Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Bogeyman

 Does the Boogie Man (or bogeyman - whatever) still exist as a thing?

Do parents still talk about a boogie man to their children anymore? Or is there enough obviously reachable terror these days that we don't need that these days? I recall a few months ago I wondered about nursery rhymes and how they often revolved around real horrible incidents or involved actually trying to grip kids by having monsters and whatnot in them. But I wasn't sure if that sort of thing was still told to children. I'm well aware of there still being oodles of books that have witches and monsters in them. Julia Donaldson's books about The Gruffalo and Room On The Broom are very popular. We 've got them too. But there is a palpable cuteness about those. It's not just frightening with a "oh it's all made up and nice!" response at the end. That's how I think of tales of the Boogie Man.

Then yesterday I was at the library and thought about getting out some higher-level reading book for my daughter in the vein of The Brothers Grimm. My daughter thoroughly enjoys Roald Dahl's The Witches and The BFG and both of those have the premise that children's very lives are in danger. But I couldn't find a book in time before my son demanded we go upstairs to the adults library room to get him a Thomas DVD It's a Halloween one. One so tenuously linked to that holiday that one episode is solely about a fog horn being too loud and another revolves around a Chinese dragon decoration. In the end all I managed to snag was this -:

Which goes out of it's way to not be scary. It does suggest that a monster is on it's way to your house and it might be hungry - but then it ends by telling the reader that it is on it's way to get...

Which is nice enough. But it seems like everything is nice. Then randomly I was having an Alan Lomax day yesterday and listened to Bessie Jones' version of Go To Sleep Little Baby. In her version on the Lomax recording she sings "'fore the Boogie Man get you." My understanding of the Boogie Man is that it was deliberately scary. The wiki page even goes so far to state bluntly that the story of the Boogie Man was, "used by adults to frighten children into compliant behaviour."

I recently was reading this list about how scary books for kids used to be. Mostly because it remarked on a famous German book from 1845 called "Stuwwelpeter". It's basically a collection of short stories that attempts to frighten kids into good behavior. Each story has a childhood issue in it - like thumb sucking or playing with matches - and then tries to scare the utter shit out of kids so they'll behave appropriately. Here - for example - is the illustration that goes with The Story Of Little Suck-a-Thumb.

Not hard to figure that out. And this is the ending to the story "The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches."
So [Harriet] was burnt, with all her clothes,
And arms, and hands, and eyes, and nose;
Till she had nothing more to lose
Except her little scarlet shoes;
And nothing else but these was found
Among her ashes on the ground.
And when the good cats sat beside
The smoking ashes, how they cried!
"Me-ow, me-oo, me-ow, me-oo,
What will Mamma and Nursey do?"
Their tears ran down their cheeks so fast,
They made a little pond at last.

Not a whole lot of cuteness there. A few days ago I re-read The Death And Burial Of Poor Cock Robin.  I'm sure most people have some recollection of it. It's an 1865 book in which a bird in the forest kills cock robin, and then all the animals plan how to bury him. That's the whole book. Except it ends with "while the cruel Cock Sparrow, the cause of their grief, was hung on a gibbet next day like a thief." Which - again - doesn't include anything cute or redeeming in it. It's just a tale that is inherently darker and non-innocent than pretty much anything I've read to my kids (bar that creepy story where the kid cuts a rooster up and takes it to school that we borrowed - obviously). I did see a copy of Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There at my library - which has a weird story about goblins stealing the baby and replacing it with this ice sculpture.

But that was written over 30 years ago. Is this sort of storytelling style something we've moved on from now? All the scary stuff I've encountered seems deliberately sterile and shiny. I'm not arguing that kids have gone soft or parents are too protective - I just think it's markedly strange that I share a storytelling tradition with my parents and grandparents that includes subject matter that does not attempt to bury that end of the emotional spectrum.

The reason this really came up is I'm currently writing a short story about a ghost. It finds itself in an old house and - aware that it's a ghost and therefore inherently desires to haunt someone - goes looking about the house to find someone. When the ghost goes upstairs it finds someone in bed. Ah - a little boy! Perfect! Then it thinks through a series of different ideas about what would be the scariest way to frighten the person awake. After thinking this through it picks one and has a go - but nothing happens. So it just tries a few more. Getting irritated the ghost stops pretending there is a divide between the living and the dead and pretty much tries to wake the little boy up like you would in real life to ask why it isn't scared. That's when it not only discovers that the boy had died - but that he is the little boy's ghost. I thought that was an interesting idea. But after a goose-about I can't find much modern children's storytelling that works along thee lines. In fact pretty much everything you find that remarks on the older style of scare-the-shit-out-of-them storytelling all but asks why every generation before the 1980s hated children so much.

Or am I wrong?

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