I’ve been thinking about monsters lately. Perhaps it’s because of the death of Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of Where The Wild Things Are. He famously brought childhood monsters out from under the bed and into the pages of a book. In interviews, Sendak would claim that he never wrote specifically for children. Other people, most likely his publishers, decided who the audience for his books should be. There were critics – they believed his stories contained harsh truths and disturbing images that could scare children.
The monsters in Sendak’s most famous book are actually modeled on his relatives. I know where’s he’s coming from. Some of my uncles could probably have cameos in a horror movie.
Sendak’s recent death coincides with my toddler’s sudden fear of the dark. This fear has come in stages. First, several weeks ago, she started asking for a lamp to be left on at bedtime. Every night, before I went to bed myself, I would sneak into her room and turn off the lamp I’d left on for comfort; I’d then arrange her covers and give her a soft goodnight kiss that she’d never remember.
But then she started waking up in the middle of the night and crying for the light. I’d walk in and find her sitting up, occasionally looking terrified. Other nights she would come to my room and stand next to my bed, calling me until I woke up. Each time I’d have to turn the light back on. At 4am I was in no mood to argue. It’s bad enough that I usually have to sing Baa Baa Black Sheep.
This week it has taken another turn. The Raging Bull, who will turn 3 in July, has started asking me to shut the closet door. I asked her the other day why she needed to have it shut. She pointed a chubby finger at the dark space within and whispered earnestly, ‘There are ghosts in there.’
‘Really,’ I replied in mock disbelief. ‘Do you see them anywhere else?’
‘Over there, in the chair.’ She looked across the room at a huge reclining chair that no one uses and sits neglected in a corner. I must admit, that scared me for just a second. Imagining a ghost in a chair is more unsettling than garden-variety ghosts in the closet.
The thing is, I am pretty damn sure my child doesn’t have a sixth sense, enabling her to see dead people. That would be the plot of a well-known Hollywood blockbuster and not the ordinary fear of a child.
But why the fear and why now? Could it stem from the library book about a monster who turns out to be Dad? The Raging Bull was obsessed with it, and would beseech me to read the ‘ghost book’ every night. Could it be images on television? Could it be the international news, which frankly frightens me? Could it simply be her imagination coming to life?
I don’t know the answers, and she can’t tell me, but my five-year-old went through something similar. She also suddenly needed a night light around the age of 3. She is still scared of the dark, although she is surprisingly logical about ghosts and monsters.
Last night I asked her if she had ever seen a ghost. ‘Nooooo,’ she exclaimed, almost in a humorous tone.
‘What about monsters?’
She replied sensibly: ‘I have been scared, but it’s people that does it.’
I generally like to tell children the truth, so I told her that most monsters and ghosts only live ‘in here’, pointing to my head. ‘I know that,’ she said. ‘They’re in your imagination and in your dreams.’
Her adult reasoning took me by surprise. I didn’t expect such a grown-up answer. ‘Last night I dreamed of Snow White,’ she added. I take it as a good sign that she’s dreaming of Snow White and not goblins.
My almost-three-year-old hasn’t yet developed the logic to deal with fears. But I expect that she and her sister will one day simply grow out of the night light. It’ll probably be about the time they start to push me away and order me to drop them off around the corner from their school.
Oddly, I still like to shut closet doors before I go to sleep. There’s something about having them open that I’ve never liked. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Perhaps there are some childhood fears we never quite grow out of.
Or it could be this: my need to shut the closet has more to do with the disastrous jumble of clothes, bags and shoes that live inside, reminding me about how much money I’ve spent on frivolity. That would give anyone nightmares.