Scaring Children The Mothers and Their Daughters; The Leavers and the Stayers
I love to be a leaver. To be the one that steps out into the unknown, even as I am terrified.
This is Scaring Children, a column by A. E. Osworth that explores children’s horror media from the nineties and early aughts through the lens of queer adulthood.
When I was little, I started to hear voices in the moments right before I slept. They never freaked me out; I knew they weren’t exactly real. Neither, though, were they imagined. I could feel them press on my ear drums from the inside—in my head without being in my head.
I told my mother about them. She looked at me, serious for a second, and said, “If anyone tries to convince you to leave your body, you always say no. Alright?”
Upon the launch of Disney Plus, the first thing I rewatched as an adult was So Weird . Sometimes I feel like the only one who remembers its existence.
So Weird was Disney’s attempt at The X-Files , but for kids. For the first two seasons (the best seasons and, given the white-washing of indigenous folklore in the third season, the only seasons), our protagonist is Fiona Phillips, a rough-and-tumble pre-teen girl sometimes called “Fi.” The daughter of a touring musician who lives on a bus and gets to travel the country, the world, she is the lone believer in all things strange surrounded by a family of skeptics.
No matter how many times they’ve been confronted with evidence (or possessed by Will O’ The Wisps), no one ever believes her. She chases the same paranormal buzz that her father, who died in a terrible accident, once chased, though she doesn’t know it until later. She keeps her friends all over the globe apprised of her whereabouts using her computer. She maintains a website that makes her world even larger.
On the bus with Fi, we’ve got Molly Phillips (her mom and an aged rockstar), Irene (Molly’s manager), Irene’s husband Ned (forever a roadie, he drives the bus), Fi’s brother Jack (a Very Serious Teenager), and Irene and Ned’s son Clu (later replaced by his older brother Carey when Clu “goes to college”).
As with The X-Files , the show is a monster-of-the-week set-up with a larger plot arc underpinning it. And from what I recall as a kid, the thing about So Weird was that it was actually scary. Or at least, some of the episodes were.
I had a friend. Anne Kilpatrick. I met her in second grade. I still talk with her, sometimes. She was my height (tall), but soft-spoken, delicate, feminine (though I wouldn’t have known to describe this ineffable quality that way at eight).
She was a ballerina. Her family’s house was adorned with studio portraits of her, outfitted in graceful white tutus with a perfect turnout and a well-supported arm raised high into the air. And sure, I refused to wear pants in favor of floral Laura Ashley dresses for the first nine years of my life, but my tights were always ripped and I was the social equivalent of a cannonball; once, I took out my whole ballet class when I fell over at the barre while everyone was watching on Parents’ Night. We were not the same.
We did a lot together, but Anne and I couldn’t watch episodes of So Weird unless I vetted them first to determine whether or not they were too scary. As a girl-child with elevated tastes in fear, there was a line in the media made for my age group that I also approached as a skeptic: Was this “horror” or horror ? In the case of “horror,” I felt like someone was pandering to me, but could never truly articulate why. I wanted to be taken seriously when I asked to be scared.
So Weird was rife with legitimately frightening ideas—that a kid might will into existence a poltergeist-like malevolent spirit bent on hurting humans called a Tulpa (season one, episode ten), that someone in a coma could get lost inside her own mind and be unable to return to her body (season one, episode twelve), or that a whole town might elect a scapegoat year after year to go live in the realm of the dead (season two, episode seven). And yes, it was the very tail end of the nineties and the CGI wasn’t good, but that wasn’t what made those episodes scary. It was the people’s choices or the moral implications or the consequences.
These weren’t the episodes that scared Anne, though. We were in her basement. (We were always in her basement.) It was kidland down there: a comfy couch, a whole computer dedicated to playing games well out of earshot of any adults, a blue rug, bean bag chairs. I remember a pool table. I don’t think we ever played. It was always piled high with random stuff. The Kilpatricks always had stuff. The most, the best. All the signifiers of a family doing well. In the cold and dark, surrounded by the games and toys that children of means have, she told me specifically which episodes.
“Aliens,” Anne said.
“Aliens?” I replied.
“Anything with aliens. I can’t watch it.”
I loved aliens. My mother’s favorite movie was Contact , starring Jodie Foster. My second grade birthday party was space-themed. My best friend and I were obsessed with SETI, and I once convinced her, well and truly, that I was from Saturn and that my parents weren’t really my parents. I prayed for aliens on the daily; that they existed, that they would show up, and when they did, that they would reach out to me, an eager fourth grader, ready and willing to talk and explore. I wanted the universe to be big. I would’ve taken off in a rocket ship without a second thought.
I wanted the universe to be big. I would’ve taken off in a rocket ship without a second thought.
And even if all that weren’t true, the aliens in So Weird ? They fell into the other category of episode—the ones that were strange but not terrifying. Ones that still didn’t feel like pandering even though I did not find them scary because they posed a thought-problem. Because they were morally complex. Because they still asked of me imagining beyond what most people considered appropriate for me or for Anne.
The aliens in So Weird were from far away, but never wanted to hurt anyone. They were hapless, crash landing in isolated places. In the case of “Memory” (season one, episode three), they try to comfort humans by making them forget. They do not understand that losing time is a horror far greater than meeting our neighbors from outer space.
I wanted to be Fi Phillips. I wanted to be Fi Phillips so badly. I wanted to hike with Bigfoot, astral project, turn into a dog, and yeah, meet some fucking aliens. But most of all, I wanted to live on a tour bus, to leave home, to have consequences. It makes me laugh now, this all-consuming longing I remember—Fi reads queer. She’s always in a T-shirt or a flannel and she moves through space harshly. She has a dry, crackling voice. And when they try to stick a very nineties flower clip in her hair or something, it doesn’t really change the overall affect. Her circumstances are queer too. A chosen family and a rootless adventuring existence.
I wanted a big world. (I want a big world.) Beyond being scary, the stories I loved were the ones where the girls got to go on the adventure, rather than stay home. And trust, so many of the stories had feminine stayers and masculine leavers. I spent as much time as I was allowed as far away from my house as possible in as many ways as I could: outside on a bicycle, in the woods by the school, walking around town with my friend Charlotte (to the sweet shop, to the pool).
The secret to a free-range childhood is to be so blessedly good that no one watches you, but not so innocent that they (your parents, the world) feel the need to over-protect. Which is to say, the sweet spot is all the assumptions everyone made about white girlhood in the nineties with one added layer: well-off enough, but not rich. Money buys safety. Too little of it and you’re assumed to be the source of danger. Too much of it and the world never feels safe enough outside your parents’ four walls.
I spent a lot of time in Anne’s basement with her because she wasn’t allowed out of the house as regularly as I was. Unlike me or Charlotte, Anne was nearly never unwatched or unscheduled. Required to play at least one sport a season (dance didn’t count). In every gifted and talented program offered. She needed to be extraordinary and, also, home.
Anne’s father was forever picking her up (or threatening to pick her up) from sleepovers the same night she’d been dropped off, before we even rolled out the sleeping bags. His presence cast a pall over a good time. And if we were at Anne’s, he would get up in the night and check the doors, as if, beyond the motion sensor floodlights and the lawn he watered at night so his neighbors wouldn’t see him break the drought restrictions, there waited people to come snatch us from his massive white home. Someone or something that came from far away to turn us all into those who would leave. Force us or coerce us.
Nothing was ever there.
Remember the voices? My mother told me of the Bad Gang. The set of voices that asked her, when she was little, to come along for a ride. How each time she told them no. How I was to do the same.
No one believes that the spooky kid checking out books on telekinesis and trying to train her mind to lift things is going to succeed. But it was a thrill to know this thing about my mother. That at least one weird occurrence that I believed in, she did too. It made me feel safer, like I wouldn’t be alone in it if I found something truly scary in my wandering. If, like Fi, I accidentally summoned a small dragon from a stage prop (season one, episode eight), my mother would probably at least come look at it.
After all, she was afraid too. Of everything that I feared, and also that somehow I would leave my body, called by the spirit of adventure I would be unable to resist. And to have fear, it means you have to believe in whatever was causing it. At least a little.
An interlude from my adulthood: one of my worst fears is to be a stayer. That is, to be someone who never leaves their hometown. It’s not cute. It’s a problematic attitude for several reasons: riddled with classism, fundamentally anti-community, elitist in myriad ways. It also is true. I can’t be perfect. Instead, I love to be a leaver. To be the one that steps out into the unknown, even as I am terrified.
Remember Parents’ Night, when I fell over at the barre? The other parents ostracized my mother after that. Not because I’d knocked over their precious children, but because my mother couldn’t stop laughing at me after I did it.
My mother and I fought a lot. She wasn’t particularly nurturing and I wasn’t particularly grateful. It’s probably hard to be either of those things when a relationship is characterized by a constant want to leave. I thought being Fi Phillips meant getting as far from my family as possible, as far from the place I was born.
I don’t remember this, but once, to hurt her, I said that I would rather be a Kilpatrick. To be my friend Anne’s sister, Mrs. Kilpatrick’s daughter. When she recounts this story, my mother looks horrified, horrified at the thought that I would choose to be someone very different from her.
And to have fear, it means you have to believe in whatever was causing it. At least a little.
It’s called hypnagogic hallucination. The hearing of voices right before going to sleep. It’s not spirits trying to make anyone leave their body; it’s the inner voice made material by the twitching and settling of oncoming rest. Which means that my mother didn’t have a group of spirits leading her into temptation. How much or how little she could leave—or wanted to—was something she wrestled with herself.
Of course, part of me still believes in the Bad Gang. At least a little. If I ever have a kid, I will make sure to tell them that they can do all sorts of leaving, but if anyone ever invites them out of their body, they’re to say no.
Anne told me once that her mother said this: “Sometimes I feel like you should’ve been Mrs. Osworth’s child. That you’d fit in better in the Osworth family, with her as your mother.” We were teenagers.
When I told my mother that’s what Mrs. Kilpatrick said, my mother replied, “That’s a horrible thing to say to your daughter.” And she hugged me.
The most interesting part about So Weird is the underpinning, the larger story arc of Fiona Phillips’s father. He used to play in a band with Fi’s mom Molly. A pair of rockstars. And he died in a car accident, long enough ago that Fi is too young to remember him. But as the seasons march on, we get bits and pieces of who he was. And we learn that Fi takes after him, though she has no business doing so; she couldn’t possibly remember anything about his interest or his sleuthing. The spirit world began to get angry with him. The paranormal transformed from a neutral world to one of assault.
In season two, episode fifteen, Fi finds the paramedic first on the scene to her father’s accident. “He was dead before the car crashed,” says the man. Someone had coaxed him from his body.
Now that I am an adult, I think a lot about Fi’s mother. Molly’s interest in stopping Fi’s paranormal explorations made her, occasionally, into the antagonist. It’s the logical conclusion to draw when you watch as a kid. In season two, episode twenty four, she tries to stop the tour and send everyone home. Sometimes Molly would believe Fi wholeheartedly, without question. Other times, she would help even if she only half-believed the evidence before her eyes.
But always present was the fear that her kid would leave her. That something would ask her to leave her body and, driven by the spirit of adventure, she would say yes.
When Anne went to college, she was required to choose an institution within fifty miles. She picked a school at the outermost edge of the circle. Her brothers had no such rule.
I went to college up the highway. I stayed close. I stayed close for a while. It was actually my parents who left, in the end. Not on a tour bus or their bodies or for outer space. Just to South Carolina. Far enough, different enough. I suppose I got my “leaver” from somewhere.
At the end of last summer, in 2020, I got a text from Anne. A picture she took on her phone: two lights, hanging in the New Jersey sky. Bright. Large. The size of beach balls, glowing and suspended in the night.
“They aren’t moving at all,” she typed out. “I don’t know what they are.”
“Anne, I swear to fuck, if you get aliens and I don’t, the universe and I are going to have words.”
Anne owns a house; it’s in our hometown. I live three thousand miles away from it, on the other side of the country. She has an arm full of tattoos; I have none, because I am scared of needles. A couple months ago, she shaved her head; I’m growing my hair out so I can braid it, a loose, wild thing I can’t stop longing for. Anne is still a woman; I am me, which is certainly not a woman. Not a man either.
What I am saying is: It’s not about feminine bad, masculine good, though as a people we have clear ideas about who gets to leave and who is required to stay. What I am saying is: It’s not about masculine and feminine at all, though the horror that puts girl children at the center of what it means to leave is problematizing and necessary and, in the end, gave me permission to want what I wanted.
What I am saying is: It’s not about stayers never having adventure, either, and the leavers getting a big delicious life. It’s all more complicated than that. What I am saying: Fear is hereditary, and so is belief. A value system that is catching and based entirely on story, memetic through generations. When it comes to horror, horror for children or horror for anyone, it lets us actively witness what we believe in, because to be afraid of something you have to believe in it, at least a little.
In the case of So Weird , the show consistently asks us to consider: Are we more afraid of going or remaining?
I’d like to think if Anne got aliens, she’d go with them now. But I don’t actually know because I haven’t asked her. I’m too scared of the answer.