Lately, I’ve been thinking about the nature of fear.
My son, age seven, has developed a consistent fear of marionettes and animatronics. The two monsters at the top of this anxiety are Mr. Slappy from the Goosebumps series and Foxy the Pirate from Five Nights at Freddy’s.
The clarity of this fear reminds me of my own childhood. At my son’s age, I was terrified of ghosts and skeletons. I have three memories attached to this. One is of my older brother and my parents arguing because he’d been watching a TV show about ghosts and I’d screamed for him to turn it off; another is a dream about my brother and his friends tricking me into going up to a haunted house, where they wound up getting attacked.
The third is one of my fonder memories of my father. I’d woken him up in the middle of the night because there was a skeleton in my closet (I wonder if I’d heard someone use the phrase and taken it literally). Exasperated, exhausted, he turned on my bedroom light to show me that there was, in fact, no skeleton in the closet. “I know,” I replied. “He ran down the hallway.” My father chased him out of the house by turning on a series of lights, doing his best not to just yell at me to get back to sleep.
The other night, discussing my son’s fear with him, I told him it was okay to be scared sometimes. He understands that most of the horrifying things he sees on television, in games, and in books are made up, things that don’t really exist. And this is not the first fear he’s had: When he was half his current age, we bought him stuffed zombies as loveys because he told us that fake zombies would scare the real zombies away. I’ve stitched one of these zombies back together, and its head dangles at an unfortunate angle.
However, he steadfastly refuses to believe that Mr. Slappy and Foxy aren’t real, and surrogates to scare them off won’t work (perhaps because the surrogates would need to be part of the same genre of things: when you’re scared of zombies, puppet zombies protect you, but what happens when you’re scared of puppets?).
When I told him that it was okay to be scared, that everyone gets scared sometimes, he asked me what kinds of monsters I was afraid of. I’d already told him about my own childhood fears, so he wondered if I was still afraid of ghosts and skeletons. I told him that adults get scared of much more complicated things, but he pressed me further. I couldn’t provide him a clear answer.
I remember where my fear of ghosts went: It transformed into a fear of death. I spent a good decade of my life with a recurring, crushing fear of my own mortality. Then that, too, transformed into a fear of being meaningless. I once wrote a short story that began and ended with similar lines: “I dreamed that I died” and “I dreamed that I was dead”. These were offered without explanation or distinction, but they were meant differently: My anxiety had transitioned from being afraid of death to being afraid of not having lived. Of not having mattered.
A further mutation of this fear is behind much of what keeps me from writing as much as I’d like to: I fear making myself vulnerable, putting my innermost thoughts out into the world, and getting derision and mockery in return. It’s hard to explain to a seven-year-old how that’s an evolution from a fear of ghosts. It’s hard to explain to other adults, for that matter.
What if our childhood fears are simplistic manifestations of deeper, more mature anxieties? My son is terrified of simulacrums; an adult version of this might be a loss of identity or control, a fear of being manipulated by others. Perhaps my son, as an adult, will be concerned about people manipulating him, and have difficulty trusting others. He loves zombies and hates ventriloquist dummies: There is a common thread here concerning free will.
All successful people speak of having to overcome their fears: Fear of public speaking, fear of failure, fear of mockery and rejection. Prince Ea’s “A Brand New Ending” talks about the importance of overcoming these fears. He speaks of a thief that comes in the night, a thief called doubt that steals people’s dreams, and I’m left wondering if Prince Ea, as a child, had a more tangible fear of thieves, actual thieves. As children, we create tangible monsters as metaphors for concerns too complicated for our young minds to wrap themselves around.
I want to help my son overcome his fear. It is getting in his way, and our way: As Halloween approaches, he’s avoiding certain stores, and saying he doesn’t want to go out for candy. The other day, when a boy his age passed him carrying a Foxy the Pirate plush animal, he clutched at me and hid. As he returns to school, I don’t want him to be mocked by his friends or, worse, to learn to hide his anxiety out of shame or fear of mockery and rejection.
If I’m going to try to remove the teeth from his monsters, I owe it to him at the same time to work on removing the teeth from my own monsters. These monsters are much more refined, more nuanced, more integral to my being. But not insurmountable, because they cannot be.
(Previously published on The Good Men Project, click here for more)