Runaway Regression

It suddenly comes back to you late one night as you struggle with a story about a haunted house. You’re writing in that way where you’re fixated on the next line, but nothing feels right, because deep down you’re expecting that next line to fix everything that’s wrong.

You’re in your apartment bedroom, lit by your laptop, Pandora-supplied tunes leaking out of its cheap speakers. What starts it all is hearing Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train. You haven’t heard the song in almost two decades, but as soon as that scratchy voice begins singing, almost crooning, the video comes to mind—those missing children. You YouTube the video to be sure, and yes, you’re right. Interspersed with anguished shots of the band and melodramatic yet disturbing dramatizations are pictures of real missing children. School photos, glamor shots, candids, all sepia-saturated, each followed by a name and “missing since” caption in white text on a black background.

The video came out in June 1993, you would have been nine. Your teenage sister listened to a bit of Alternative. You associated it with the sadness you sensed in her. The way she went quiet listening was the same way she went quiet with the family sometimes, her being suddenly elsewhere.

You now remember watching the video with her, a lot. Despite its staginess, the video moves you, the older you watching in the dark on your laptop. When the first photo appears just as the chorus rings out, and there’s these big eyes and big dimples and cute teardrop earrings—”Wilda Mae Benoit, missing since 1992”—it’s all startlingly real.

Feeling moved suggests that prior to that feeling you were in a state of stillness, inertia, maybe even numb. The sensation is as much about the emotion that’s being felt as the surprise that you’re feeling it. You know you aren’t feeling what nine-year-old you felt. Nine-year-old you wasn’t numb the way adults become. Nine-year-old you wasn’t moved by those photos; you were scared. All these people missing from homes that, at least from the photos, seemed just like yours.

And you were already a scared child, weren’t you? Lying awake whole nights, staring vigilantly at your window, bathed in a light that was almost purple. You can’t remember all the things that churned in that mind those nights, there must have been so many—how you’ve managed not to think about them for so long is unsettling—but you are somehow certain that one of those things was a moment from a trailer.

You go to YouTube before you know what to type, but by the time the cursor is in the search bar, your fingers already know—Fire in the Sky. It was released in March 1993. You’re surprised by the ponderous opening voice-over and the laser-show anatomy. You don’t remember it all, but then a beam of light hits a young denimed man like a spasm, his shoulders cracking back in a rigid paralysis, and then again, from overhead, and you see his mouth hang uselessly open and his eyes roll up into his head. This you remember, though it still isn’t the moment. There’s a frantic sequence in which the denim man’s gurney ride down a hospital hall is spliced with him being dragged through some metallic tunnel; then he’s on a table and spindly aliens throw a sheet over him, though in the next shot, we see it’s not a sheet, it’s clung to his arm like a pink membrane, and his fingers twitch against its webbing. Then the moment comes: his upper body and head wrapped in this new skin, he writhes into a suctioned scream.

A good sequence. It doesn’t terrify you now, but you can see how it had. The story was based on the account of Travis Walton and his six friends, though one can assume loosely, since the director chose not to use Travis’ account of the abduction and drew instead from his own dreams. Whatever the source, the abduction scene was quite an escalation of what you’d seen. Your family used to watch Unsolved Mysteries together, which frequently featured UFO encounters including dramatizations, but those scenes had nothing on Travis screaming into the void.

But more than an escalation, perhaps it was a culmination. Unsolved Mysteries and other nineties  shows sometimesplayed actual audio from hypnotic regression sessions. Hypnosis was how many people came to believe they had repressed abduction experiences. Some accounts were exacting and clinical, while others were pained or hysterical to the point of collapse. These sessions felt real to you, beyond science. The voices didn’t seem to be performing. They seemed glimpses of a raw private self that you, at nine, already believed in. You knew even loved ones didn’t say aloud the things they felt most deeply. How shocking it must have been then, to witness Travis screaming in his alien skin.

So much had felt real to you at nine. It seems naïve to assume those fears you had are gone now, mere memories you can deconstruct with distanced fascination, as if they’re art objects.

You can’t remember what happened the rest of that night you were trying to write, where the remembering went from there, or what came of that story. You doubt you ever came up with the next line.

Author Headshot
Ahsan Butt was born in Toronto, is of Pakistani descent, and currently lives in Los Angeles. His short-fiction and essays have appeared in West Branch, Barrelhouse, The Massachusetts Review, The Normal School, SmokeLong Quarterly, Blue Minaret, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Also, he is currently a Senior Editor at South Asian Avant Garde: A Dissident Literary Anthology (SAAG).