The Semiotics of Fear: How Things that Scare Bring Comfort in Later Years

Were you afraid of the dark as a child? I was. Wind whistled through the floorboards in my room, rattling the splash pages I cut out of comic books and taped to my walls. The house constantly settled further into the ground, moaning its own eulogy that lasted for years. We lived near a military base so you’d constantly see then unidentified lights flashing in the sky, generally flares and dogfighting jets. Add to that equation the smoke pouring out of the register from my chimney-smoking parents downstairs, and you had yourself the makings for a B horror film . . . at least to a child of 8 years old.

I think darkness signifying the unknown and the possibility of untimely demise changed for me around adolescence. Darkness hid the parts of myself that were changing, the parts of myself I wanted to tuck away when engaging in intimate relations: combination skin, hair sprouting out of parts of my body I had been unaware of for years. When it came to treading the uncharted, darkness became a source of liberation.

During that awkward period in my life something new began to signify the possibility of untimely demise: police sirens and lights. Even if I wasn’t doing anything wrong, other than walking into town at 3am during summer vacation, the sound of police sirens and the sight of red and blue flashing on the horizon prompted an instinctive impulse to run and hide.

But today when I look out my house window and see those same lights flashing, I’m usually comforted. The speed limit sign changes near my home from 30 to 55, which some people seem to mistake for a transition from 30 to 120 m.p.h. Just a few months ago someone died making that transition because it drew them into the ditch as they were rounding a corner.

I’m primarily concerned about my children. I wouldn’t let my kids play near the road, but if they snuck home, or were getting off the late bus, what would happen if one of these erratic drivers decided to kick it into high gear about two miles before my house like they generally do after the bars close on weekends? I probably won’t find out, because a state trooper likes to hang out by the speed limit sign down the road. And the lights are flashing from 12am until 3am at least one day every weekend. Years ago that would have felt invasive. Today it liberates me from unnecessary anxiety.

As time passed, I went from running away, to rooting for these guys . . . well, I root for them when they enforce the speed limit in front of my house, anyway.

It’s interesting how the things that signify danger or impending doom to us when we’re young become sources of comfort to us as we get older. I’ve been trying to think of more examples, or perhaps examples of the converse: things causing comfort that later cause us anxiety. I have come up with a few, but they barely qualify as universal. How have the semiotics of fear changed for you over time?

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