“What Was I Afraid Of?” – Dr. Seuss and the Essence of Horror

Did you know that yesterday was Dr. Seuss’s birthday? I grew up with a lot of Dr. Seuss in the house. Green Eggs & Ham in particular had its definite place in the Annals of Greg, it being one of the earliest books that I learned how to read, but there was only one story of Seuss’s that had a particularly lasting impact on me. It was one of his lesser-known works, a short story called “What Was I Scared Of?” This story, peaceful conclusion and intended audience notwithstanding, is one of the most horrifying stories I’ve ever been told.

Following the narration of “I,” a lone, yellow imp-like creature, we find ourselves in an exceedingly creepy and desolate forest. The forest is illustrated in a unified midnight blue, a technique which proves surprisingly effective in its simplicity. This is the impenetrable darkness of night. Additionally, the unexplained context of this story–a strange creature wandering through strange surroundings–provides a chilling foundation. The reader is jarred into unease by a set of abruptly-presented unknowns.

As the imp creature makes his way through the woods for reasons equally unknown, he encounters a pair of “pale green pants,” just standing there. This is already terrifying for any number of reasons. Encountering anything in the midst of this dreadful scenario would be reason enough to flee in terror, but the fact that it’s an inexplicably animated pair of pants instantly turns our initial unease to panic. The fact that those pants are so damn weird-lookin’ further compounds that panic, and the fact that Seuss uses the word pale just sends the fear-bile to the very rim of my gullet. Not sure what it is about that word, but it pushes my terror button with no negligible amount of gusto.

Perhaps it has something to do with the “pale, blue vulture eye with a film over it” from Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart.

The yellow creature flees in terror from the pants, which proceed to antagonize him through a variety of terrifyingly surrealist venues. Growing more and more haggard as the terrible pants persist, our protagonist finally comes face-to- um, crotch, with the pants, only to discover that the pants–which seemed to be chasing him down at every turn–were just as afraid of him as he was of them. With their true emotions now out in the open, the story ends with “I” befriending the pair of pants, thereby bringing an end to suffering.

Note that it is never explained why the pair of pants is alive. Though I’m sure this can be chalked up to everything being crazy all the time in Seuss books, taken as an isolated work, this leaves me unsettled. Is the protagonist trustworthy? Why are his fears so easily put to rest? I mean, despite the title of the story and its peaceful conclusion, it seems pretty obvious to me what he was scared of. Living pants. Hostile or not, doesn’t the concept of animated pants riding a bike or rowing a boat disturb him just a little bit? It may seem comical that “I” was concerned only with the pants’ unfamiliarity and not with the fact that they were clearly inhabited by an otherworldly specter, but one interpretation would argue that the protagonist is in fact insane. That would certainly explain the surrealist imagery and the fact that he was out wandering in the woods at night.

Here, the imp creature befriends the pale green pants. But are they really even alive? They’re pants. 

At one point, our catatonic narrator hides in a Brickel bush for days. Note that there is nothing there. 

In this case, we really don’t know anything for certain. What if the protagonist is in fact a regular human being in the woods, and we’re only seeing things through his skewed telling, where he believes himself some sort of fantasy woodland creature? A chilling thought indeed.

This touches upon a fundamental truth of good horror–that the reaction or deterioration of the victim is just as key to a good scare as is the nature of the antagonistic force itself. Indeed, it was not just the pants or the woods or the darkness that scared me of this story as a child–it was the horrific, twisted expressions of “I”.

Harvesting pecks of Snide in the middle of the night, our distraught and presumably insane protagonist wears a twisted, haggard expression. As he grows more and more paranoid that a pair of pants is following him, his eyes grow sunken in. Where have I seen this disturbing expression before?

From "Uzumaki."

Ah yes, used repeatedly throughout the works of Japanese horror master Junji Itô, writer of the notorious Uzumaki.

From "Mimi's Ghost Stories," translated by me.
From "Kaidan." What was HE so scared of, anyway?

I guess I’m just trying to say, this unassuming children’s story has most of the same guts as your most triumphant R-rated horror story, and that’s somehow impressive to me. Anyway, continuing on. . . .

Note the vast desolation of his surroundings as he harvests the Snide. Nine miles of nothing but Snide. What sane and wholesome person would perform such a task at night, anyhow?  

Here, in a final confrontation, the imp is a wide-eyed picture of terror. I’m reminded of the wife from “The Shining,” who was by far the most terrifying thing about the entire movie thanks to her weird facial structure and exaggerated expressions.

The wife is scarier than the ax. Meanwhile, crazy ol’ Jack Nicholson just elicits reactions of, “Man, I love him! He’s so convincing!” I like to think that Kubrick took this actress’s bizarre looks into account when casting.

If you’ll let me run with this for a moment, a similar phenomenon holds true in the case of “Carrie,” wherein the protagonist and victim of the story becomes the antagonist and single scariest thing about the movie. Ooh, that face.

We see the same thing yet again in “The Descent,” where the sympathetic heroine is plunged into the depths insanity by her own terror and grief, making her in turn the scariest thing about the entire film.

Anyway. Speaking of plunging into the depths, I’m probably digging far too deep at this point, but it’s interesting to think that this story is essentially a horror story in sheep’s clothing and, like most of Seuss’s stories, wildly open to interpretation.

Bonus Content:

↓”What Was I Afraid Of?” as intended.

↓Animated version. Somebody should give these people money.

↓”What Was I Afraid Of?” the R&B remix.

↓I don’t even. . . what.

5 thoughts on ““What Was I Afraid Of?” – Dr. Seuss and the Essence of Horror

  1. That’s lick as in “defeat”. It’s about a cat in a hat–possibly THE cat in the hat–who is full of shit. Turns out he can’t lick any tigers.

    1. Dude, I was telling a friend about this story because he was unfamiliar with it, and he asked me, “So does he wear the pants in the end?”

      I’m not sure why, but there was something very disturbing about that notion. On the other hand, it is awfully weird that they were pants, and that the protagonist was pantsless, and that in the end the fact that the pants were pants didn’t seem to be relevant.

  2. When I was three years old I had a nightmare that a pair of navy blue snow boots was chasing me around my yard trying to kick me. To this day I can picture the dream in my head. This post immediately triggered flashbacks.

  3. When I was three years old I had a nightmare that a pair of navy blue snow boots was chasing me around my yard trying to kick me. To this day I can picture the dream in my mind. Reading this post immediately triggered flashbacks.

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