The most important question a newcomer to my family can be asked is not “which footy team do you root for?” or “milk and sugar?” or “beer?” but: “Are you rabbit hunting tonight?”
Uninitiated partners, friends and park rangers alike tend not to know how to answer this question, and their confusion is only compounded further when it’s followed up with: “Are you scaring, or are you in the van?”
To make my life easier by eliminating what is always a somewhat awkward conversation, I have decided to write this explainer, so that future in-laws can read up on the wild and wacky ways of my family. As mum says at the start of every rabbit hunt: buckle up.
I come from a large family, not unlike rabbits themselves when it comes to reproducing. I have 115 cousins, and we like to hang out and eat and talk shit together. A lot.
Our most sacred hangout spot is a former quarantine station turned nature reserve known as Woodman Point Recreation Camp, or “Woodies” for short. For almost 50 years, my family has rented out the brick cottages in this beautiful yet eerie place south of Fremantle, with anywhere between 10 and 20 of us living there over the course of a couple of weeks, and dozens more popping in daily for the seemingly endless cycle of lunch, dinner and ocean dips.
The thing about having such a large family is there are always a lot of kids, and kids demand entertainment.
That’s why, some time in the early 90s, we began “rabbit hunting”.
After dinner, once it grew dark, us kids would pack into my mum’s Mitsubishi van and zip around the camp, down its various dark roads, patchy lawns and abandoned medical facilities, spotting rabbits, which were at that time as plentiful as we were (bonus points if you spotted the owl).
In 1996 or so, all but a few of the rabbits died of myxomatosis, which meant our rabbit hunts were suddenly rather barren. Even the owl seemed bored. The whole thing felt pointless.
So we came up with a solution.
I believe it was my aunties Gwen and Jan who first began what we call “scaring”. Gwenny popped on a witch’s hat and Jan threw a sheet over her head, and both stood on the edge of the bush on the roadside to spook us kids as the van drove by.
Scaring was an immediate hit. Soon, the older cousins were going all out with their costumes (Phil’s toilet paper mummy is the stuff of legend) and coming up with new and innovative ways to terrify the rabbit hunters in the van. Cousin Pete was the first to think to hide in boot and pop up and grab those in the back seat, a move that slotted in perfectly with my mum’s trick of pretending the van had broken down at the mouth of the darkest stretch of road, where she would slyly turn the engine off then tell the youngest that they’d have to get out and push.
Mine was the first generation to be scared, and so we were the second generation to take up scaring (something you want in on from around the age of 10 or so). Having been raised, as it were, on a diet of familial mummies, ghosts and witches, while also consuming the postmodern horror films and video games of the late 90s and early 2000s, our brand of scaring was less Wicked Witch of the West and more The Blair Witch Project.
In short: us millennials didn’t so much desire to scare our little cousins, but haunt their waking dreams.
In the midst of this, of course, is Crazy Clarke.
He is a demonic entity who lives down the creepy side road at the camp’s entrance, wearing a cape made from his victim’s faces. He has stalked the nightmares of every child in my family since I invented him as a means of teasing my younger cousins when I was a nine-year-old boy.
Since then, Crazy Clarke has taken on his own folk mythology, with successive decades of sleep deprived children adding to his lore. Tragically, for me, their mothers’ insistence that “Patrick made him up” became “Patrick is Crazy Clarke” somewhere along the line, and I am now burdened with the responsibility of regularly pretending I am possessed by this nefarious tulpa to make sure the children stay on their toes (usually at their mothers’ insistence).
We sometimes share the camp with Scouts or church groups, and one time the ranger (who is in on all this by the way) may have been called when a few kids on their pentecostal summer camp saw me lurking like a goblin in the moonlight outside their dorm room. Those in the van often complain of temporary hearing loss from the high-pitched screams, and there has (naturally) been a few bouts of incontinence from minors and elders alike over the years.
Every scarer knows that there’s nothing quite as scary as being the scarer. A certain chill creeps up your spine when you find yourself standing alone in the dark woods waiting an excruciatingly long time for the van to drive by, trying to ignore the fact that you were raised to believe that Crazy Clarke is out there in his cape of faces.
Relationships are made or broken by rabbit hunting. You know if your new fling is going to be long term if they “get” what is, as I’ve been told by some, a deeply off-putting ritual. My family is still in awe of my ex, a contemporary dancer, who did a shaking fit into a bend-back crab crawl towards the van, thus cementing their place in rabbit hunting legend forever.
Now, I’ve learned from years of explaining this to friends and strangers alike that it can come off as unforgivably deranged and possibly cruel. Is this OK? Is this moral? Who am I to say, and who are you to judge?
I’m not here to answer your questions, honestly. I’m just here to ask you: Are you scaring tonight? Or are you in the van?
Crazy Clarke awaits your answer …
• Patrick Marlborough is a writer and comedian from Fremantle, Western Australia