Plenty of things scare me now. There’s dying, of course, either my own untimely demise or the loss of someone I love. And I’m afraid of the other standard things, like war and violent crime and sickness and aging and financial ruin and natural disasters. Now that I’m an adult, I’m more aware of the world and all its wonderful and terrifying possibilities.

As a child, I was afraid of one thing, and that thing was a puppet.

It was a Muppet, to be exact. I loved the Muppets in general, and seeing or hearing them now always brings me great joy. But this was one of the nameless Muppet monsters, a creature with wild hair and a beard, stern eyebrows, and piercing eyes. Basically he was Charles Manson in puppet form. But it wasn’t just his eyes that got to me, it was also his voice. He spoke gruffly, and he had a vocabulary limited to one phrase: MAHNA MAHNA. Back then, I heard this as “A-NUM-A-NUM,” and because Jim Henson and his cohorts did not give this monster a proper name at the time, I began to refer to him as The Num-a-Num.

I was only three or four when I discovered The Num-a-Num and my fear of him. My sister was just a baby, and we shared a room, with her crib against one wall and my bed against the other. On many occasions, I’d have nightmares that The-Num-a-Num was living under my bed, and that he would rise at night, and creep up through the crack between my bed and the wall, and stare at me with those piercing eyes. Though my mother would do her best to console me, I knew, even then, that she was humoring me, that she thought it was hilarious that I would be so afraid of something as benign as a puppet.

The Num-a-Num eventually abandoned my dreams, but he has gone on to receive some notoriety in the Muppet world. He’s been given a makeover over the years; he’s now green and purple and his hair is orange, and his friendlier look is capped off with a pair of sunglasses over those eyes. He’s popular enough now that he’s even been given an official Muppet name: Mahna Mahna. But none of these niceties fool me. If there’s one thing I know for sure (and knew, clearly, from an early age), it’s that true terror strikes when and where we least expect it, and actually seems scarier when it comes from such innocuous origins — whether it’s a be-bopping puppet, a grandmother’s favorite doll, or just hitting that SEND button.

Lest you take any of this lightly, I invite you to behold The Num-a-Num for yourselves. Just don’t blame me if he starts visiting you, too.

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