about its spider feelings, but because one sudden move from the creature would have cost me another hour of The Willies. Fortunately, the eight-legged invader was paralyzed by incredulity. A plunger? Are you kidding, lady?
I launched my attack.

It was grim, it was messy and it was accompanied by strangled shouts of EEYEW, EEYEW, EEYEW, EEYEW, EEYEW and many GODDAMMITS. I think most of them came from me. After the battle, I turned the hot water on full blast and left the shower to disinfect itself while I ran to my room (still naked). I was dancing around but not with victory.

And that's the pity of it. More evolved gals would no doubt feel empowered enough to raise that plunger over their head and triumphantly shout "I AM BETTY, DESTROYER OF EVIL!". But me? I’m in the throes of an even bigger case of the creepy crawlies, a heebie-jeebie meltdown of epic proportions.

The Willies have struck again.

Dani Harper

Halloween provided me with a perfect opportunity to dust off this all-too-true story and add the gory details (kind of like "the director's cut" version of a movie -- now expanded and uncensored!). So now I've told you what sends me screaming down the street --- it's YOUR TURN --- What scares YOU? Can anyone add to the list of synonyms for "heebie jeebies"? (My personal favorite is the screaming meemies -- one of my relatives used to say us kids gave her those...)

Happy Halloween to everyone!

Legends of the Black Dog

"Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread."

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798

I love a good ghost story and a ghost DOG story is even better! One of my favorite Welsh folktales provided inspiration for my latest release, A Leap of Knowing. The gwyllgi or barghest is a legendary canine with many names: The Black Dog, the Dog of Darkness, Dog of the Twilight and Black Hound of Destiny. It’s said to resemble a giant mastiff, larger than any living dog, and its eyes are often red and glowing.

The story is an old one, dating back to Celtic times in Wales. The Black Dog is the herald of Death itself, and those who see the animal are usually destined to die very soon. The dog appears without warning, follows and sometimes even chases people – yet vanishes without a trace. Electrical storms are often associated with the dog’s appearance (and yup, there’s a thunderstorm in the first chapter of A Leap of Knowing.)

This otherworldly beast has counterparts in many parts of the British Isles. For centuries, black dogs have haunted particular towns, roads and forests in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales. Sometimes a ghostly canine has haunted specific families! Such a situation helped inspire the 1901 classic, The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Big black dogs continue to pop up in popular fiction. Remember "the Grim" in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling? TV series such as Supernatural, Reaper and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have all featured monstrous and malevolent hounds. The legend of the black dog is also alive and well in many video games. The Lord of the Rings online computer game features just such an animal.

Did you know there are sightings of ghostly canines right here in the United States? Black dogs are said to haunt Macon County, Tennessee and foretell death and calamity. US Highway 491 is also said to be haunted by dogs of darkness – which perhaps is not surprising when you find out that the highway was originally named Route 666! Motorists report braking for giant black dogs – only to have them vanish at the moment of impact! Even Long Island, New York has a black dog legend. Just like its Welsh counterpart, seeing the creature is said to be followed by death within a month. The supernatural canine that roams the hills of Connecticut is a little more forgiving – you have to see that particular black dog three times before writing out your will.

Think you’re safe if you stay home at night? Maybe not. There are also many stories out there of seeing the gwyllgi in a nightmare. As if the bad dream wasn’t enough, it’s said to be followed by dire events and even death. People have also reported the giant black dog appearing inside their home, complete with glowing eyes, only to have it vanish when the light was turned on. The apparition was often followed by a death in the family or other catastrophe.

Negative associations with dark dogs seem to be part of our collective human consciousness. It’s a frightening archetype throughout myth and legend, from Cerberus, the hideous canine that guards the entrance to the Underworld, to the black Hounds of the Norse god, Odin, to the Hellhounds that follow the Faery Hunt. Plus, a common pseudonym for depression is The Black Dog. (Although anyone who’s ever played with a Labrador Retriever might object to that.)

In its defense, however, the Dog of Darkness hasn’t always been threatening, at least, not to the innocent. In some tales, the animal is an instrument of justice, hunting down escaped murderers. A few stories recount incidents where the great beast protected children or guarded lone travelers. This made me wonder – what if the ghostly creature had a conscience, a sense of right and wrong? What if the gwyllgi or barghest didn’t mindlessly follow its mission? In that moment, THE GRIM SERIES was conceived.

Dani Harper


The trick or treaters will be out in force at the end of this month, and the only defense against the invasion is to lay in a generous supply of Halloween treats.

To defend against the danger of eating the candy myself, however, I start off the month of October with a two-fold plan:
1. Wait until the day before Halloween so I have less time to be tempted by the treats.
2. Don’t buy candy that contains chocolate so I won’t hear it calling my name in the middle of the afternoon.

By the time the 31st approaches, I have an attack of remorse because I remember what it was like to be a kid and I want to be one of those houses that give out "The Good Stuff". Regardless of my earlier plans to the contrary, I end up buying chocolate and lots of it. The kids get some too…

Despite my personal addiction, chocolate isn’t the only Halloween treat. A friend of mine was talking about the candy she remembers collecting as a kid. We compared notes, and I canvassed a few more people, including family members, for their input. There are lots of favorites but turns out there’s ONE candy that almost should have been named in my blog on villains a couple weeks back!

UNIVERSALLY HATED? --- That chewy molasses candy that looked so cute in its bright Halloween paper wrapper was good for exactly that – looking. (In fact, you can look at it now in the photo, LOL) When I was a kid, my treat bag felt like a sack of gravel by the end of the night. That’s because a third of it was made up by these petrified molasses kisses. No filling, no coating – what you saw on the outside was what it looked like all the way through. The exact color of wet cardboard, the candy tasted like pureed tongue depressors with a little scorched sugar mixed in. In fact, I’m fairly sure a secret deal had been struck between candy manufacturers and the pulp and paper industry.

Why these were called “kisses” I can’t imagine. A kiss is something gentle, soft and pleasant. A molasses kiss usually had the consistency of hardened Gorilla Glue to begin with and only toughened with age. And speaking of age, I’m sure that some of the kisses I collected were old enough to be carbon-dated. If the trick or treaters didn’t take it all, I personally knew neighbors and relatives who used to keep the candy for the next year. And the next... This candy would have made an excellent emergency storage item – it lived forever and it would take an emergency to make you desperate enough to try to eat the stuff. It might be more useful as kindling in a crisis.

However hard a molasses kiss became, however, you never had to worry about breaking your teeth on it. That’s because it eventually reacted to saliva by suddenly cementing itself around your teeth like some sort of sedimentary mouthguard. You could box or play football in perfect safety, but it might be days before you could pry your jaws apart.

People talk about how things were built to last in the good old days – cars, appliances, furniture, etc. Believe me, some of those Halloween kisses outlived Buicks. In fact, there are likely thousands of the fossilized things still lurking in china cabinets, upper kitchen cupboards, dusty candy jars on mantels and boxes in the attic all over the country. Lying in wait like the Undead...

I ran across an ancient handful in my mother-in-law’s house not long ago. The sight of the happy little Halloween wrappers gave me a wonderful burst of nostalgia – then I recovered myself and shook off the spell. Acting quickly, I took the kisses outside and threw them into the burn pile.

“Hey, is that candy?” called a cousin.

“That’s what it wants you to think,” I said, watching to make sure the flames consumed every last one of the Halloween kisses. “I’m saving us.”

He shrugged. “You gals take your dieting way too seriously.”

Exactly. I’m going to go and buy some nice, safe mini chocolate bars now.

Dani Harper

Now it’s your turn. What were your favorite Halloween treats as a kid? What do you like now? What do you give out on Halloween night? Did the infamous molasses kiss play a role in your childhood trick or treating? (And is there anyone out there who actually likes them?)