Ginger Nuts of Horror
I loved the idea for this series. It got me thinking, as the best subjects always do. This site is top notch when it comes to providing interesting content, and my brain immediately went searching for things to write about. And I was surprised (and a little dismayed) when I started to realise I couldn’t think of anything that immediately seemed to fit the mould. I went through all the obvious things…clowns, spiders, monsters under the bed…but no, I have no memory of being actively and consistently afraid of any of these things.
That’s not to say I was a confident little atheist who always dismissed such thoughts with a wave of his hand. If I’d just watched a horror film, probably one far too old for me that I’d managed to sneak a VHS of from a friend, then yes, chances are my childhood sleep pattern would be interrupted for a few days. I remember some specific examples of keeping my head under the covers and being frightened of the shadows on the walls. There was a lamppost not far from my bedroom window, and when cars would pass by, the long thin shadow of that lamppost would travel from the left side of my room around the walls like a proto-Slenderman figure. On most nights this wouldn’t bother me in the slightest, but on a night when my nerves were on edge from having watched, or just as likely read, something scary, then this simple shadow casting became a source of fear. But this isn’t quite the sort of thing I’d describe as a childhood fear. I wasn’t constantly afraid of it, refusing to go into my bedroom in case the lamppost shadow would get me. It was an infrequent response to the heightened nerves brought about by frightening external stimulus. I know some adults who are still like this after watching a scary film. Hell, I live with one. And yes I do wind her up when the occasion arises. I’m that kind of an arsehole. All this taken in mind, I don’t really feel that these experiences can be classed as a genuine childhood fear.
There’s other examples of this sort of feeling, the random ‘one-off’ moments where I felt that creeping dread of the supernatural, but I wouldn’t really class them as being part of some bigger overall fear. I was never scared of ghosts, or monsters or anything like that, because I never believed in them. I think I disappointed my niece when she asked me recently if I ever believed in Father Christmas, and I said that I didn’t. Because it’s true, I don’t recall ever accepting it. It was always too nonsensical. Not the flying reindeer and all that, I could buy into that. I was no anthropologist, what did I know about the varied species of reindeer and how fast they might be able to fly? No, what never sat right with me was the presents themselves. I’d see my parents buying them, hoping my young eyes would be too distracted by Christmas lights and music to notice the bloody great Bat-Cave poking out of the Debenhams bag my Mum was carrying. I wasn’t. I even remember finding my presents in the loft on more than one occasion. Now, I wasn’t looking for them, I was never that type of child. I just happened across them when helping to get the festive decorations down or something. And yet, I wasn’t shocked or saddened by this. Even when my Mum tried the old ‘we send them to Santa and he sends them back’ explanation, I wasn’t buying it. What the Hell was the point in that? I may have been six, Mum, but I wasn’t convinced you’d be wasting that amount of postage at peak parcel delivery season. No, I never believed in Father Christmas, or anything that required a belief in the supernatural. That included all the Jesus stuff we were force-fed at school, but that’s another topic.
Despite my lack of fear of the mystical and such, my thoughts on the topic of childhood fear dug up a deeper, perhaps not quite as light-hearted fear which stays with me to this day. I suppose the best place to start it is with one very specific memory of laying in my bed after watching Hook at the cinema. Now, I loved that film, I still do. The story of a man who’s forgotten what it was that made him so happy is all the more poignant with the tragic suicide of its star, Robin Williams. But nevertheless it remains a fun family film, and I loved it the first time I ever saw it at the cinema when I was six years old. However, there was one scene which I remember being rather frightening, and that’s quite near the beginning, when Hook comes into the house at night, scratching his namesake along the walls as he goes, and then enters the children’s bedroom and takes them away from their family.
How he gets them back to Neverland, I never quite figured out. Does his pirate ship fly? Maybe it does. He’d probably struggle to get some kidnapped children onto a passenger jet unnoticed, and how many of them actually charter flights to Neverland anyway? Ryanair probably does, but you’d have to pay extra for that imaginary food. But I digress. That scene, followed shortly afterwards by the parents’ horror at what’s just happened, stayed with me. And even after the joy of the rest of the film, the colour and the adventure, that part stuck in my head. It frightened me and wouldn’t let go. That night, I lay in bed with my covers brought up tight to my face, peeking out over the top and watching the doorknob. I actually swapped the end of the bed I usually slept in, just so I could clearly see that doorknob. At any moment it would turn, and Hook might come and take me away. I have no idea how long I stayed awake, but I daren’t do anything else. And then, the doorknob turned. I didn’t imagine it, it really did. And I screamed. Actually screamed, the only time I remember doing this as a child (apparently I was rather nonchalant as a little boy, which hasn’t really changed that much.)
The turner of the doorknob was my Mum, who’d come into my bedroom with my sister. I don’t really remember why. There was a reason, and what little I can tear from my memory tells me it was a nice one. Something like a surprise announcement that we were going on holiday, or something of that nature. I really don’t know, but I do remember their happy faces on entering my bedroom turning to shock and worry given my unexpected vocal reaction. I don’t remember spending any more nights watching that doorknob. I think my Mum was able to calm away my irrational fears (which she is still able to do now, which for an adult like me who suffers with anxiety is an absolute joy). But thinking about this topic made me prod a bit further; why had that scene scared me so much that I actually lay awake like that? Why do I remember that so well, and not specific incidents where the shadow of that lamppost might have caused me to hide beneath the covers?
I think the answer is my Dad. No, no, we’re not going into anything bad or sensitive here, get that out of your head. My Dad is a wonderful and kind human being who’s simultaneously the most and least Yorkshire person you could meet. He has that no-nonsense, matter of fact Northern charm to him, but he doesn’t have the old fashioned set-in-your-ways side that many a Yorkshireman does. Neither did his dad, my Grandad with whom I was very close. Both of them loved, and in my Dad’s case still does love, progress, advancements in technology and the continuing betterment of society. Neither were of the belief that ‘things were better in the old days’. That aside, I think my primary fears as a child centred on my Dad, specifically the thought of losing him. Or of my being taken away from him and my Mum.
This was the 1980’s, not an easy time for the North of England. The assumed (and fairly accurate) North/South divide when it came to the attention given to the economy by the government was never more apparent than under She Who Shall Not Be Named. As a result, and a desire to keep his family in comfort and with a decent roof over their heads, my Dad made the decision to work down in London, commuting back home every two weeks. So for long weeks at a time, my Mum, sister and myself wouldn’t see him. That’s not the end of the world, I know. And I also know there are people with fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, sons or daughters in the armed forces who suffer greater periods of absence and far greater worry than this all the time. But there was something else.
My Dad was in London, at a time when the news….to which I did pay attention even as a child…was constantly full of stories about the IRA. I didn’t know who they were, what they wanted, or how valid or not their cause might be. All I knew then was that a group of men liked to set bombs off in London, the very place where my Dad was working away from us. Bombs, but not like the big round ones you’d see cartoon characters hold before they became covered in black soot. No, these were the loud, horrible kind of bombs that led to mass panic, to screaming and fear and death. I have never experienced the last one, for which I am very fortunate, but the first two I have, as a child. I was with my family visiting my Dad in London, and the tube station we were on was evacuated because of a bomb scare. The fear, the grown adults running up those stairs in panic, my Mum gripping mine and my sister’s hands so tight she probably cut off the blood flow….that was all I knew of the IRA. And this was on just one day, when we’d come to visit. To my mind, this must surely happen every day, and my Dad was in the middle of it. Nothing happened at that tube station, of course. Nothing went off, it might even have been a prank call. From what I gather there were as many people pricking about pretending to be the IRA as there were genuine calls of such a nature. But that didn’t matter, it was just further evidence to support the vague fear I had now decided I would carry with me.
It’s important to make clear that I didn’t go about each and every day anxious and worrying that my parents would be taken from me, or I from them. It wasn’t a constant overpowering fear. But it was there, and in my more troubled moments, it would affect my sleep. Perhaps that’s one reason that monsters and ghosts never really had much power to scare me. A vampire or a man wrapped in bandages never seemed that scary when placed next to a human being in a balaclava that might take away all you loved in a loud, terrifying instant. But still, rather than a constant thought that was with me, it just sort of settled into the background of my young, overthinking mind. I remember having a very vivid nightmare of being sat in a cinema with my family when a bomb went off just in front of the screen. I don’t remember much more of it than that, and nor do I want to.
The fact that terror attacks seem to happen with greater frequency now, even if the perpetrators sing a different cause, is not lost on me. My opinion of them remains the same. They’re wrong. Whatever their cause, they’re wrong. It’s that simple. Some harm may have been done to your country or religion or culture by successive governments, as the IRA believed, and you want to make them aware of it in a way they can’t ignore. OK, if I stretch my tolerance to the limit I can accept that. But you know what? The perceived harm done wasn’t caused by people just going to work in their office building. It wasn’t caused by people relaxing on a beach. It wasn’t caused by teenagers and children attending a concert in Manchester. There is no power on this fucking earth or beyond it that will make me see these things happen and still be willing to listen to your point. Whatever it may have been, it no longer matters. You’re just wrong.
Bombs weren’t the only thing that sparked this childhood fear, though, and nor were they the last thing to do it. I was allowed to play out alone as a child, something increasingly lost on successive generations, but I was always armed with warnings about talking to strangers, getting into cars, accepting sweets and such. I was sensible enough to pay heed to all of this, but the fact I needed to be aware of it served to create the view that there must be many such people out there ready to take me away. Frankly I’m pretty sure they’d have brought me back. But there was something else that threatened to rob me of those I loved most.
My mum was taken into hospital the first time when I was about 9 years old. I wasn’t told why. My sister, three years older than me, was probably aware. But for a nine year old boy, particularly one who worried and overthought as much as me, there are some words you don’t want to say. She was fine, it all went well, and she came back right as rain. I did find it odd that shortly before this stay in hospital began, my Dad took me to Toys R Us at my Mum’s instruction to buy me anything I wanted, because ‘she might not be able to for a while’. I remember being very worried about that comment. If I’d been told the reason she was in there, that would have been even worse. I’d have broken the toys I bought that day and refused to play with them.
That wasn’t the last time the C word (not the rude one) would haunt my Mum either. About seven years ago she found a lump on her neck, and the process began again. It was worse this time. I was a grown adult in my late twenties, there was no hiding from what the cause was. People still seemed unwilling to use the word, as though saying it might give it more power. I still hate that word. The toll it took on my Mum was worse this time too. My memories of that time as a child are patchy, but if it had wracked her body the way it did this second time, I’d remember. She says now that she came close to giving up that second time. I never saw that in her. She wouldn’t show that to us, that’s not who she is. My Mum’s half German, and half Yorkshire. That combination means showing such moments of weakness is doubly difficult, and often unnecessary given the strength that she has. Naturally my childhood fear came back at this time; losing one of my parents. The other one, this time. Not from angry men with loud bombs, but from a disease. A horrible, cruel disease that strikes a teetotal healthy person like my Mum as readily as it does a chain smoking alcoholic. It’s arguably the worst thing that exists in our world.
But fears can be overcome. They almost always are, in fact. We may sit and talk about them, dwell on them, remembering that time we were scared out of our minds, rationally or otherwise. But we’re still here. We endured whatever it was that scared us, be it the clown under the bed or the angry men in balaclavas. And my Mum endured too. Two weeks ago she went to the doctors for her check up at the Oncology ward. She’s been having to go there less and less frequently since she recovered, which is a good sign. But this appointment was different. This time the doctors told her that she doesn’t need to go anymore. That she’d been in full remission for enough years now, with no trace whatsoever of that dreaded word still in her body, and that it was no longer necessary for her to go back there. She’d won.
Both of my parents are nearing retirement age now. My Dad is spending less and less time in London now too. The fear of being without them is still there, of course. It always will be, even if it no longer takes the form of Captain Hook (no offence to Dustin Hoffman, but I’m pretty sure I could take him in a fight these days). And of course there are still angry men with bombs, but they’re not as concentrated in London as they were back then. You might think this would make me afraid of everywhere the way it made me afraid of London, but strangely it doesn’t. Rather it makes me resolved to go where I want when I want. If I let them stop me, they’ve won. If my Mum wasn’t letting a biological version of cancer stop her living her life, then I’m not letting the human version stop me living mine. Fear is fear. It goes away. Life doesn’t.
Every once in a while, God and Lucifer visit the earth and make a wager. Now it’s time for the next one; the most daring yet, and quite possibly the last. “This venture to live as men for a full year had been such a hilarious idea to start with. Prove Abe wrong… again… then head back to their respective domains and gloat about it forever. Only it hadn’t worked out that way. Things were different now. Having omniscient sight removed from him actually made Nick see things more clearly than he ever had. There’s harm in getting too close to a picture, but a different sort of harm comes from getting too far away from it.” What starts as a simple contest becomes something more as their newfound humanity forces them to revaluate their relationship not only with the world, but with each other as father and son. Seen through the eyes of two men, on opposing sides of a family feud of epic proportions, each of them faces trials, heartache, love and real pain as they learn what it means to be human. Can old wounds ever really be closed? Can the past truly be forgiven? And can anyone ever fall so far that it’s too late for them to be caught? “After the fall? You rise.”