Dad was watching Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera, the black-and-white 1925 film, on our black-and-white 1965 TV. This was not a family evening, just Dad relaxing with a Salem menthol or two after supper and a hard day’s work.
I watched a little bit of the movie but, at age seven, was getting a vague case of the willies because it’s a horror film. The subject of unrequited love in a classic opera house was a bit over my head too. So I ambled off without giving it a second thought.
The next day my one-year-younger sister Rachel, who had also seen some of the movie, and I were playing. She asked me something along the lines of, “Do you have the feeling that the man with the burnt face is watching you?” Well, no, I didn’t.
Until that moment.
From that point on the Man with the Burnt Face watched me in all my solitary moments. If I was in the dank basement of our Minneapolis home, he was behind a storage shelf. He lurked in the dark corners of the garage behind the rakes and hoes. Naturally he reposed under my bed, stood in my closet, and waited patiently in the bathroom for me to take a midnight pee. The only requirements for his presence were solitude and darkness although the latter condition could be waived in certain circumstances such as a thicket of trees or secluded pond. Some kids had Jesus or a guardian angel looking after them. I had the Man with the Burnt Face.
Google images of Lon Chaney. (Go ahead; I’ll wait.) Lots of horrifying photos pop up. He played the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s monster, and, judging by the abundance of pictures, many other scary, creepy, or ominous characters and creatures. Hell, Chaney just as himself was somewhat frightening.
I don’t know why Chaney’s Phantom scared me more than those other roles. Part of it was certainly that I hadn’t seen those other films even if I had seen photos from them. Part of it was that the Wolfman, the monster, and other characters are so fantastic and creature-like whereas the Phantom is so obviously human and damaged. The Phantom should evoke wonder and pity in an adult but for a child it was all fear.
But fear of what? What did I think the Man with Burnt Face was going to do to me? I’m racking my brain and I can’t think of any bodily harm I dreaded from him. No, it was enough that the Man with the Burnt Face merely watched me. And, no, I wasn’t old enough or bad enough to fear that he was somehow judging me.
As years past, I grew weary of the Man with the Burnt Face. I lived in a household of five kids and two parents and as I got older I craved solitude, which was very hard to come by with so many residents in a house that wasn’t that large, certainly not by modern standards. But solitude was never quite solitude because there was my old pal, TMWTBF. He caused me to flee toward company that might not have been wanted but was certainly more bearable than being alone with him.
I can remember one early-spring evening when I was probably 11. The whole family went to a Boy Scout dinner at a nearby church. Brother Eric was in the scouts and involved in preparing and serving the meal. After the meal there was a program and socializing and I told Mom I was going to go ahead home early to do some homework. I doubt I had homework. I really just wanted the house to myself for a while.
It was dark outside and I walked the few blocks to our home on the corner of 47th and Pillsbury, unlocked the door, and went inside. Ahhh, solitude. No one home but me.
And the Man with the Burnt Face.
Damn it! I was so frustrated that my fear was forcing me to give up the peace, quiet, and alone time I wanted but I couldn’t resist it. So I went back outside and just walked around the neighborhood—under the streetlights—until everyone else returned home and then I came back inside.
The Man with the Burnt Face didn’t go away that night but that’s the last time I clearly remember changing my plans because of him. Maybe I reached the point where I just said, “Go ahead and watch me. See if I care.” Maybe he got tired of scaring me and just went away on his own. Regardless, one day the Man with the Burnt Face was gone and never returned and I never missed my imaginary malefactor.
The specifics might be unique but my story is not. Kids are afraid of the dark. Or, more accurately, they’re afraid of what they think is in the dark. It’s sort of like how we say we’re afraid of falling but what we’re really afraid of is landing.
And the Man with the Burnt Face isn’t even my weirdest childhood fear. That title might have to go to one that was spurred by accompanying my Granny Finfrock on a walk through a graveyard, a pastime she enjoyed. We passed the Pillsbury family plot in Minneapolis’s Lakewood Cemetery and there was an enormous marker at the center. When I was in bed that night I was afraid to look out the window lest the Pillsbury monolith be making its way down Pillsbury Avenue, ready to wreak revenge on… um… little boys who had the temerity to…
What was the gravestone going to do? And how? Most kids would be creeped out by the thought of corpses, zombies, or ghosts from the grave. But not me, I was afraid of a big rock on top of it.
To each their own. We all have our weird fears. There might be a danger that motivates the fear but fear in itself is irrational. That’s how emotions work. You can’t argue with feelings and there’s no point in being ashamed of them.
What does this have to do with improv?
Well, first off, fear is a rich vein in the mine of the psyche to excavate. The fear might be mundane, like being afraid you’ll miss the bus to work, or it might be more serious, like being afraid you’ll never find a career that satisfies you. Most of the boogie persons we all shrunk from as children matured into more adult but likely equally fervent instillers of fright, things like loneliness, heartbreak, poverty, injury, disease, and death.
Sounds like comedy gold, right? Well it is. In my experience, the funniest things usually spring from the most serious, sad, or frightening parts of life. And even if improv scenes about fear aren’t immediately or even ever funny, they can be fascinating and mysterious. If your goal as an improviser is to reflect human existence, fear is a universal component you can show and upon which you can comment.
Beyond that, fear is the basis for many theatrical, literary, and film genres that can be playgrounds for improvisers. My company likes horror, suspense, sci-fi, and the macabre, weird, and dark so much that we dedicate an entire show every year to fear. Naturally we schedule it around Halloween and it’s a crowd favorite. The audience is entertained and laughs but I’ve been delighted to hear feedback along the lines of, “That was so creepy!” That’s a flavor improv audiences don’t normally get to taste.
Finally, fear itself can hinder an improviser. Your fear of not pleasing an audience and not getting laughs can keep you from doing what you want to do and being who you are as an artist. The fear of failure or not being understood limits you and so in trying to be liked and affirmed, you risk being unlikable, needy, and irrelevant. You’ve got to do what you want to do and be who you want to be and let people like it on their own. If they don’t like it, find a new audience. Of course you’ve got to strive for excellence and figure out what that means to you because audiences won’t like you if you’re lazy and you suck.
This also applies to everyday life. Research shows that when we cater or pander to our audience—try too hard to be who we think they want us to be—that we are less successful than when we are our authentic selves. Certainly we want to be respectful and appropriate but ultimately we have to let our freak flags fly because others will either like and trust that or they’ll quickly realize that the fit isn’t right and save wasted effort for all parties.
Fear is an emotion we all have and that’s just life. You can’t change the way you feel.
Or can you?
If, like me, you grow tired of what scares you, I encourage you to examine your fears. Use your intellect to assess whether or not there is danger that motivates your fear. Is that danger legitimate and likely? Can you do something to mitigate or avoid it? If so, take what action you can. Perhaps in the process you can change the way you feel. It might take discipline and repeated efforts but aren’t they worth the possibility of diminishing or eliminating that fear? What’s the alternative?
I treat danger with respect. Fear I don’t respect so much and I don’t want it keeping me from doing the things I want to do, whether or not it’s doing an improv show about fear or even just sitting alone in the dark.
Move along, Man with the Burnt Face; there’s nothing to see here.