Cover Story: Be afraid. Be very afraid

Atlantans face their fears in the era of terror alerts

Halloween will be a day like any other this year. You’ll probably see diminutive trick-or-treaters dressed as pirates or Harry Potter, but don’t be mistaken. These days, it’s Oct. 31 all year round.

The bogeymen are out in force, and they’re branching out from their traditional stations under your bed and in your closet. An upgraded, 21st-century bogeyman could take the seat next to you on an airplane or carry a suspicious package into a high school. He could be downloading your private information on a computer, or sitting at the wheel of the SUV looming hugely in your rear-view mirror.

Since we’re living in both an Information Age and a Terror Age, we’re constantly discovering new things to be frightened of, from toxic levels in our back yards to weapons of mass destruction in somebody else’s. We’re now a nation of scaredy-cats and worry-warts — and being insufficiently freaked out might itself be cause for alarm.

To help us get a grip on ourselves, we’ve taken the (racing) pulse of various Atlantans to find out what’s spooking us. In the spirit of the Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded “Alert Level Status,” we distinguish between the phobias that can be easily dismissed, and the ones that are fully justified. Because if we’re going to be jumping at shadows anyway, we might as well jump at the right ones.

THE FEAR: Chain businesses?
?THE FRIGHTENED: R. Land, visual artist

I’m horrified of Atlanta being overrun with chain restaurants and businesses — anything to make it lose its unique local flavor. I moved to Atlanta eight years ago from Florida, so I’m sort of a refugee from that kind of development. I watched Jacksonville turn into the kind of place where everything is a chain, where the best restaurant in town was an Olive Garden. We’ve already seen the start of it. There’s now a Starbucks in Little Five Points. The demographics are changing. And with this new Sembler project [on Moreland Avenue], we’re going to have a Target moving in.

TERROR ALERT STATUS: High. The suburban big-boxes have already made a dent in intown businesses, and Ponce de Leon has become the land of chains. Case in point: Tortillas.

THE FEAR: Multiple personality syndrome?
?THE FRIGHTENED: Jane Catoe, CL columnist

I used to be afraid that I had a split personality and didn’t know it. Now I’m afraid that I might not have even one. Actually, I’m chock-full of irrational fears. It’s hobby number three, behind bitching about stuff and gossiping.

TERROR ALERT STATUS: Low. Discount any self-diagnosed mental conditions, unless one of your personalities is an accredited psychotherapist.

THE FEAR: Devaluation of the arts?
?THE FRIGHTENED: Susan V. Booth, artistic director, Alliance Theatre

I worry that the arts are too often perceived as a luxury item — an optional experience that our legislators and funders measure against other social services and say, “But the money needs to go to more important issues.” And I worry that not enough of us are making the argument that without the capacity for compassion and emotional empathy that the arts give, we won’t even be able to have the conversation about any social issue because we’ll forget to worry about the other guy.

And I worry a lot about people on cell phones driving SUVs and checking their mascara simultaneously.

TERROR ALERT STATUS: High, especially in this town.

THE FEAR: The U.S. government?
?THE FRIGHTENED: Gerry Weber, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia

What scares me this Halloween??
?Shadowy figure. Sneaks into my house.?
?Peeks into my bedroom.?
?Powerful creature.?
?Tells me what to believe?
?And how to live.?
?That is always right even when wrong.?
?And can lock me in a dungeon and throw away the key.?
?The government, of course.?
?Oh, but pickles scare me more.?
?Hate those nasty green things.?
?I’d run even faster from a pickle.

TERROR ALERT STATUS: For the government, elevated. For pickles, not so much.

THE FEAR: Air pollution?
?THE FRIGHTENED: Neill Herring, Sierra Club of Georgia

The most pressing, fearful threat is the blindness about air pollution in metro Atlanta from cars, power plants and the big secret source for pollution, the airport everyone wants named for them. Atlanta and cars are already at the worst-case scenario point. The place cannot function with or without the goddamned things, and the only thing officialdom can think of is to add more. They are choking us, and the environments in which they perform best are hard on the eye, ruinous to the ear and painful to the lungs. And there is a well-financed lobby that thinks that making this even worse is a good idea.


THE FEAR: Random acts of violence?
?THE FRIGHTENED: Deloris Roys, criminal psychologist, Highland Institute for Behavioral Change

My fear is of a random act of violence — like you walk by a car and it blows up — things you have no control over. It’s not necessarily terrorist violence, it could be gang violence or the actions of a mentally ill person, like the gentleman who walked into Perimeter Mall a few years ago and shot people. With terrorist acts, you can at least understand their intent — they might want to blow up a government building to make a statement, and so you can avoid government buildings. But there’s no predicting it if you’re at a mall.

TERROR ALERT STATUS: Guarded. Random violence is uncommon, but impossible to predict.

THE FEAR: Television?
?THE FRIGHTENED: Dana Phelps Marschalk, artistic/executive director of Moving in the Spirit dance company

I stopped watching TV when I was 18 because it sucks your creative brain power. Your brain is more active when you’re sleeping vs. watching TV. That’s scary. I do not own a television. Early on in my teen years, I realized that I was addicted to the TV. Once it is on, I would get sucked into the images whizzing past: the cars I deserve to own, the shape I should have, the relationships I should crave, the drugs I could take to deal with the stress of not having the car, body or relationship I deserve, or so the marketing says. It is garbage.

TERROR ALERT STATUS: Elevated, and TiVO is scarier still: It actually learns what you watch and starts taping extra shit it thinks you might like.

THE FEAR: Poison and fascism?
?THE FRIGHTENED: Cliff Bostock, CL food critic and columnist

I have two recurring fears. One is that an unhappy chef will recognize me and serve me poisoned food. Why do I fear this? Because a waiter once told me he watched a chef — “Chef Jane Pittman,” I’ve long called him — spit on my plate as it left the kitchen. My second fear, an obsession, is that the U.S. will make a full transition to a fascist or theocratic state with the aid of media which, having become hyper-sensitive about being called liberal, have lobotomized themselves. Did you know editors and publishers, the folks who run the “liberal” media, voted 2-to-1 for Bush? Talk about scary!

TERROR ALERT STATUS: Elevated. Don’t rule either of them out.

THE FEAR: Medical malpractice?
?THE FRIGHTENED: Allison Kelly, consumer advocate, Georgia Watch

It reads like a scene out of Stephen King’s Misery, but it’s a real-life nightmare for folks all over the state. A woman goes into the emergency room for a yeast infection and wakes up two days later with both her legs amputated below the knee and her right arm severed below the elbow. A mother checks her daughter into their local hospital for dehydration from the flu; the hospital drowns the 9-year-old internally with IV fluids until she falls into a coma and eventually dies. Doctors say it’s an accident. Attorneys call it medical malpractice. But survivors and family members would say it’s a living hell.

As if going to the doctor wasn’t scary enough these days, big businesses like Home Depot and Georgia Pacific teamed up with the insurance and medical industries to push “tort reform” legislation that protects doctors and hospitals that maim and kill their patients, and limits how much they have to pay even when they really fuck things up.

Ask yourself: what’s more terrifying than a razor blade in an apple? The sound of your doctor saying, “oops.”


THE FEAR: Masquerading Democrats?
?THE FRIGHTENED: Dan McLagan, director of communications, Gov. Sonny Perdue

With what happened in the elections last year, I’m worried that Democrats are going to start dressing up like Republicans and get all the good candy. Otherwise, we here in the Perdue administration are fearless.

TERROR ALERT STATUS: High. Case in point: Sen. Zell Miller, who never removes his Republican costume.

THE FEAR: Hyper-vigilant cats?
?THE FRIGHTENED: Karin Slaughter, suspense novelist

The PATRIOT Act scares the shit out of me, so it really scares me when one of my cats startles from a dead sleep and looks behind me like there’s a man standing there with a hatchet. I’ve got two cats: Pete and Sophie. Pete is a 23-pound Maine Coon, 10 years old, and Sophie is an 8-year-old Persian. They were both rescued from the pound and I think they’re afraid I’ll send them back if they don’t learn how to do the dishes.

TERROR ALERT STATUS: Low. Cats have more disregard than outright hostility to humans.

THE FEAR: Living ghosts?
?THE FRIGHTENED: Dr. John Beyers, senior minister, Grace United Methodist Church

I’m not nearly so haunted by the thought of disembodied souls searching for peace as I am haunted by the “embodied” souls searching for peace and not finding it in our day. Those whose lives are marked by the “hauntings” of prejudice, hate and intolerance, those who live by the sword and delight in the maxim: “Do unto others before they do it unto to you!” or those who see others as property or possessions rather than persons of eternal possibilities.

TERROR ALERT STATUS: Low. Though disgruntled souls do frequently make life a waking nightmare for others.

THE FEAR: Anti-Halloween zealots?
?THE FRIGHTENED: Tom Simmons, stand-up comedian

I fear that people who believe idiocy like their kids shouldn’t celebrate Halloween because it is Satan’s holiday will continue to spread their ignorance to the next generation. I don’t understand how anyone could ever think that a holiday like Halloween could influence someone toward Satan. Do people actually believe that Satan works like a child abductor? “Hey little kid, would you like some candy?” Wow, if your kid is willing to trade his eternal soul for a fun-sized Snickers bar, than maybe you’re not doing a great job with teaching them in the first place.

TERROR ALERT STATUS: Low. Those Snickers bars are mighty tempting, even if Satan has nothing to do with them.

THE FEAR: Health care hypochondria?
?THE FRIGHTENED: Dr. Dennis Daniels, interim director, Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness

From a public health perspective, there are several areas today in which people may have an excessive amount of anxiety. They’re afraid of mosquito bites, out of concern for the West Nile Virus. But every time you’re bitten by a mosquito, it’s not going to be carrying West Nile. Only individuals 50 or older are the ones who are at increased risk. Some people worry that if you have a flu shot, you’ll get the flu yourself. They think the shot contains a live virus, when in fact, the virus has been deactivated. And nowadays people have an increased fear of colds, because they think they’re a sign of SARS. But the CDC has isolated the pathogen for SARS, so there’s less cause for alarm there. Just because you’re close to someone who’s sneezing or coughing, you’re not going to get SARS. You might catch a cold however, especially if you don’t wash your hands. The best single thing you can do to protect yourself is to wash your hands.

TERROR ALERT STATUS: Low. With health care issues, the only thing to fear is fear itself — as long as you wash your hands.

THE FEAR: Dubya supporters and Bike Shorts Guy?
?THE FRIGHTENED: Eric Panter, festival director for Atlanta Underground Film Festival and WellFair

The fact that there are actually people out there who agree with and support our president scares the hell out of me. What could be a bigger nightmare than another four years of hell on Earth?

Also, I’m pretty frightened of CL’s pick for Best Street Character, Bike Shorts Guy. What’s the story with him, anyway, and what in God’s name are those lumps in his crotch? Can you imagine finding out? Now, that’s a fucking nightmare!]

TERROR ALERT STATUS: High. Bush Jr.’s approval rating has taken a post-Iraq nose dive, but his followers still run fanatical. And some of them may wear bicycle shorts.

THE FEAR: Dubya ousted from office?
?THE FRIGHTENED: John Sugg, CL senior editor and columnist

My greatest fear is that George Bush will not be re-elected. Journalists, you see, should support candidates who are likely to make the best news copy. We don’t want someone who consistently tells the truth, is a guardian of the public’s rights and welfare, is loyal to the spirit and letter of our nation’s founding documents. How BOOORRRRING. No, we need four more years of George. More global-class dishonesty, more wars, more ruining America’s economy, more ripping off the middle and working classes to put money in his pals’ pockets — that all makes for great news stories. It just scares the ever-lovin’ bejesus out of me to think that we might replace Bush with a competent, freedom-loving statesman.


THE FEAR: Clowns?
?THE FRIGHTENER: Chris Brown, puppeteer and gore effects expert

I’ve heard that a lot of people have a fear of clowns, so this year I went to Dragon*Con dressed up like a rotting, dead clown. I had a zombie mask that I painted solid white. I wore a green checkered shirt with multicolored buttons, voluminous red, white and blue pants, bozo hair, a purple-and-orange checkered tie, with stage blood running down all of it. And I had a fake nose that made a squeaky sound, which somehow enhanced the effect. I was really surprised at how many people reacted to it. There were people who wouldn’t come near me, people who wouldn’t even look at me. And there were people who’d come up to me and say things like, “My friend is afraid of clowns. Could you come over so she can face her fear?”

TERROR ALERT STATUS: Guarded. Zombie clowns don’t exist — but clowns are common, and dozens can squeeze into a single car.



Rats and trains give Tray Butler the willies. Japanese robotic pets give Curt Holman the heebie-jeebies.