The Right Time: How Sailor Moon, Rod Serling, and Invisibilia Helped Me Get over Death
By: Ian Evans
TW: death of a close family member, grief, anxiety attacks related to mortality, and intrusive dark thoughts related to violence against loved ones, spouses, and thoughts of self-harm.
I was seven years old when my grandfather died.
It happened August 1, 1994. According to historical records, the weather was warm–a balmy seventy-three degrees that would rise to a sweaty, eighty-eight. But this was the sleepy part of morning, a time for early joggers and little else. My grandfather was one of them. He ran on a track a few miles away from his house, preferring its rubber lanes to the pavement of sidewalks and roads. He never got his jog in that morning, however. Instead, as he stepped out from his Ford Taurus, the car door still hanging open, his heart seized and sent him hurtling toward the ground. The back of his head smashed into the asphalt of a high school parking lot, and there he lay bleeding until a fellow jogger found him and called 911. By the time the paramedics arrived and rushed him to the hospital, he was dead. He was fifty-nine.
His death, in our family, was an extinction-level event akin to the Sturtian glaciation or the asteroid that ended the dinosaurs. Life continued on afterward, but it was forever changed.
In those first days after his death, we were united in our grief. We stayed with my grandmother in the house they’d made together. My memory of this time is spotty at best, only coming to me in repeating clips like animated gifs. One is my mother and grandmother crying in the living room, a box of tissues between them, daylight cutting rays through afternoon dust. The other is at night. My mom, sister, and I are curled up on an old queen-sized bed. The mattress is too soft. Springy. It creaks at the slightest shift of weight. I am awake, lying between my mom and sister. Rain beats against the house. A tree’s branches scratch at the window in the heavy wind–the kind of night people remember around deaths. In high school, the Porter’s speech after King Duncan’s murder would resonate, but that night, I was just scared.
Like Nature’s response to regicide, our stories from that time are all portents. My mom recalls statues of the virgin Mary turning on their own in our apartment. For weeks, she ascribed any similar movement to some upcoming sinister event. She, my sister, and I renounce Christianity shortly afterward, exploring Judaism and Wicca before settling comfortably into faithlessness.
My grandmother stops eating and drops twenty pounds. For the first time since anyone can remember, she goes under a hundred pounds. Bags under her eyes droop past their usual half-moons, becoming curtains drawn along the sides of her cheeks. She is quiet when she speaks and ends every conversation with, “If only Poppy were here.”
We all have our dreams. Mom says he meets her in the old house on Mechanic Street, except he’s older, like he would be in the Butterfly Lane house. He tells her that he’s fine and not to worry. My grandma dreams of him as sleep paralysis. She wakes up in her room, laying on her side, unable to move, and feels him get in bed beside her. He is warm, and she is too afraid to turn over for fear he’ll dissipate or she’ll wake up.
Me: I have nightmares. Or, rather, one nightmare over and over.
It’s dark. Everything is awash in emergency exit red. I’m walking on a metal grate, and below me is a tank of water that glows its own shade of sea green. I don’t see it, but I know that there is something lurking beneath my feet. A shark. Or crocodiles. Something deadly and hungry. Then a figure appears at the opposite end of the grate. A man, silhouetted despite being surrounded by darkness. Somehow I know he’s there to harm me. I wake up before he can.
The nightmare happens often enough that I find myself sleeping in my mother’s bed nightly. It comes even then, and I lie awake for hours, staring, changing positions, and watching the clock until either sleep takes me or the sun comes up.
It wasn't until Sailor Moon aired in 1995 that I found the cure for my nightmares. Looking back, it makes sense how a superhero, who destroys happiness-sucking monsters by moonlight, would help me with my own difficulty sleeping. However, that comparison was lost on me then. What wasn’t lost on me was Sailor Moon’s theme song, which promised the protection of a friend who would fight evil and never turn her back on me. That pledge gave me a comfort that my mother’s bed, nightlights, worry dolls, and dream catchers hadn’t. I still slept in my mother’s room, but when I woke up in the middle of the night, I turned over and quietly sang Sailor Moon’s theme song repeatedly, sometimes through tears, until sleep came again. And it worked. I slept, and while I can’t say how long I relied on the Sailor Moon sleep cure, I know I moved back to my own bed.
I also know enough about memory to know that recalling this story is as much an act of creation as it is an act of retrieval, but one fact that hasn’t changed in my years of holding onto this story is the timely introduction of the Sailor Moon theme song to my life, and its effect on my sleep.
One of the most often-repeated refrains surrounding my grandfather’s death relates to its suddenness. Because he died at the age of fifty-nine, my grandmother sought comfort in superlative statements about his fitness. “I’d never seen a man his age be in such good shape like that,” one doctor said. Another said, “It was his fitness that allowed him to live as long as he did.”
These comments may have eased some of her own misplaced guilt–that she could have done something if she’d only noticed the right cues–but they only made seven-year-old me uneasy. Death, something reserved for movie villains and distant relatives, became something real, a force that could come for any of us at any age, and could lay low even the strongest among men (among whom my grandfather, the only consistent male figure in my life, could surely be counted). Any description of my grandfather’s ability, strength, or anyone’s surprise at his demise, only further underscored death’s unpredictability. The result was that any series of actions–touching the TV dial, touching the bedcover, and then putting my fingers in my mouth–filled me with such anxiety that I would let out a high-pitched squeal, find the nearest adult, repeat said actions for them to see, and then ask, “Am I gonna die?”
I touched my ear, and then I touched my mouth. Am I gonna die? My apple touched the floor and I ate it. Am I gonna die? I scratched my butt, scratched my head, and then rested my hand on my stomach. Am I gonna die? The scenarios were endless, and while a single reassurance assuaged my immediate fear, it wasn’t long before some other series of actions had me concerned about my own pending mortality.
Nothing seemed to help. That is, until The Twilight Zone.
The sixteenth episode of The Twilight Zone’s third season is called “Nothing in the Dark.” In it, an old woman (Gladys Cooper) effectively imprisons herself in her own home for fear that she will die if she goes outside or lets anyone in. Her fear stems from a childhood experience: witnessing the death of an old woman on a bus. In the episode, Death (Robert Redford) is personified and named, fittingly, Mr. Death, though he is capable of changing his form and appearance. It is for this reason the woman grows paranoid of all outside movement and social interaction: Death could come for her in any place, at any time, and in any form.
At seven years old, I knew the feeling well. Death lingered on every surface I touched. The anxiety of death forced me into my own self-imprisonment–locked into the ritual actions I performed in search of others’ assurances that I would, in fact, be ok. To this day, Cooper’s
character is one of the most distinctly relatable and human that I know: fiercely clinging to her continued existence despite the sacrifices she makes to her quality of life. It’s the mindset with which we began the Covid-19 pandemic, and it’s the mindset my seven-year-old mind concocted after my grandfather’s death. If I never do anything new, and get reassured every time I do, then I will be safe and my jumping heart can slow.
Fortunately, Redford’s character–Mr. Death himself–broke me of that mindset (as he breaks the woman of hers) with one touch and a few lines. During the emotional climax of the episode, after Wanda Dunn (Cooper’s character) figures out Redford’s character is Death, he convinces her to take his hand. The extreme close-up of their hands touching, we understand, is the moment at which she dies. In response, Redford’s character says, “You see? No shock. No engulfment. No tearing asunder. What you feared would come like an explosion is like a whisper. What you thought was the end is the beginning.” 1 Shortly after, the two exit through the tenement apartment’s front door. It is both a step forward for Wanda, finally freed from self-imprisonment, and a step into the next phase of her life.
Seeing Cooper’s character, and the ease and contentment with which the episode ends, shattered my preconceived notions of death. I didn’t fixate on the way Mr. Death had entered Wanda Dunn’s home by trickery; rather, I saw the end of her life as a natural part of her journey, one that she needn’t be afraid of. And, somehow, if she didn’t need to be afraid of death, it seemed less scary for me, too.
My rituals subsided soon after. My anxiety abated. More than thirty years after its original air date, The Twilight Zone showed me there was nothing dark about death.
Years go by. Death loses its teeth. Becomes distant. Worry fades to occasional states. I graduate high school, then college. I meet my wife in our graduate program. We date. We fall in love. We both get hired right out of school. Live together. Get married. We build a life together paycheck by paycheck, year by year. I feel secure, content, and comfortable in ways I never have before. It seems almost wrong after my youth, where I constantly worried about death, homelessness, or the sudden reemergence of my father, so I’m hypervigilant for any signs this privileged life might fade.
Despite my vigilance, or perhaps because of it, I didn't notice when the thoughts started–maybe they were always there–but as my wife and I lived together, I became increasingly aware of a new type of involuntary thinking. These were different from the anxiety rituals or nightmares of my youth; these seemed rational, likely even. I might be carrying a knife between the kitchen and dining room when the thought would strike, vivid as if it happened. My wife turns the corner, straight into the knife in my hands. The blade slips in, then out, easily, catching only on the cloth of her dress. Her hands find the wound as blood blots through the fabric.
The thought unnerves me. Wrong to even think about. I start carrying knives pointed inward or downward. The thoughts that come this time are of me stumbling over something on the floor and falling onto the knife. Gravity pushes my body further onto the blade, up to the hilt, which slips on the ground. I roll over, bleeding, shirt sticking to me like I’m just getting out of the pool.
This helps–better to hurt myself than someone else, I think–but the thoughts don’t dissipate. Instead, they multiply. I’m driving home from work on routes that parallel one-lane bridges and steel guardrails. I imagine misjudgment. An image of me cutting the wheel too far to the right. The guardrail rips through my fender. Bits of plastic and glass explode from my headlight. There’s a crunch of metal. I slam the brakes, but it’s too late. The car’s momentum spins around the right wheel’s fulcrum until my rear-end hits the guardrail on the other side. The car wrecks inside my mind, but outside it, I’m still driving, past the bridge now, my whole body tense from the imagined impact.
Then the thoughts get worse. Instead of accidentally slipping onto the knife, I think about the force it would take to stab myself. The hard part would be the initial thrust, but once it’s done, it’s done. The car would be even easier. A simple jerk of the steering wheel would be all it took to send myself careening like a crash test dummy. I’m horrified by my own imaginings and ashamed that such thoughts even occur to me. I ask my friends and coworkers if they have thoughts like this. I ask my family and my wife. They all say no.
The closest I come to mutual understanding is when my sister tells me she thinks about accidents happening to her son, like a knife falling from the counter, or a dropped pot of boiling water.
What the hell is wrong with me? I think.
It turns out, nothing. Enter the premier episode of the Invisibilia podcast titled “Dark Thoughts.” 2 In it, Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller explore the world of dark thoughts–suicidal thoughts, homicidal thoughts, feelings of worthlessness, emptiness, and social ineptitude. Through their investigation, they follow the story of S, a husband who, after watching a particularly graphic film, started having violent or vulgar intrusive thoughts. Thoughts about humping chairs, stabbing his wife, strangling the dog, or carving up the customers he dealt with at work.The real story isn’t about S, though, it’s about all of us and our understandings and value systems related to thought. In this way, the episode uses S’s story to explore three theories regarding the importance of thought: Psychoanalytic, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and what’s referred to as Third Wave therapy (an extension of CBT).
It’s this third type of therapy that S finds so freeing. It argues negative thoughts are not even worth the time we spend worrying about them, that we can and should learn skills–through mindfulness–to recognize those thoughts and let them go.
Needless to say, the episode was a revelation. Like Sailor Moon and “Nothing in the Dark,” S’s story freed me from my struggle in a way I hadn’t considered. Instead of trying to battle my thoughts, or reason through them, I could transcend conflict and let them go. For S, this meant going through months of therapy, imagining or pantomiming violent scenarios long enough for them to lose meaning; but for me, it was almost like hearing that S was able to do this work–to know that someone had the same thoughts I had and transmuted them into banality–was enough for me to move on. If S could manage his dark thoughts, then so could I, and if dark thoughts meant nothing, then they were barely anything to manage at all.
So I let them go, and held on to the things that mattered: my life, my wife, and my work.
Would that it were that easy. It’s not as though my dark thoughts have stopped, or that I am unafraid of death or dying (these fears were renewed somewhat with the birth of my child), or that I no longer have nightmares (I do, just not as frequently and not the same one). Rather, it’s that each piece of media brought me back to homeostasis. They regulated me when I needed it the most, coming in at just the right time, with just the right message to cut through whatever chaos was happening in my lizard brain and activate my parasympathetic response.
My wife and I are going for a walk with our daughter. She is ten months and sixteen pounds, dangling from a carrier strapped around my chest. I’m tired from staying up too late the night before, worried about how my habit of burning the midnight oil has shortened my life, resulting in my eventual premature death (something my wife warns me frequently about). Birds chirp along telephone pole wires. Cars hiss by at residential speeds, bobbing over potholes. It’s October, but the Fall chill hasn’t set in yet, and there’s a golden spill of sunlight at our backs as we make our way, as we’ve done hundreds of times, up Central Avenue back to our house.
We come to the corner curb of the sidewalk. We have to cross the street. There is a sewer grate at the curb, and where the metal meets the asphalt has cracked and given way creating the appearance of a sinkhole. There are orange construction cones and caution tape surrounding the entire scene.
We’re just about to step around it (as we always do) when the thought strikes me. I see my foot catch. I stumble and fall forward. It’s so sudden that I can barely brace myself. The asphalt bites into my palms, but not as hard as I’m expecting. A moment passes. Everything is quiet, but something feels off. There’s a stickiness down my front. It’s only then that I realize what’s really happened. I’ve crushed my daughter between the road and me. Her body broke my fall and is now broken itself, dead and still strapped into the carrier.
It would only take one slip, my mind tells me. But then I see it for what it is: a dark thought. I let it go and walk on. I step around the traffic cones. My wife looks back from a few steps ahead, smiling. My daughter coos and waves her arms, delighted in her mother’s face. The sunlight warms my back as we climb the hill back home.
About the Author
Ian Evans is a writer and middle school teacher with a B.A. in English and an Ed.M. in Secondary English Education and the 2023 recipient of Somerset County Teacher of the Year. He has previously co-created “The Mechanic,” a graphic poem, and his poetry has also appeared in The Ekphrastic Review. He lives in Highland Park, New Jersey, with his wife, who is also a writer and teacher.