RECENTLY I'VE BEEN READING horror novels at bedtime. I'm talking about those paperbacks with names like The Brainsucker, full of scenes like this:

"As Marge stepped through the doorway into the darkening mansion, she felt a sense of foreboding, caused, perhaps, by the moaning of the wind, or the creaking of the door, or possibly the Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket full of eyeballs."

Of course if Marge had the intelligence of paint, she'd stop right there. "Wait a minute," she'd say. "I'm getting the hell out of this novel." Then she'd leap off the page, sprint across my bedspread and run into my son's bedroom to become a character in a safe book like Horton Hears a Who.

But Marge, in hallowed horror-novel-character tradition, barges straight ahead, down gloomy corridors where she has to cut through the foreboding with a machete, despite the obvious fact that something hideous is about to happen, probably involving the forced evacuation of her skull cavity by a demonic being with the underworld Roto-Rooter franchise. So I'm flinching as I turn each page, thinking, "What a moron this woman is!" And Marge is thinking: "Well, I may be a moron, but at least I'm not stupid enough to be READING this."

And of course Marge is right. I should know better than to read horror books, or watch horror movies, because -- this is not easy for a 42-year-old male to admit -- I BELIEVE THEM. I have always believed them. When I was a child, I was routinely terrified by horror movies, even the comically inept ones in which, when Lon Chaney turned into a werewolf, you could actually see the makeup person's hand darting into the picture to attach more fake fur to his face.

When I was 17 -- this is a true anecdote -- I had to explain to my father one Sunday morning that the reason our car was missing was that the night before, I had taken my date to see "Psycho," and afterward I had explained to her that it made more sense for HER to drive ME home, because of the strong possibility that otherwise I would be stabbed to death by Anthony Perkins.

For years after I saw "The Exorcist," I felt this need to be around priests. Friends would say, "What do you want to do tonight?" And I'd say, "Let's take in a Mass!"

I'm still this way, even though I'm a grown-up parent, constantly reassuring my son about his irrational fears, telling him don't be silly, there aren't any vampires in the guest bathroom. Part of my brain -- the rational part, the part that took the SAT tests -- actually believes this; but a much more powerful part, the Fear Lobe, takes the possibility of bathroom vampires far more seriously than it takes, for example, the U.S. trade deficit.

And so late at night, when I finish my horror novel and take the dogs out into the yard, which is very dark, I am highly alert. My brain's SAT Sector, trying to be cool, is saying, "Ha ha! This is merely your yard!" But the Fear Lobe is saying: "Oh, yes, this is exactly the kind of place that would attract the Brainsucker. For the Brainsucker, this is Walt Disney World."

And so I start sauntering back toward the house, trying to look as casual as possible, considering that every few feet I suddenly whirl around to see if anything's behind me. Soon I am sauntering at upwards of 35 miles per hour, and the Fear Lobe is screaming "IT'S COMING!" and even the SAT Sector has soaked its mental armpits and now I'm openly sprinting through the darkness, almost to the house, and WHAT'S THAT NOISE BEHIND ME OH NO PLEASE AAAIIIEEEE WHUMP I am struck violently in the back by Earnest, our Toyota-size main dog, who has located a cache of valuable dog poo and shrewdly elected to roll in it, and is now generously attempting to share the experience with me.

Thus the spell of horror is broken, and my SAT Sector reasserts control and has a good laugh at what a silly goose I was, and I walk calmly back inside and close the door, just seconds before the tentacle reaches it.