It's the worst nightmare I've ever had. I say that because though it's possible that since then I've had dreams more legitimately frightening — sometimes my subconscious really lets loose — this is the one that's stuck with me. I was 11 years old, and had borrowed Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark from the school library. Although I was only in 6th grade, I was a pretty advanced reader with a hyperactive imagination; I had read Tolkien in elementary school and would curiously pluck Stephen King's It from the racks at the public library a year later. On top of that, the Scary Stories books were extremely popular among kids my age, taking root in the kind of groupthink that can sweep through schools and create weird sub-universes throughout the city. (There was also a hardcover Encyclopedia of Dogs that was weirdly but powerfully beloved by the student body, so much so that the librarian classified it as a reference book and wouldn't lend it out.)
Anyway: The stories are moderately creepy, especially if you're in middle school, but the real killer is the artwork accompanying them, these disturbing and haunting images done in some combination of ink and watercolor and pure unfiltered terror. One image shocked me more than any other, and I'm not quite sure I remember correctly which story it accompanied, but it scared me. It was a woman with no face, just a worn skull and stringy hair, and jagged black holes where her eyes should have been. I hated it on a deep level I could barely define. That's what caused the nightmare.
In the nightmare, I was reading the book in my English class and came across the disturbing art, so I walked up to my teacher's desk to show it to her and complain about how frightening it was. "But why?" she asked. "We're all like that, Daniel." And I saw that her face had become the dead woman's, limp hair plastered to a gleaming skull. I looked around the room, and the rest of the students had turned into the same stark horror. I couldn't escape.
That's when I woke up.
I searched for that image online and found it right away; I've attached it as a link here for the morbidly curious, but I can barely look at it. I squinted or shielded part of the screen when downloading and then uploading the picture. If I'd just come to the image now, I'd find it unsettling, but because it's so inextricably tied to a childhood memory of pure fright, I can't look at it without beginning to breathe heavily and feel the slow creep of fear, like I'm still 11. I guess that's the point, in a way.