Growing up, lots of people have irrational fears. Tons of kids are scared of the dark. Some are certain that there are monsters hiding in their closets or under their beds. Other people for known or unknown reasons develop a fear of confined spaces, spiders or snakes. My greatest fear as a child was a bit more unusual. Or at least the face I put to it. I wasn’t afraid of monsters exactly. I was afraid of aliens. Yup, aliens. From outer space. They were scary, petrifying even.

I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s and I remember these horrible commercials. Now, the production quality would probably be laughable, but the mere memory of them now is enough to send a cold chill through me. There were several in particular, but the one I remember most went something like this: there’s a young couple on the couch watching TV, and then this commercial comes on (the same one I’m watching) and after all these flashes and photos of supposed ‘alien sightings’ an announcer with a sinister tone asks, ‘How well do you know the person sitting next to you?!” at which point the girlfriend turns to the boy and he morphs into one of those scary brown guys with a skeletal body, long appendages , a huge head and big glossy black eyes. As if that weren’t bad enough, he then proceeds to sprout about 5 arms out the top of his head, and as he turns to face his girlfriend he slowly waves all of the attached hands at her. The announcer man laughs deviously and the girlfriend screams. What kind of freak puts that commercial on network television?! We didn’t’ have cable, and I’m pretty sure we never stayed up even through late prime time. This commercial was on during the regular programming that my siblings and I watched, like “Full House” , “Family Matters,” “Saved by the Bell,” or during our early Saturday morning “X-men” cartoons. Thinking back on this now, it makes me angry. I’d like to find the people who produced that commercial and give them a serious talking to. They did traumatize me for life after all.

This commercial never came on when we were watching TV as a family, it only came on when my brother and I were watching alone. Mom was probably cooking dinner or looking after our baby sister. We would see the first image of the lovers on the couch and my brother and I would turn to face each other on our old, worn out camel colored corduroy couch—our eyes wide and I’d think, “Oh no!” It seemed that just watching the commercial would somehow be dangerous or invite these strange visitors into our home, tell them where we lived. Like they could glean this information through the screen as they looked into our eyes. So once we learned to recognize these commercials, my brother and I would turn quickly and face each other in a fetal position on the couch and block our ears with the palms of our hands so that we couldn’t hear the girl screaming. We couldn’t even get up to change the channel when those commercials were on, and we didn’t have a remote. So we sat there. Huddled together, waiting for the commercial to end. I swear those were the longest commercials ever made. And every second that they were on, I counted—waiting for them to finally go back to cheesy 80s family shows that would rescue me from potential abduction.

The other main trauma that imbedded this fear deep into my psyche was also the result of television exposure. My dad was a huge Trekkie back in the day and I distinctly remember sitting down with him one night watching some sort of 20/20 or nightly news special on extra terrestrials. Even from the first minutes of the show I felt uneasy—I begged my dad to turn it off but he said I was being silly and that I could go in the other room if I didn’t want to watch. “But I’ll be taken up to the mother ship if I go in there alone!” my heart protested. I knew what would happen. But I couldn’t say that. So I squeaked out something about not wanting to watch it and not wanting to be alone, and somehow ended up staying in the room with my dad watching that program. At some point I must have left because I don’t remember a lot of it. Either that or it was so traumatizing that my mind blocked most of it out and my psychologist and I haven’t gotten to uncovering that bit yet. What I do remember was the layout of the show that I saw, and the facts that were relayed in that portion. First, there was a computerized diagram of the standard extra terrestrial, about 3 to 4 feet tall, brown, with skinny arms and legs, and over sized hands—no thumbs. A large egg shaped head with dark empty eyes. As a synthesized voice projected, the image turned 360 degrees very slowly. The voice told me two things that I remember. Two things that were enough to change my behavior and everyday life. First that aliens loved music. So I stopped listening to my new boom box after it got dark outside or when I was alone in my room. Next, she said that aliens LOVE ice cream, especially strawberry flavored, and I am freaking out because we have a new carton of neopolitan ice cream in the freezer. Clearly we are ideal targets for extra terrestrial visitation. This is not good. Not good at all.

In addition to monitoring my playing of Janet Jackson’s “Escapade” and Gloria Estefan singing “1,2,3,4” I also started hiding my thumbs at night. I would curl my hands into tight fists and tuck my thumbs inside. Obviously the aliens with their special space ship x-ray thing could see through my roof as they hovered above my house at night—and they could see my little girl body under the covers in my bed, but in tucking my thumbs into my fists I was convinced they would be fooled. They would see that I ALSO had no thumbs, and therefore must be an under cover alien living in a human house, so they would leave me alone to complete my mission. Pretty impressive thought process for a 6 year old huh?

Neilasparophobia that’s what wikianswers says it’s called. Though I could be wrong. I just did a basic, 5 minute google search. I don’t think I even voiced this fear of aliens to another person until I was in high school. And as I got older it became more and more embarrassing to admit. I knew it was irrational, silly even. Yet I cannot describe how severe and honest this fear inside me was. In performing this basic search on “fear of aliens” I was astonished to find SO many sites dedicated to this discussion. Mostly people talking about fear of abduction, or wondering if their sudden fear of aliens is because they’ve recently been abducted and have suppressed memories of the experience locked away deep in their subconscious.

I’m not sure exactly how or when this happened, but over the last year or so I’ve noticed that aliens don’t scare me so much any more. Sure I still get the heebee jebies when I see an add for some alien movie, or a leathery mask at Halloween. And I can’t watch Steven Speilberg’s family film “E.T. the extra terrestrial,” but other than that, I’m pretty much ok. I no longer wake up in a cold sweat at night convinced that someone is watching me. Though I do notice that when I’m really anxious or afraid about other things, I’ll look down and without even having done it on purpose, I will have tucked my thumbs inside my two fists, snuggly hiding them away. The impulse has been that engrained in my body that I hide my thumbs as a defense mechanism, even to this day. And I’m 28 years old.

So what happened? Was I abducted by aliens? I don’t think so. Was it really their space ship hovering over our house every night that made those screeching sounds? Or was it, as my mother explained, the guy with the big rig up the hill driving home from a cross country trip late at night? The truck explanation makes more sense. But it doesn’t explain why my favorite flavor of ice cream is strawberry.