I was in the middle of a rehearsal for a play when what I thought was the second of the day’s small earthquakes hit. The floor shook. I screamed. Everyone else shrugged and continued to perform — I know the show must go on, but even during an earthquake, I thought? I sat backstage trying not to think about the ceiling falling in on top of me as my cast-mates ran lines and made jokes. When I rolled into my bed — the top bunk — I felt as though I should fall asleep under my desk, just in case.
In actual fact, the earthquake I felt was the fifth earthquake to hit Berkeley last Thursday. Three more smaller quakes hit in the early hours of Saturday morning. Eight earthquakes. EIGHT.
When I decided to study here, I was aware, dimly — vaguely — that Berkeley is built within the Hayward Fault Zone. I know that my home away from home, International House, is built almost directly on the Hayward Fault. There’s a small wooden sign just inside the front door declaring I-House’s location as a “seismically active area” and warning residents that we live here at our own risk. I noted this information when I arrived and then hurriedly suppressed it, placing it into a box in the corner of my brain marked “scary things.”
It’s Halloween next weekend, supposedly the scariest time of year. For one weekend (or a whole week depending on how many parties you manage to attend) we toss aside our own image and assume a different one. Now, Halloween has become more about dressing sexily, or using a costume to make a pop culture reference, or just dressing up in a silly outfit for fun. But historically, this festival is all about fear. For one night, people all over the world dress up in costumes for the thrill of disguise, and sometimes in an attempt to scare each other witless. But we watch scary movies all year round, not just at Halloween. The huge market for thriller and horror movies, and indeed, theme parks with rollercoasters and other rides designed to give us a thrill, would suggest that we like being scared. We even actively seek out fear just to give ourselves that adrenaline rush, the “fight or flight” instinct, and to experience the relief when we realise we’re safe once more.
For me, my first experience of earthquakes was more genuinely terrifying than any rollercoaster. Even the sound of recycling bins rattling past the window minutes after the tremor sounded ominous until I realized what I was hearing. Today, I heard a thundering noise below me and wanted to duck under a table before I realized it was just a class being let out.
I laughed at myself for five minutes.
Because you have to laugh once it’s all over, and everyone is just fine. Once you’ve unstrapped yourself from the rollercoaster seat and stood with trembling knees on solid ground again. There’s literally nothing else you can do. We may be embracing fear this Halloween weekend, but in reality, we could find fear in the world around us everyday if we chose to. But why would anyone choose to? Near misses, like tiny earthquakes, happen unnoticed every day. We know somewhere in our brains that life is risky, all the time, and especially when you live on a fault line. But we feel the fear and do it anyway, because if we didn’t, we’d all become hermits and end up living alone with loads and loads of cats, too afraid to go out into the big scary world. And I’m really not a cat person.