I have friends who cannot watch horror movies alone. One in particular keeps every light on in the house and packs her living room with warm bodies before she will even roll the credits on The Exorcist. (And actually, the credits on The Exorcist are the scariest part, with that maniacal bells music.) I have other friends who love The Walking Dead but shield their eyes at some of the gorier parts, which is every part between the commercials. I do not understand the fear that overtakes these people, who are otherwise upstanding, mature members of society.
But to be fair, none of the above-mentioned people grew up in an Italian Catholic community. And that has made all the difference, to paraphrase Robert Frost.
When you are raised in an Italian Catholic home, or if you are even sent to the one owned by your grandparents on weekends, you are immunized against any horrors you might encounter later in life. That is because Italian Catholics believe that terrifying a child is a good way to get them to remain in the church that has terrified them and to which they give lots of money when they are finally making good jobs and after they have completed many years of psychotherapy.
I was not raised in an Italian Catholic home, because my Italian mother married my Irish father, who himself embraced the suburban lifestyle. However, the roots of terror ran deep in my family, and I had frequent encounters with the source of all things ghoulish and morbid: my Italian grandmother Philomena.
Don’t get me wrong: Mamie was a warm and wonderful woman who taught me the meaning of the term “unconditional love.” She ate every Easy-Bake Oven cake I ever burned without even raising an eyebrow, paraded me around the neighborhood like a miniature Fuller Brush girl so I could recite the Hail Mary in Spanish to her lady friends, and didn’t cringe when I came back from the taproom with her husband, my Pop Pop, spouting new and creative curse words at the age of 7.
But possibly in return for this generosity of spirit, Mom Mom exacted her own subtle pound of flesh by making me live amongst the ghoulish symbols of our faith. I mean, she could have hidden the statues and the pictures when I came over to spend the weekend. But no, they were on glorious display in that neat little corner brick twin in West Philadelphia.
If I close my eyes — which I should have done when I was actually living there, thus sparing me the nightmares — I can conjure up the layout of the home. You would enter the front door, walk down two steps into the sunken living room and be surrounded by flocked wallpaper, lamps in urns with chandelier crystals looped around the dancing fauns, bevel block mirrors on the one big wall facing you, and lots of shiny furniture. The furniture was not created shiny, nor did it leave the factory shiny. It acquired that unnatural gleam only when my Italian grandmother, like so many others in her tribe, encased it in plastic. With zippers. That were never, ever — even during a nuclear meltdown — unzipped.
If you sat on that sofa, or that chair, or even the tiny ottoman in front of the television set, you had the strange sensation of wearing saran wrap on your buttocks. In the summer, you spent a lot of time on that furniture because once you sat down, you could not get up. Literally. You were stuck to the plastic by some satanic equation of sweat, time elapsed and plastic.
I hated that furniture. I hated that living room, with the bevel block mirrors that made me feel as if a giant fly were watching me from the other side of the room, tiny Christines refracted over and over and over in the glass.
But you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with being Catholic. Well, I will tell you.
If my grandmother’s cultural idiosyncrasies had been limited to interior design, I probably wouldn’t have too many memories sending chills down my spine. No, it wasn’t the secular aspect of that house that screwed around with my mind.
It was the spiritual stuff. Things like the statue of the Infant of Prague that was placed at the top of a steep staircase. Set back in a little alcove, its own plaster grotto, was the figure of a boy child wearing a puffy red velvet dress, holding what looked to be a perfume bottle in one hand and holding up his fingers in a Boy Scout salute in the other. On his head was what I naturally assumed was the Imperial Margarine crown, a commercial quite popular in my 1960s youth. This cross-dressing little boy would stare at me when I would scale the steps to go to my bedroom, and would then follow me until I ran down the hall into the room and slammed the door shut.
But I wasn’t safe, even in the bedroom. Because there, above the headboard of my lovely little twin with the white chenille bedspread and the organdy pillows, was a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Change around a few letters in the word “sacred” and you get “scared.” Which is what I was, out of my mind in fact, when I’d see the face of Jesus appearing in a heart, surrounded by a wreath of thorns and dripping blood. You couldn’t have freaked me out more if you’d told me Barnabas Collins was hiding under the bed.
And then there were the rosaries and scapulars draped around the bedpost, the life-size devotional of St. Sebastian contorted at the moment of his death, en brochette, so to speak, the flickering votive candles. My particular favorite was the statue of St. Lucy, my mother’s patron saint, looking so beautiful as she held in one hand a sheaf of wheat (or a sword, I can’t remember) and in the other hoisting up a platter with her two eyeballs on it. That last one accounted for the biggest therapy bills.
Of course, I chuckle about it now. From the distance of many decades, growing up around these artifacts of my morbid faith doesn’t seem to have left too many scars.
But every now and then, I stand at the bottom of a random staircase, and if I see anything vaguely resembling Imperial Margarine at the top … I shudder. You would too.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.