Fears Before Bedtime:
Looking back, I think the thing that colored the texture of my childhood most prominently was fear. Not the big grandiose phobias of adulthood, like death, disease, poverty and aging, but a stinging cloud of tiny irrational worries that needled me long into adolescence. The funny thing was that almost all of these anxieties were self-inflicted, the enfants terrible of overactive imagination, born of ignorance, confusion and speculation.
To understand what I’m talking about, you have to appreciate that the world a child perceives and occupies is utterly different to the grown-up universe. Parents dictate bizarre social conventions that you suspect are simply made up on the spot. You can eat certain foods with your hands but not others. Mum insists that you tidy your toys away, even though this means that you’ll no longer remember where they are. Certain people are fat or short or ugly, and yet you’re forbidden from discussing these facts within earshot of them. It’s not polite to pick your nose and flick bogies away, but it is polite to blow all the snot onto a piece of tissue-paper, fold it and put it in your pocket. You can’t ever talk to strangers, yet by the same token your parents admonish you for not making friends when all the possible candidates for companionship happen to be strangers. You have to go to bed early even though mummy stays up late. You can’t whisper a swearword even though daddy shouts them when he watches football. It goes on and on and on.
Not only this, but simple physical laws do not exist in childhood. There’s no such thing as physics or chemistry when you’re five-years-old. There’s no such thing as God either. Think about that for a second. Everything, from the dishwasher to the lightbulb, is an incomprehensible miracle. This is why kids make the best scientists; they systematically question everything around them, right down to the most minute detail. Contentment with ignorance is a form of learned helplessness that only adults suffer. Children are never satisfied, and their inquiries are constant:
“Why does the sun come out in the day instead of at nighttime when the light would be more useful?”
“How do I know air exists when I can’t see it? What if breathing is just a bad habit I can quit anytime I want?”
“What’s the difference between dead people and asleep people? What if dead people have just been asleep a really long time and when they wake up we’ll have locked them in boxes and buried them in the ground?”
“For that matter, what happens when we run out of space in the ground to bury dead people in? Will we have to fire them into outer space or what?”
“What’s to stop liquid from not assuming the shape of its container. It can be any shape it wants, why should the container decide for it?”
“How can trees be alive when they don’t move, eat or go to the toilet?”
“How can the earth be spinning around the sun without me ever getting dizzy?”
“How can the earth be smaller than the sun when the sun in the sky looks like it’s the same size as a penny?”
“Why did it take people in the olden days so long to invent cars and computers?”
“If dragons and fairies don’t exist, why does everyone know what they look like?”
“How can girls be the same animal as boys when they have longer hair and different private parts?
Seems ridiculous right? Well ... yeah, maybe it is. But I asked questions like this every hour of every day, and now it seems insane to imagine a time in my life without the answers. So I filled in the gaps in my knowledge by scaring myself to death. For me the world was a huge and horrifying place that might contain any number of grim and haunting phenomena. I invented nightmarish scenarios to occupy my imagination. A few examples of the kind of lunacy I'm talking about:
-I had this fantasy where gravity would just stop working one day for no reason, and we would all float off into the blue, falling away from the earth forever and ever and ever like untethered balloons.
-I used to worry that my friends and family were impostors that only pretended to care about me. I had this idea that if I were to leaf through my parents bank statements or tax forms, I’d find evidence that they were spies or androids or something, sizing me up for experimentation or torture.
-I was seriously unnerved by the idea that God could see everything I was doing, because it meant that not one moment of my life would ever be unobserved: sometimes when I was on the toilet I would put a bath-towel over my head just so I could void my bowels in peace.
-I worried that other people couldn’t see the same colors as I could, or even the same shapes. After all, we only have our own senses to rely on right? How did I know that my idea of what an apple or a pencil is the same as other peoples? What if the universe was so terrible and alien, that we’d all, since the dawn of history, invented our own individual worlds in the privacy of our own skulls and pretended that we agreed on what it looked and smelled and sounded like?
-Sometimes in the restless predawn witching hours, when I was lying in bed, a car would rush past my bedroom window, throwing a slim pendulum of light across my ceiling from its headlamps. The whisper of tyres on the road always made a sound like an angel breathing my name in my ear. Whenever this happened I’d curl into a ball and bury my face into my pillows, whining like a dog for the sake of invisible monsters.
-I was paranoid that when I turned off my television, the characters on the screen would die instantly. To me, every time you changed the channel you caused a miniature apocalypse. If you switched off after an episode was over, you averted the catastrophe for the time being, but any other time made you a murderer.
-If I had to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, I’d always throw a toy or a pillow on the floor first, so the anomalous grotesque creatures that lived under the bed would get to that first.
-I regarded the film ‘Toy Story’, as a documentary, and as such was terrified that if I broke any of my own sentient plastic friends, I’d leave them irreparably deformed and crippled, trapped in agony and unable to die.
-I hated the sound of static, the dial tone on the end of telephones, the screech of glitching computer programs or the groaning of faulty VHS tapes. I always imagined that these were the sounds of machines screaming in pain.
-I was horrified to learn that everyone had organs inside them, long ropey entrails, slimy guts, whatever, because it meant that even the most beautiful people had disgusting stuff inside wound up inside them, all secret and repulsive underneath the skin. I became depressed after studying the digestive system because it meant that I couldn’t love every part of the girls I fancied.
-I was afraid of dark places, shadows and eclipses. I hated the sight of dead jellyfish, the spastic flutterings of daddy longlegs.
-I was scared of falling into a parallel dimension, like wonderland or Bizarro world.
-I didn’t like cracked windows, eyeballs, and human skin.
As I’ve grown I’ve shed these petty phobias, yet I don’t think this means I’m free of anxiety. On the contrary I think I’m simply better at hiding my own madness. The irrational horrors have been buried within the psyche or simply forgotten, while others matured and gestated, to become the many anxieties I live with today. As a grown-man I’m afraid of non-existence, of pain and depression and despair. I’m afraid of my friends leaving me or losing interest in my or betraying me. I’m afraid of not being funny or interesting or attractive enough for other people. I’m afraid of wasting my life or squandering opportunities. I’m afraid of my family and friends dying, or becoming sick or insane or disabled. I’m afraid of disappointing people, I’m afraid of failure, I’m afraid of rejection. I’m afraid I’m ugly, boring, pretentious and lazy. I’m afraid of loneliness, of being single for the rest of my life, of never becoming a great writer, of being poor or unfulfilled or unhappy. I’m afraid I might never get over my ex girlfriend, and find the strength to accept the way she ended things without it tarnishing the good memories. I’m afraid I might be so afraid of losing my next job that I’ll never get another one. I’m afraid of losing reasons to continue living, of the inherent selfishness, cruelty and malice of nature, of the indifference of the world to me and the meaninglessness of reality.
In fact, I have so many fears these days that it’s just impossible for me to find the time to be scared of all the other stuff, clowns and spiders and sharks and whatnot. I’m glad I’m not carrying the nightmares of childhood around with me anymore, and I’m proud to have replaced them with an adult’s. I don’t think the world ever stops being huge and frightening and inexplicable, I think we simply adapt ourselves to be afraid of what’s relevant, and reject what is not. There’s still a lot keeping me awake at night, staring into the darkness within and without, but at least those horrors can be shared. At least we don’t carry them alone.
What were you guys afraid of as kids? Did anything weird creep you out, and if so, have you outgrown that fear or is it still with you? As always, feel free to tell me about it, as I'm always interested in this kind of personal stuff.