Well, we had Halloween this week and Miss F and I duly carved pumpkins, put them on our front doorstep and waited for the three trick or treaters we had. We live in the centre of a small UK town, so Halloween isn’t particularly big here, in fact, the only reason we bother at all is for the delightful American family who live at the top of our road. They have two small children so the whole street puts out pumpkins and gets in candy so they can toddle up and down the road trick or treating.
It got me to thinking what an odd custom it is. When I was a child it had only just crept across the pond from the US and my mother hated it. We put out no pumpkins or Halloween decorations of any sort, and if any trick or treater dared to ring our doorbell they’d be sent away with a flea in their ear and sternly told to stop begging on people’s doorsteps. This is an attitude she still has even to this day.
But I know a lot of people cherish it as their favourite time of the year and while it does nothing for me, I can understand its appeal. For one night, you can dress up as something wicked and evil and release the inner demon inside – a very attractive proposition. And of course, there is the fact that most people love to be scared.
It’s not something I enjoy myself and I can’t understand the appeal of horror films and books, but I think I was scared off them at a very young age when a baby sitter – who really should have known better – let me watch the film Poltergeist. It absolutely terrified me. Not just while watching it, although that was bad enough, but for weeks afterwards I was unable to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I would see the images from the film creeping across my bedroom floor and would jerk bolt upright in bed, sweat sticking my nightie to my back and my skin literally crawling off my body. Refusing to tell my parents what was wrong – I liked that particular babysitter and was old enough to understand if I told on her I’d in all likelihood never see her again – I suffered in silence until eventually the immediacy of my terror passed and I was able to sleep again. Yet, I still remember how it felt.
People claim kids love to be scared, and whilst that may be true, I think there are limits. I used to love Doctor Who and yes, I was scared by the monsters, but it was a different kind of scared. The action usually involved aliens on far away planets so I knew they weren’t real, also the special effects in classic Doctor Who episodes were creaky to say the least, and when you can see the zip in the back of the monster’s suit it somewhat diminishes the effect it has on you.
The only exception was the Cybermen. Now they did bother me. Completely devoid of emotion, their one aim was to make you just like them and that terrified me a lot more than the Daleks. The Daleks only wanted to kill you and back then they had a serious issue with climbing, so my childish self would imagine escaping them by means of going upstairs and again that took away their impact. Nowadays, of course, they have this whole steam elevation thing going on so stairs no longer bother them – not sure how that would have made me feel as a kid.
Lots of things scared me as a child. I remember when I was very young, I didn’t like flushing the toilet, although I’m not too sure why, perhaps I thought something was coming out to get me. I used to wash my hands, open the door and stretch back as far as I could, flush, then run like the devil himself was after me – and perhaps he was.
There’s a funny story involving toilet flushing, well, I think of it as funny now, but at the time I’d never been so scared in all my life. I must have been about ten and awoke one day a bit under the weather and managed to convince my mum a day off school was in order. She fell for it and sent me back to bed, where I dozed for a bit listening to the far-off sounds of the rest of the family departing for school and work, before getting up and wandering through to the kitchen to investigate the contents of the cake tin. Settling down with a plateful to watch the school programmes that were on daytime TV back then and believing myself to be utterly alone in the house, I was just about to take a mouthful of cake when I heard the toilet flush. Now, my parents lived (in fact, still do) in a bungalow so everything was on one floor. I got up and stared at the door that led through to the bedrooms and the bathroom. To my absolute horror, I saw the door handle begin to turn and I completely lost it. Letting out a bone chilling scream, I collapsed to the floor – scaring the shit out of my mother who’d also decided she wasn’t feeling well so had gone back to bed instead of going to work. Apparently, it took ages to calm me down and even longer for me to convince my mother that the massive plateful of cake was me self-medicating.
I was afraid of my bedroom during the day and was convinced it was haunted. At night it wasn’t much better, for a while my parents kept a tall, metal, cylindrical laundry basket in my built-in wardrobe and I was convinced it was a Dalek coming to get me. In the end, it caused so many nightmares and disturbed my sleep so much, it was disposed of.
Getting into bed itself was also terrifying, braced in the doorway I would take a running jump into the middle of my bed and quickly clamber under the covers. The mere thought of standing next to the bed and simply climbing in reduced me to a quivering wreck, because of the hand I was convinced would come out from under the bed and grab me by the ankle. Let’s be honest, I think that’s a fear most of us had as children, and let’s be brutally honest, I think it’s a lingering fear most of us subconsciously have as adults.
I was also afraid of the dark. Now, I know most children are and I know most of them grow out of it. I must confess, I never have. I’m a light sleeper and tend to partially wake many times in the night. If it’s pitch dark and I can’t see where I am, then I get disorientated and confused and I wake up fully, groping for the lamp and then lying awake for hours trying to go back to sleep. However, if there’s even just the smallest glimmer of light, enough for my semi-asleep self to recognise my surroundings, then I instantly fall asleep again. So, I’ve always slept with a dim night light. Judge me all you like, it doesn’t make me a coward, it just helps me to sleep.
It’s hard to tell though, what will scare a child. Some things leave the callous little devils untouched and unmoved, but then something inconsequential will bother them. I remember when Miss F was a little one, we settled down one Christmas to watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, that much loved and popular kid’s film. All was well, she was loving it… Until… the child catcher appeared and that was it.
Turned. Her. Mind. As in, totally freaked her out. The film had to be abandoned for the fluffiness of a Care Bear video, with many cuddles, before she calmed down enough to go to bed. For weeks afterwards she would suddenly think of him and the whole cycle would repeat itself. I’m not sure she ever really got over it and it put her off anything even vaguely spooky.
As a big brave adult, not much scares me anymore. My fears now tend to be of a more practical nature, such as money and health issues, and my days of worrying about things that go bump in the night are pretty much over – I appreciate now that things that go bump in the night are usually other people enjoying themselves! But there is one thing that still has the power to freeze me to the spot with terror and turn my insides to water… Snakes.
I hate them, as in really, really, hate them. I can’t even look at a picture of one without experiencing a knee-jerk, primitive, instinctive recoil of terror and disgust. I also don’t like eels – I mean, all that thrashing about, what the hell is that all in aid of? And I’m not even that keen on worms – although I think that’s more to do with Sharon Kirk dropping one down my dress and then slapping me on the back when I was five, than anything else.
Now, I don’t mind lizards, in fact I quite like geckos, so it’s not a reptilian thing, and I’m not afraid of mice, rats or insects, any of the things that usually freak people. It’s just snakes, and they absolutely make me lose all control.
The closest I’ve ever really got to one was way back when Miss F was four or five. We’d gone to one of those farm/zoo places where they have a petting session when the kids can play with bunnies and goats and guinea pigs etc. I was having a bonding session with an enormous fluffy bunny and thoroughly enjoying myself when Miss F called to me to look at her. I looked at her. My child was completely draped with the biggest custard yellow python I’d ever seen.
I was practically torn in half by two equally strong urges. That of – run away, it’s a f*****g big snake – and – save my child from the f*****g big snake. A zookeeper was standing beside her with a big grin on his face and I had to fight hard not to slap him into next Tuesday for putting my child (and me) in this situation. Edging slightly closer and trying hard not to vomit on the bunny I was still clutching, I casually enquired.
“What are you doing, sweetheart? Why don’t you come and cuddle this lovely bunny?”
“Don’t want to, bunnies are boring. I’ve got a snake. I love snakes.”
“Oh, that’s nice, but why don’t you give him back to the nice man and let’s go and get some cake.”
“Come and stroke him, mummy.”
“No, that’s alright love, mummy has this bunny.”
“Put the bunny down, bunnies are boring. Come and stroke my snake.”
By now the bunny was struggling due to me squeezing him so hard, so I gently put him down and watched him hop away, wishing I could go with him. The zookeeper, sensing my reluctance, tried to be helpful.
“Perhaps mummy is too afraid to stroke the snake.”
By now, we’ve attracted quite a crowd of other parents and their offspring, and I can feel the sympathy oozing off the other mums who are also staring at this huge snake in horror.
“My mummy isn’t afraid of anything!” declared Miss F loudly, and that was it, wasn’t it, I had to touch the bloody thing now. No choice in the matter. Forcing my legs to move, I sidled closer. The snake lifted a head the size of a dinner plate and looked at me. There was a nasty look in its eye that suggested it knew precisely how scared I was. Perhaps it could smell the fear rolling off me in waves of perspiration, or perhaps it could hear the terrified pounding of my heart, or perhaps it just saw me as prey. Whatever it was thinking, I didn’t want to stick around any longer than necessary and tapped it lightly on its head and backed away.
“Right, I touched the snake, now come on honey, give the man back his snake and let’s go and get some lunch.”
I think by now the zookeeper had picked up that I was genuinely petrified and close to either puking on his shoes, breaking down into wild sobs, passing out, or possibly all three, because he took the damn thing off my baby and we were able to leave. Years later when I talked about it to Miss F, she remembered me touching the snake, but thankfully had no realisation of just what it had taken me to do so. Us mums are unsung superheroes sometimes.
One other thing that bothers me, and it’s such a ridiculously stupid thing that I feel an idiot even confessing to it, is I don’t like maps. Specifically, when a TV programme or something zooms down from a great height onto the landscape and you can see geographical features getting bigger and bigger. It makes me uncomfortable. Don’t ask me why, I can’t explain it. And it’s not exactly that I’m scared of it, it just bothers me a bit.
Weird, I know, but then people’s fears are sometimes totally irrational but still completely to be respected because they are their fears. I’ve known people be scared of birds, cats, dogs, hedgehogs, grasshoppers and dragonflies. Ferris wheels, roundabouts, buttons and elevators. Some of these fears make sense, others don’t, but hey, it’s a big old world and we’re all different.
So, what scares you? Is it something common like snakes or spiders, or is it something more bizarre like paperclips or doorknobs? I’d love to hear what it is and if you know why you’re afraid of that particular thing.
I think that’s about it for this week, and to those of you who noticed I got ahead of myself last week and posted Saturday morning instead of Sunday I apologise, but sometimes life… you know.
Take care and have a great week.