I don’t think I’ll ever cease to be amazed at how strongly the mind can react to things — and which things it chooses to react to.

I’ve always had an extremely active imagination, a quality which has both good and bad points. Growing up, I often retreated into my own little fantasy worlds instead of dealing with the real world around me, and that’s something that has never entirely ceased. While I’ve long since ceased hiding within myself as an escape from things I didn’t want to deal with or as a defense mechanism, I can’t say — and really, I wouldn’t want to — that I’ve ever ceased letting my imagination run away with me from time to time.

Walking down a hallway, someone might notice a small twitch of my hands from time to time, though it’s most likely they wouldn’t. Just a small gesture, perhaps just stretching my wrists a bit, nothing really worth paying attention to. Of course, that’s only because they can’t see the blast of power I just released careening down the hall, rushing past them, sweeping papers and debris in its wake as it crashes into the locked gate at the end, bursting it open with a horrendous shriek of tearing metal as the hinges shatter and fall to pieces.

People passing me on the streets at night never know of the creatures stalking them. Wingless batlike creatures the size of large dogs, walking on their forelegs, hind legs slung up and over their shoulders and terminating in wicked-looking claws. Needle-sharp teeth beneath an eyeless face, the cries of their sonar echoing from building to building as the pack converges on another unlucky derelict passed out in an alleyway. Curious how few rats this section of the city has.

Okay, perhaps it’s a little juvenile. Silly daydreams built on many years of fantasy and science-fiction novels. That doesn’t make these worlds any less fun to play in from time to time, however.

When I was younger, my fertile imagination would often get the better of me. Certain television shows would keep me up for nights. The Incredible Hulk — or the “crumbly hawk”, as I deemed him — was an especially potent terror for a time. I didn’t see Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller‘ video until long after it was released when I was only nine years old, and even into my early teen years, horror movies were a rarity.

I once tried to watch the sci-fi horror movie Lifeforce during one of HBO’s promotional free weekends after our family got cable, because of the naked lady at the beginning — but all puberty-driven fantasies were driven violently out of my head when she sucked the very life out of some poor hapless man, turning him into a horrible desiccated corpse before my very eyes, and I don’t think I slept well for a month afterwards.

Even the trailer for Gremlins was enough to give me nightmares when I saw it, and I never saw the movie in the theaters. I read the novelization to try to get an idea of how the movie was, and oh what a mistake that was. At one point in the story, the gremlin Stripe escapes from being studied by a teacher in the school’s science lab. While in the movie Stripe simply jabs the teacher with a single hypodermic needle, the book described seven or eight needles, maybe more, being stuck into the teacher’s face. It was literally years before I got the nerve to watch the movie (and then was somewhat chagrined to see how tame it was compared to the images I’d had seared into my brain when I read the book).

As I grew and began to be better able to separate the fantastical worlds inside my head from the real world around me, I started to develop a fondness for some of the more disturbing images that I hadn’t been able to cope with as a child. I started watching all the horror movies I’d heard about for years, but never been able to watch. Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Clive Barker, and other similar authors started appearing on my bookshelves. The Alien movies introduced me to the artwork of H.R. Giger. Discovering David Cronenberg‘s films led me to Naked Lunch, and then to the literary work of William S. Burroughs. My musical tastes, while never having been particularly mainstream, started skewing more towards the gothic and industrial genres. Black soon became the dominant color in my wardrobe.

Finally being able to explore and embrace this darker imagery helped me a lot through my teen years, and still does today. While I wasn’t always the happiest teenager around — I had more than my fair share of whiny, angsty moments — I never ended up succumbing to the depression that so many other people seem to. I’ve never been suicidal (in fact, quite the opposite, as I’m somewhat frightened of death, and have never found myself in a situation where suicide seemed like an even remotely good idea), and while there were certainly some stumbling blocks over the years, I think I’ve ended up becoming a fairly well-rounded and well-grounded adult (oh, lord, did I just admit that I’m an adult?).

I have my ups and downs, same as anyone else, of course, but on the whole, I’m a fairly chipper and easygoing guy (chipper…who talks like this?). That “dark side” is still there, of course, manifesting itself primarily through my tastes in music, movies, and an often bitterly bleak sense of humor, but rather than dominating my personality, it’s just another aspect — and, importantly, one not incompatible with a love of childlike (and sometimes childish) silliness (a double feature of Hellraiser and The Muppet Movie isn’t something I’d find particularly unusual, for instance).

For all that, though, there are times when my imagination can still play games with me. What it latches onto now, though, aren’t the fantastical elements of horror movies. I can watch Freddy suck Johnny Depp down into his bed in a geyser of blood, watch Pinhead flay the flesh off of Frank’s recently resurrected body, or watch Jason skewer horny teenager after horny teenager without batting an eye — heck, I enjoy ever last little blood-soaked minute of it, and sleep soundly as soon as the movie is finished.

What gets me now are the real possibilities — and, more specifically, the really realistic situations, as redundant as that might sound. Kill Bill, for all the hype it got over its extreme amounts of blood and gore, didn’t bug me simply because it was so ridiculously over the top (in a good way) that I didn’t feel real. It may have been live action with real flesh and blood actors, but it felt like a comic book, and so my brain quite happily filed it away with all the rest of the blood and gore from all those silly horror movies.

It’s when it’s something that could conceivably really happen that I get the willies.

Pulp Fiction is a great film, and The Rock, while certainly not great, is a lot of fun. Those two films have one very important element in common, though: an adrenaline shot straight to the heart. I can’t watch either movie without cringing and turning away as the needle plunges into the character’s chest and into their heart — heck, I can’t even write this paragraph out without rubbing my own chest due to the sympathy pain I feel.

Last week Prairie and I watched Deliverance, which I’d never seen before. Just after the disastrous run through the rapids as the boats break apart and the men go tumbling over rocks and down the river, Burt Reynolds pulls himself up and out of the water onto a rock, revealing the compound fracture sending his legbone tearing through skin and muscle and jutting out the side. “Oh, God,” I said — if it was even formed into actual words — and immediately curled into a ball on my side, rubbing my calf as my oh-so-eager-to-oblige imagination sent spasms from my own suddenly shattered body up my leg.

Tonight — because I’m apparently a glutton for punishment — Misery was the movie of choice. Okay, I knew the hobbling was coming. Even without having read the book or seen the movie before (that I can remember, at least), that scene is so much a part of pop culture that it would be nearly impossible to really be taken by surprise when it comes up. That certainly didn’t make it any easier to watch, however. The sickening crunch of splintering bone as the sledgehammer pulverizes his ankle, and at thirty-one years of age, I’m curled in a ball on my bed.

Honestly, in some ways it’s as funny as it is exasperating. I can laugh at the absurdity of having such a strong reaction to these things even as I’m still trying to drive the residual twinges out of my ankles. I wouldn’t trade my imagination away for anything…but I’ll freely admit that there are times when I wish I could just turn it down a few notches.

iTunesSpirit in the Night” by Springsteen, Bruce from the album Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (1972, 5:00).