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Her screams were top shelf. The kind of earsplitting, blood-curdling shrieks that cut to the marrow, leaving you dazed and numb. Their believability enabled catharsis, and she confessed as much in interviews that she truly was “scared shitless.” The separate, ancillary anxiety was a bonus, the way she worried alongside the menace and gore adding a depth and real-life relatability to the viewing experience. Her mind worked with moral concern so that ours didn’t have to. Let someone else shred their vocal cords. Let a virtuoso bear the burden of terror, in addition to the humdrum worries of everyday life.
And she bore them without complaint. She was good at it, and “just happy to be a working actor.” True, she would’ve preferred romantic comedies, the occasional indie; but her talent for horror was extraordinary. Sometimes our professional niches choose us.
The thing about work, though, is that it’s easy to lose one’s self in the job, to become what you do. Forever in a state of fear (method actor, no surprise), she was finding it increasingly difficult to break character — or rather, transition. She began to scream off script.
She apologized profusely, but she couldn’t find the off switch.
Thankfully, we viewers didn’t mind. In fact, ratings went up. Because who can say no to more?
“It’s where she lives,” one critic observed. “You can’t rein in talent like that.”
Nor did we want her to.
They adjusted the scripts to give her more scream-time.
After that, it was like the Universe had given her body permission to go full hilt. She was screaming off set — while driving, at the grocery store, in the shower — in permanent scream mode. Radio stations, store PA systems, cell phones, the wind itself picked up her screams and carried them through city streets, across state lines, rivers, and oceans. She was the scream queen, after all; she was a powerhouse.
Initially, it was unnerving. Her bone-chilling shrieks would startle us while waiting in line at Starbucks and Trader Joe’s, make us pause over our phones. Glancing up with embarrassed grins, we’d say, “Awkward.”
But eventually we got used to it, and her screams became background noise we could tune in and out at will. They became so constant, the real screams from the alleyways and parking lots, the war zones and prisons, bedrooms and homeless shelters and juvenile detention centers were drowned out. There was only the constant high-pitched shriek of the scream queen tearing through it all like a kind of disco beat to which we kept time. Her screams became so much a part of us, we went about our lives oblivious even to the screams tearing from our own throats.
We shrugged away any scant concern. Why worry — dazed and numb as we were — when someone else could do a better job? Why bother when she could out-scream us all?
Michelle Wilson’s words have appeared or are forthcoming in Potato Soup Journal’s Best of 2021 Anthology, Rejection Letters, Maudlin House, Litro Magazine, The Drabble, 50-Word Stories, Literally Stories, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, among others. She lives in Miami Beach, Florida.