The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Phoning Home / by Courtney Mehlhaff

This last weekend, I turned 30. It was neither as traumatic nor as monumental as one would expect, but I figured this milestone was the perfect opportunity to finally grow up and face my fears. So I took advantage of the 80s-themed bash my friends threw me and wore something I have previously never dared ... a leather mini-skirt? No. A scandalously low-cut top? No. (What would be the point?) Nothing but legwarmers and a smile? Wrong again. I donned a t-shirt with a picture of E.T. on the front.

Yes, E.T., the lovable extraterrestrial of Steven Spielberg fame and the creature who has haunted me since my cousin David took me to see the movie when I was 3. You would think that, 27 years later, my biggest horror would be the fact that I'm single and childless, but no. I'm most afraid of a small, sweet, enormously popular, Christ-like space traveler who does not even exist.

After that first viewing, E.T. 's image stuck with me. And on me, as my grandma bought me an E.T. shirt that I had to pretend to like while being secretly terrified to look in a mirror. In second grade, our teacher chose it as our Christmas movie, and I had nightmares for weeks. I haven't seen the movie since. At one point a few years ago, I thought I might someday give it another chance. That was, until I was sitting in my house in Japan, ready to watch a rented movie, when a preview came on for the 20th anniversary release. Realizing what I was about to see, but unable to find the stop button on the remote in the dark, I resorted to panicking and yelling wildly while groping for the light switch, my eyes pinched shut.

"But Courtney," you say, "you're a grown-ass woman. Surely you can overcome such an irrational fear."

To which I would reply, "Duh, that's why it's called irrational."

Everyone, whether they're willing to admit it or not, is afraid of something that can't be conquered by reason. My dad, for example, is scared to death of snakes. No traumatic experience, just can't bear to see them, even on TV. My sister's biggest irrational fear is being buried alive. By contrast, her biggest rational fear is being wrongfully imprisoned -- still highly unlikely, but it has been known to happen. (As a side note, she's also afraid of squirrels and claymation, which you'd think was super weird unless you had other friends who feared being lost in space and the "foreverness" of heaven.)

And you know what's crazy? At least one other person reading this just identified with something in that last paragraph. I know for a fact that I'm not alone in my xenophobia. But the thing is, it's not even a fear of aliens. I don't really have an opinion on the existence of other intelligent life forms except to say who knows? It seems rather odd that hundreds of people would have the same hallucination of being abducted and probed, but then again the abundance of peyote in the desert may have something to do with that. All I know is, should a beam of bright light slice down from the stars, I will be doing 120mph in the opposite direction. I saw "Fire in the Sky." I'm no fool.

E.T. makes my skin crawl for many reasons. The telescoping neck is one. The crazy gravelly voice is two. The fact that he was lying in the living room all white and ashy is three through twenty-five. All the Reese's Pieces in the world can't make up for the scene where Elliot stumbles across him in the field and he screams. And don't even get me started on the glowing finger. But what really gets me is the part where the kid throws a baseball into the barn ... and something throws it back.

Deep down, it's that primeval fear of the unknown that keeps me awake at night. The idea that someone or something with malicious intent is lurking just around the corner. Or in the shadows. Or in the closet, surrounded by all my stuffed animals.

Which is why I was so proud of myself for taking a very small but important step away from eternal lameness and wearing that t-shirt to the party. Of course, it wasn't an actual photograph of E.T., just a cartoon rendering that was, I admit, almost kind of cute. Although the significance was lost on most, I'm satisfied knowing I tried. But wouldn't it be great if everyone made the same effort to face their darkest, most embarrassing fears?

I wonder if there's an iron-on transfer of the foreverness of heaven.