Ginger Nuts of Horror
by Laura Mauro
Children are afraid of all kinds of strange and inexplicable things: monsters under the bed, strange shadows on their windows at night, that blank, empty space at the top of the stairs at night-time. Sometimes, their fears are more concrete. They might be scared of dogs, or clowns, or the possibility of ghosts, or He-Man (yes, really.) Or they might be scared of something completely different. Something that leaves you wondering how a child might even happen upon that kind of knowledge, much less develop a genuine phobia as a result.
I was the latter kind of child.
In 2014, a major Ebola outbreak seized West Africa, and subsequently the imagination of people thousands of miles away, separated from the dead and dying by oceans. Newspapers printed panicked headlines and doomsday scenarios, predicting a devastating pandemic which, in the end, did not occur. The sad truth is, while Europe and America indulged our wildest apocalyptic fantasies, over eleven thousand human beings died – all but one of them in Western Africa, where the outbreak began and eventually ended. It would’ve been hypocritical of me to have condemned the hysteria, though. There are not many arenas in which I can claim any kind of hipster credential, but in this I am unfortunately confident: I was terrified of Ebola before it became popular.
It was almost two decades before the Ebola outbreak which ravaged West Africa that I encountered the disease for the first time. I was nine, maybe ten. I should say this: I was already an anxious child, probably exacerbated by my parents’ recent divorce, and so it’s likely that my mind was already ripe for the sowing of some kind of weird phobia; it was probably only a matter of which terrifying thing I happened to encounter first.
As it happened, it was a magazine. I was a voracious reader as a kid (not much has changed) and would generally read anything to hand – newspapers, magazines, a Roy Chubby Brown jokebook which I didn’t really understand, but read cover-to-cover anyway. I was at my dad’s for the weekend, and the magazine just happened to be there. I remember it was one of those ‘weird science’ type magazines, a little like Fortean Times. It was the mid-90’s, pre ‘The Hot Zone’, and Ebola was still only a footnote in the annals of contemporary pop culture.
The article was terrifying. I recall it was presented as somewhere between a feature article and a short story. It was about a man – a scientist, I think – who’d gone to Africa for some reason or another and had contracted a mysterious illness. The article made such an indelible impression on me that nearly two decades later, I can still remember an entire paragraph describing the way the man’s intestinal lining sloughed away from the inside. The thought that such a profoundly terrible disease might exist was mind-blowing: that, out there in the world, there was a virus which could cause you to vomit black blood, to haemorrhage from the inside out, and to die in excruciating pain.
(My adult mind, having been to therapy for OCD, now understands that this is an extreme, sensationalised version of how the Ebola virus operates. My child mind was not quite so logical.)
The part that stuck with me most, though, wasn’t the gouts of blood or the excretion of internal organs, but the ending. A different man, who had been in contact with the Ebola victim, had boarded a plane back home. The very end of the story shows him exhibiting the same early symptoms of the man who died: a pounding headache. It wasn’t the possibility of spreading the virus that scared me – the idea of a vector or a ‘Typhoid Mary’ didn’t occur to me – but the fact that this terrible disease started with a headache.
From then on I became incredibly paranoid, not so much about my own health, but those around me. I was convinced my parents would die, probably of Ebola. It probably doesn’t take a psychologist to figure out the underlying reasons for this sudden, extreme phobia, but I was nine, and frightened, and I could not stop thinking about the article. Things escalated until I started having physical panic attacks. The full whack: shaking, crying, unable to breathe, unable to calm down. My parents did the sensible thing and took me to a psychologist. I don’t remember a great deal from that time, but I do remember the psychologist commenting on my vivid imagination…
(It took me a long time to become comfortable reading and watching things with a ‘pandemic’ setting. Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ took considerable steel to keep ploughing through. Some things never go away completely. I still haven’t read ‘The Hot Zone’.)
The thing is, it could have been anything. I could have read about UFOs or Ted Bundy or nuclear war, and those things might have imprinted themselves upon my anxious nine-year-old brain instead. It just so happened to be Ebola. It’s an incredibly mundane process, when you think about it.
Fast forward twenty or so years. It’s 2014. Ebola panic is rife, and I am strangely calm. I’ve been here before; I know what it’s like to be convinced your loved ones are going to die from a deadly, uncontrollable virus. Still, I avoid the newspapers, and I try not to think too hard about the people standing next to me on the Tube. I work in a medical laboratory, and my supervisor keeps cracking jokes about the blood samples we receive. He does it in that slightly too jovial manner that people adopt when the jokes are only kind of a joke. And I feel a little jolt of empathy for my nine-year-old self, whose strange childhood fear I have dismissed all these years as ridiculous fantasy.