Tragic Beauty


Our Daily Correspondent

Axes from The Shining

Axes from The Shining at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo: Eric Chan, via Flickr

The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle. ―Stephen King

The rain is pouring up here in Maine: King country. The weather is regenerative and generous, but awfully forbidding, too. Someone hearty told me that this weather is, in fact, the best time to take walks up here—certain vivid mosses have been known to appear. But this is the sort of individual who enjoys icy five A.M. swims, and I did not want to admit that my study of bryology never really extended beyond carpeting bowers for the occasional fairy, and that said experiments generally resulted in pulling up large hunks of moss, moving them, and then being surprised when they died. In short, I am still indoors. And for good measure, we watched The Shining. I remembered it having been much scarier.


Cabin fever is an idiomatic term, first recorded in 1918, for a claustrophobic reaction that takes place when a person or group is isolated and/or shut in a small space, with nothing to do for an extended period. Cabin fever describes the extreme irritability and restlessness a person may feel in these situations.

A person may experience cabin fever in a situation such as being in a simple country vacation cottage. When experiencing cabin fever, a person may tend to sleep, have distrust of anyone they are with, and an urge to go outside even in the rain, snow, dark or hail. The phrase is also used humorously to indicate simple boredom from being home alone.

I would expand on this definition, though I’m still in the early stages of cabin fever. I’d say that it can also lead afflicted individuals—individuals, that is, who have finished all the books they’ve brought—to read numerous late-seventies novels featuring insouciant, sexually liberated heroines, who engage in casual screwing (this is the preferred terminology) and say “Christ” a lot. Cabin fever sometimes manifests in numerous terrible attempts at colored-pencil portraiture that make your companions look sort of like Harry Truman. In some cases, there have been instances recorded of butterscotch brownies made without a recipe and bras hand washed in shampoo, because.

Cabin fever, as we know, is a leading catalyst to murder. We live in the post–Scary Movie world; we are jaded to the mechanisms of easy fear. Nevertheless, a small, innocent part of me is willfully alive to the possibilities of horror movie outcomes; although not particularly inclined to it myself, I feel pleasantly murderable. Indeed, if one might be said to encourage such things (not in a London Fields sort of way, I mean), I’d say everything is set in motion: a remote cabin, plenty of woods, and the general arrogant high spirits of an outsider who’s kind of asking for it. I’m not eager for it, but it seems to me better to be mentally prepared. And besides, I would quite like the New York Post to call me a “tragic beauty,” or maybe even a “brainy beauty” because I wear glasses—the beauty bar for the tragic is generously low.

We have joked about it. There were some men working with chainsaws nearby the other day, before the fine weather broke. We could hear the whir of the chainsaws coming closer and closer as we huddled inside.  And of course, it wasn’t even scary; it was too much of a cliché. And the men were very nice. I don’t think they saw that I was, secretly, a tragic beauty, just waiting to be recognized.