I admit it: Most of my life I was a fraidy-cat, a panicked pickle, a serving of yellow-belly sashimi.

Not any more, for some reason. Something happened in early middle age: I stopped running and turned around to face my fears and went, “Boo, yourselves!” and they vanished, as specters of all kinds are wont to do when confronted.

Fear isn’t always unpleasant. There are entire recreational industries devoted to people tempting danger for the adrenaline rush. There are even professions that thrive on the natural high that comes from flirting with disaster: the armed forces, the stock exchange, Somali piracy.

As a kid I was more afraid of horror as entertainment than most. My younger sister was far braver than I. When we were living in Rome as children, the local Luna Park — a feeble amusement park compared to its American counterpart at Disney World, but a step up from Coney Island — had a haunted house. Sister Sarah couldn’t get enough of it, but I went once and never went again. (On the other hand, I couldn’t get enough of the truly dangerous rides, which might have informed my risky career choices.)

The horrors in Rome weren’t confined to amusement parks. The city is a sprawling mall of terror; those Catholics are some twisted motherfuckers and they’ve been that way for a very long time. There were the catacombs, for instance, those ancient Christian underground tombs. I was taken there by my relentlessly curious mother when I was about six. It was so traumatic that snippets of it still trouble my memory in choppy flashes like a low-budget horror film that is studiously underlit and handheld. And that moldy dank smell of ancient earth mixed with long-decayed flesh… shudder. What must have sealed the memory forever is I came down with a nasty case of pneumonia immediately afterwards, the kind that puts a child near death’s door. I remember Mum blaming it on the catacombs. There weren’t just dead, lion-chewed Christians down there, there were murderous microbes lurking wraithlike in every tenebrous nook.

Yes, the macabre is unavoidable in Rome. The city lives atop a warren of crypts, forgotten passageways, abandoned dungeons, ossuaries. Of course Mum couldn’t resist ferreting out places like the Crypt of the Capuchin Monks, a grisly hall decorated with bones and skulls and mummies off the Via Veneto, the city’s Fifth Avenue. I admit it, I was too terrified to go in and waited outside while sister Sarah trooped in with Mum. She emerged later to declare it some variant of “awesome” that we used back in those days. As she would note years later, to no objection from me, “You got the female soul, and I got the male.” (This preoccupation had as much to do with the fact she has male vocal chords, which give her voice a pleasant low timber, as it did that I was from early childhood clearly a cringing Nancy, a shrinking violet, a budding pansy.)

Crypt of the Capuchins

So you’re eight years old and your mom wants you to go into the Crypt of the Caphucins…

You would think that I would be used to it given that we spent our summers in a wooden Victorian house perched in the mountains of upstate New York that art directors on horror films would kill themselves trying to replicate authentically. The gated community it belongs to is an entire village of creepy; it’s even called Twilight Park — Edgar Allan Poe couldn’t have made this place up for fear of seeming too obvious. To give you an example of how terrifying it is, and our house in particular, I was driven up there by a PA from a shoot a few years ago who had never been to Twilight Park. It was getting dark, the twilight hour, and I didn’t want her driving down the serpentine mountain roads by herself at night, so I invited her to stay over. As we came around the corner up the driveway within sight of the house she said, “No way. Nah uh. I’m not staying there.” Of course, the more she resisted the more I insisted. Poor thing spent the whole night awake in her room hugging her knees, listening to the singular creaks and groans of the house, a horror film sound designer’s idea of aural gold.

Oddly, I’m not at all afraid of the house at Twilight, never have been. I’ve stayed there for lengthy periods alone, writing, just me in the company of the gothic creaks and groans, of the plangent chorus of windswept pines outside. Conversely, my fearless sister gets still gets spooked by it on occasion. I suppose fear isn’t rational, whether you have a male or female soul. Perhaps I understand the more earthy, natural Wiccan beauty of Twilight Park and see it as benign, but amusement-park haunted houses and crypts decorated with the mortal remains of Catholic cenobites just freak me out. And perhaps I take entertainment too seriously.

"The Shining" has nothing on Twilight Park.

“The Shining” has nothing on Twilight Park.

I am pretty scary myself as a person, apparently. A relatively new friend said to me the other day, “When I first met you, I was intimidated.” This was no quivering homo speaking. He’s a straight former Marine drill sergeant who did two tours of duty in Iraq. Not that sexuality has anything to do with it — most gay men I know are horror fans, and quite a few of them get up to all sorts of naughty, terrifying things in dungeons wearing hoods and other sinister black-leather contraptions. They take their torture porn literally.

More often than not, I am mistaken for one of those dungeon masters; my scary, lupine aspect is alluring to some strange folk. It’s amazing how many guys want to be roughed up — I take it as a sign of veiled mental instability and back away politely. I am polite because I feel that if someone has dared approach you with a kinky request you ought to respect his courage and not make fun of the pervy fuck, much less grimace in disgust. And the fact I get called ‘sir’ isn’t unpleasant.

I’m considered ‘dominant’ in Homolandia and there’s nothing I can do about it. And I shouldn’t because it’s actually honest. I am ‘dom’ naturally, what they would call a “take-charge kinda guy” in the corporate world. In fact, I don’t even need to take charge, people seem to cede it willingly, gladly even, or skulk away to protect that charge from my taking it.

It got to the point where I felt the need to describe myself as a ‘rom dom’ in my online dating profiles to distinguish myself from the ‘rough dom’ type that masochists were mistaking me for. The ‘rom’ was short for ‘romantic,’ implying that I’m more a gay version of the alpha male on the cover of a Harlequin Romance, his arms firmly around the swooning heroine while he kisses her. You’re never going to catch me in a warehouse wearing a harness and a leather jockstrap flogging the mental issues out of some willing ‘sub’ strapped to an X-shaped cross. But passionately making out with a handsome buck on pristine, 800-thread-count sheets? Definitely.

The ‘rom’ thing didn’t catch on as I had hoped, unfortunately. It was like trying to make ‘fetch’ work, as they say in Mean Girls. Not only did I spend too much time explaining it, the notion of a dom top being this rose-tinted romantic didn’t go over well with submissive men. They didn’t flock to my re-branding as I had hoped and steered clean of me as if I’d betrayed and blasphemed against the cult of masculinity — let’s face it, I’ll never understand bottoms.

It’s not that I’m afraid of S&M, although it does seem to be Halloween all year round with the costume-like black leather and the hoods and the torture and roleplaying language. It doesn’t appeal to me any more than most horror films do — it’s unrealistic, too theatrical. Now and then I’ve been tempted to take a class in how to be a proper master — there’s a club in Los Angeles called Avatar that offers courses in BDSM — but it seems like such an effort for something that is expected of me by others, but doesn’t feel natural. Among other things, I’m a lazy type of fraidy-cat. Maybe if I felt the need to attract guys through performance and artifice I would get off my ass, drive to the Valley and take Buttplugs & Handcuffs 101. But, nah — too much work.

Also, things that make you fearful are by necessity usually hideous, the uglier the better. And I’m such a visual person. I like pretty, I like light, I like lyricism, I like emotions that make you feel love and buoyancy, not make you want to crap your pants. Yeah, I’m a big sissy that way. Which means that this Halloween you’ll find me at the Arclight Cinema in Hollywood, probably choking back tears while I watch Dallas Buyer’s Club, side by side with the former Marine drill sergeant I used to intimidate. Whatever you’re doing, have a good one, and check that candy for poison before you eat it.

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