Imagine the scene in “Elf” when Will Ferrell’s spry, naive character Buddy the Elf makes his first mad dash around a mall in New York City. As he explores, Buddy is mesmerized by flashy Christmas displays. His uninhibited exhilaration leads to lots of eye rolls from frumpy-looking New Yorkers.
And then Buddy reaches an escalator.
Gripping both rails, Buddy is unable to get the timing just right as the stairs appear. He quickly becomes skittish and offers to let the growing line of shoppers behind him pass. They give him tired looks, so he returns to his attempts to mount the escalator.
Finally, he tentatively places a foot on a stair and slowly lunges, so that he is doing forward-facing splits. The camera pans to Buddy’s face, contorted with pain.
I have not found a movie, book or song more relatable than the image of Will Ferrell in bright-yellow tights and a dangerously short elf tunic gliding up an escalator.
“La La Land” be damned. This is cinematography at its best.
As you might have suspected, I’ve used Buddy’s “splits” method to get on an escalator more than once. And the dismounts were just as unpleasant. Unable to get the timing right, I’d just throw myself on the ground at the top level.
But escalator rides weren’t my sole cause for alarm when I was little. I used to be an all-out panicky child. As a reflection of my uneasiness, some of our family’s early photos feature my wide eyes and grimacing mouth with a bunch of concerned relatives looking my way.
I would become extremely nervous whenever my family would plan a trip to an unfamiliar place and would then become cripplingly shy or have a meltdown upon arrival at our destination.
Before getting on an airplane, I would become horrified by the idea that our pilot could potentially decide to do somersaults with the plane if he or she grew bored of staring at nothing but clouds for six hours.
Before going to movie theaters, I would freak out about the possibility of a spooky trailer before the feature film.
Before attending a Kings or River Cats game, I would become fearful of the massive, cheering crowds and the chance of an encounter with the teams’ respective mascots. I never trusted people in costumes and hated Dinger, the cuddly River Cat, in particular. If I started getting too nervous, my mom would take me to the bathroom and let me sit on her lap until the game was over.
In third grade, during a unit on caves, my class watched a documentary about a man who got stuck in a crevice while he was spelunking in a forest. From what I remember, the man couldn’t move his arms or legs and, after being discovered by some little boys, was fed sandwiches by local townspeople for a while until he died.
Apparently the townspeople had enough time to map out the crevice and create a cartoon featuring the gangly, freaked-out man and a crowd of spectators lounging above, drinking iced tea or something. This image haunts me. The man’s elongated, stiff body and wide eyes seem to say “Stop drawing cartoons and making me sandwiches and get me out of here!” But who knows what he truly meant?
I’ve never been able to find the documentary or the cartoon, but there is another fear of mine that I can pin down exactly: the Spirit Halloween store.
I can’t really say that I get teary-eyed at this time of the year when the Spirit locations pull down their signs and pack up the flimsy decorations.
I was in kindergarten the first time I crossed the threshold of Spirit. My well-meaning mom made the mistake of taking me and my sister Bianca, who was in pre-K, into one of their locations to shop for Halloween costumes on a nice family outing.
We never got three feet past the door.
When you entered, a speaker system was triggered to play ominous music and shrieks. (If you’re really curious about what the screams sounded like, watch some YouTube videos of last year’s Black Friday shopping.)
I then noticed the upper torso of a decomposing man on the ground. He was positioned to be reaching up to grab us.
It didn’t take long to conclude that this was not the scene in which I wanted to purchase my groovy disco dancer costume. I probably should have adjusted my expectations much earlier since the store’s logo is a skeleton with a hood on, which wasn’t exactly right up my alley.
Bianca and I stood there screaming for a couple minutes, and though the children’s costume section was mere inches away, my mom realized that this was not going to work out. She grabbed us and started for the door.
But if you know anything about Hansens, you’ll know that our exits are just as flashy as our entrances. When Mom pushed open the door, the screams were triggered yet again, so acting on instinct, I braced myself against the door, and Bianca squirmed around my mom’s thighs. My mom had to let me go.
“Come on, Sonja!” she said desperately as she consoled and handled the wriggling Bianca.
I was too scared to open the door again. I was frozen and mulling over the decision to stay inside with the decomposing half man on the carpet or to try to go outside and be greeted with a chorus of screams.
Well, big surprise, I got out. I stood there crying until my mom came back and swooped me up.
The whole charade lasted about 30 seconds, but it was enough to steer me away from Spirit Halloween stores for a solid 10 years.
In my freshman year I faked that I was getting a phone call to avoid having to venture into the Loehmann’s Spirit Halloween store with a group of friends.
This year I begrudgingly entered again for some face paint that I needed to paint a third eye on my forehead for the traditionally silly senior pictures.
I kept my eyes focused on the linoleum for the most part.
—By Sonja Hansen