The Story behind City of Brotherly Death

Although I’ve told everyone I weaned on horror with the Dark Shadows and Dracula, my introduction to horror happened long before Dark Shadows, when my mother and I went to Atlantic City before my eleventh birthday.

My mother gave me money for amusement rides while she rested on a bench, watching me. A sign caught my eye: 1000 year-old Preserved Woman. Because I’m a literal thinker, I believed someone had actually kept a woman alive and in good health for 1000 years. A crowd of people queued up before a pavilion with black curtains, and I followed them. Inside, the line formed a C-shaped curve around an ornate gold bathtub. A black-haired woman sat in the tub, smiling, but she looked like a zombie. Black circles surrounded her sunken eyes, and tight leathery skin rode like a blanket over her bones. She was a skeletal thing with hair and eyes. Later on, I learned she was a mummy sitting in a sarcophagus, but at the time I knew nothing about such things.

I shuffled along, rubbing my arms and shivering because her eyes stared at me. Then she raised her arm and pointed. I tore out of the line, screaming. On the boardwalk, I barreled into my mother’s safe arms. She took me to a comedy movie so I’d forget about it.

The movie made me laugh, but I didn’t forget what I saw. Afterwards, when I watched horror movies, I dreamed about skeletons and zombies. Movies like The Mummy were tough. When skeletons danced across the screen, I covered my eyes. Twice, I left a theater before the movie was over, admission cost be damned.

My skeleton phobia accompanied me to the doctor’s office when I had my knee surgeries in 1984. Every orthopedic surgeon has an adult-sized skeleton in his or her office. Dr. Porter’s bone man sent chills up my spine. During the wintertime, I covered his skeleton with my coat so I wouldn’t have to look. Sometimes I draped it with a sheet. Although Mike came with me, the skeleton gave me the creeps. On a particularly bad day, I got so upset that I threw my winter coat and sweater over its head and shoulders. The weight of the clothing wobbled it. The skull snapped off, bounced on the floor, and rolled out into the hall.

Upon seeing the skull, Porter stared at me, dumbfounded. “What the hell happened here?” he asked.

I looked over at Mike, who sat beside me, grinning behind his sports magazine, and then back at Porter. “Well, you see, Dr. Porter, it’s like this. I had a little accident.”

“Are you hurt?”

“Not at all,” I said quickly. “That skeleton spooked me, so I tried to cover it. The head broke off when I put my coat on it.”

Porter roared for laughter. He tried to comment and then burst into more gales of laughter. After he composed himself, he asked his nurses to put me in an examination room without a skeleton for the remainder of my care.

My fear of skeletons haunted me when I returned to college. At college, my English instructor Kelly taught in a room used for anatomy classes. A skeleton perched on a stand near the back door. That was awful. In my mind, that thing was watching and waiting for the right moment to creep up on me. What if, when I left class, that thing grabbed me with its bony fingers? So even in ninety-degree weather, I brought a coat and scarf to drape over the bones.

Kelly took me aside and suggested that I journal about my fear of skeletons. That spring, my mother died, and when I went back to college, I studied with Kelly again. She gave me writing assignments, and I found myself leaning toward zombie tales. Many of my stories evolved around skeletons, and some of them are in my anthology, City of Brotherly Death.

Funny thing, I tried reading someone’s blog that addressed writers’ fears. I couldn’t read one word because the author included grotesque illustrations of skeletons. I snapped off the computer straightaway. Guess I’m not over my fear yet. Better write another zombie story.

So what motivated you to write horror? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Anthology featurings zombie and revenant tales by Barbara Custer, set in Philadelphia

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