I don’t know what the current thinking is about the origins of childhood fears. Are they innate? Learned? A combination?
In fiction, children often fear the dark. Yet this is where we are conceived. At an advanced stage of their development, what do fetuses perceive? Darkness? Muted light? Is there any way to know for sure based on what we know if their vision development? Why do children fear the dark? Or is that a convenience of fiction, a plot point? What are children afraid of?
I don’t remember being afraid of the dark, but I did insist on a night light. This may have led to a deeper, stronger, more persistent terror, which I remember well although I can no longer recreate the feelings and mood it generated. (I have tried, because I thought it might bring back the child in me, if only for a moment.)
I was petrified not so much of the dark, but of being watched in the dark. I grew up in a trailer and had a very small bedroom; in fact, I had a cot-sized bed because even a twin bed wouldn’t fit in the room. The closet, with sliding track doors, was across from the bed at about an arm’s length. There was a circle cut out of the wooden door and covered with metal that served as a finger hole with which to slide the door over. It was perfectly ordinary by day. In the dim glow of the child’s night light (long since lost, although it was a favourite possession), it became an eye, watching me, a monstrous eye, making me shrink into the bedclothes in terror. I don’t know how many nights I spent petrified of that eye and not knowing what it might do if I did not remain vigilant against it. I also do not know why being watched would cause such panic — there was little enough to see. It was as though being seen were dangerous.
Soon, another, similar terror developed. There was a window over my bed covered by a curtain. It was probably more than eight feet off the ground from outside. When I went to bed, I would make sure the two halves of the curtain overlapped so that no one could see in. Still, as I lay in bed, a fear, then a horror would rise in me that someone — human or supernatural being — was peering through the opening at the bottom of the hanging curtains. This, too, set off what seemed like endless moments of sleepless, choked panic. Sometimes I genuinely thought I could see or sense someone there, but the few times I had the courage to look, there was of course not only nothing and no one there, but no sign that anyone could be.
I may have told my parents once or twice of my convictions about the closet monster’s eye and then the window voyeur I suspected but of course they couldn’t see what I knew was watching me and probably thought only that I was too imaginative and sensitive.
There were woods behind the trailer, and I was sure that this is where whoever was watching me lurked until I went to bed and was defenseless. I could not explain how they got high enough to look down through the crack, nor did I wonder why I was so afraid to be seen, a young child in flannel pajamas with nothing to hide.
Later, due to some vandalism (theft of car gas tank caps, etc.), a streetlight was installed next to the trailer, almost outside my bedroom. I was older by then, yet a remnant of the terror lingered and grew into a vague idea that the thin walls of my home were no protection against the persistent evil that wanted in for reasons I couldn’t understand. The light gave whatever this was better ability to see.
The bathroom was next to my bedroom and a higher, smaller window in the shower wall. When I was older, about 14 or so, my head came up to this window, so I could see out while I was showering. I don’t know why, but I always took showers at night — perhaps so as not to waste daylight hours that could better be spent outdoors. In the back of my mind, but not very far back, I thought about how this meant that anyone out there in the dark woods or the dark field (that I loved so much during the day) could see into this lighted window — how they could see me. Despite my age, the same childhood feeling of being watched and threatened in some way persisted. For no reason I could explain, showers became terrifying experiences as much as relaxing ones.
I should note that, at some point during my adolescence, I did learn that I had a stalker — an adult male who watched me, especially at night. At the time, though, I didn’t know this, so I wasn’t afraid of him specifically.
Today, I live on the 12th floor of an old Beaux-Arts apartment building in Chicago, nowhere near fields or woods where lurk my childhood nemeses. My apartment faces east (Lake Shore Drive, Promontory Point, Lake Michigan) and north (apartment buildings, park, Lake Michigan). I leave the mini-blinds up all the time because Hodge (my cat) would chew on them if he could reach them. Now, anyone looking up at the right angle or across from the other buildings might be able to see in, although not well because of the distance. I am no longer bothered by this. I am no longer a child or a teenager surrounded by monsters — or juvenile delinquents and bullies. Those fears and threats, real or imagined, are gone. I am an adult, a condition that seems to ease certain types of terror. I am afraid of less than ever before, and my fears are of a more mundane variety — unemployment, loss, depression, health problems. They are not shadowy and imperceptible; they are easily defined and understood, and many share them. And — my bathroom has no windows.
Still, I miss those irrational childhood terrors. I miss the window in my mind that was open to them, the window through which imagination peered and crept. I miss the ability to feel without thinking, an ability that today lives only in some dreams, a few dreams untouched by the mind’s internal censor, which even in dreams all too often corrects the imagination. “This isn’t a real adventure and escape — you could never run that fast.” “You are not a man.” “You would never say anything like that.” “That is not where you grew up. It’s nothing like it.”
Only in rare moments of deep sleep does the censor rest enough to permit terror in. And in those few moments where anything is possible — I truly live.