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Faith in Vermont: ...And Things That Go Bump in the Night

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Posted on August 21, 2018 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



It’s happened many times before, but it happened again last night:

I was sleeping soundly, my brain floating through the mists of the sort of vague, rushed dreams one has when your consciousness knows that you’ve gone to bed too late – again – and that you’ll have to wake up too early. (Yes, I’m multi-tasking even in my dreams.) 

Suddenly, with a jolt, I felt a clammy hand on my arm. I jerked awake, and the hand’s owner screamed. I screamed back.  (My husband continued sleeping soundly, of course.)

When both the intruder and I had recovered ourselves, I realized that it was my eldest daughter standing beside my bed.

“Mommy, I can’t sleep. I’m scared,” she said.

Dealing with children’s fright is one of parenthood’s recurring nightmares. Childhood fears typically rear their horrible heads at night, when you’re worn out from an entire day of problem solving, spill-wiping, and transportation-managing, and would really appreciate an hour to read a book, fold the laundry, stare at the wall, or even…sleep! The fears do not respond to logical reasoning, nor do they have a consistent correlation with the scared child’s exhaustion level, the room’s lighting, the presence or absence of soothing music, or the number of siblings sharing the bedroom. The fears return repeatedly, making bedtimes feel like the movie Groundhog Day, except that instead of living the same day over and over, I mumble the same tired reassurances through my sleep-deprived frustration, sometimes multiple times in one night:

“There’s nothing to be afraid of. You sleep in this bed every night. You’ve lived in this house for three years. You’re safe. Everything’s fine. There are no monsters under the bed. There’s nothing in the closet. Yes, I’ll turn on the light and open the door. You’re fine. You need a good night’s sleep to feel rested in the morning.” 

Nobody is convinced, not even myself. 

We’ve tried a variety of strategies aimed at ensuring the most sleep for everyone; things like letting our daughters sleep in sleeping bags on our bedroom floor when they’re especially scared, or allowing them to read until they fall asleep so long as they stay in bed. But after a decade of late-night fright, I decided to be more proactive, to make a study of what my daughters are afraid of. Maybe if I could pinpoint the things that keep them (and me) up at night, we could avoid exposure to those things – and, problem solved! 

It took about two minutes for my dreams to be dashed. Because human fears are not rational. They do not follow a predictable pattern. They are inconsistent and unavoidable.

Some of my daughters’ fears are just so all-out ridiculous that I wouldn’t even want to try to limit their exposure to these things; frankly, they just have to get over it. I’m talking about things like butterflies, Caesar salad dressing, and the second floor of our house (which happens to be where their bedrooms are.) 

But other fears are more reasonable: things like violence, death, and dark supernatural forces. These things are almost impossible to avoid, because they’re woven into the fabric of actual life, and are therefore present in just about any decent book or movie geared for children beyond second grade. In fact, as my daughters will be quick to tell you, I have occasionally (and unintentionally) welcomed these fears into our house through book and movie recommendations. 

The most infamous example was the book The Egypt Game, a 1967 young adult novel by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. I had such fond memories of reading this book in upper elementary school; it’s about a group of children in Berkeley, California (our old home!) who start playing “Egypt” in the abandoned backyard of an antique shop owned by a mysterious old man. I thought it would be the perfect read-aloud to accompany our history unit on Egypt. The book had shining reviews on Amazon, and was recommended for grades 3-7 (My children were in second and third grade, but this would be a read-aloud, so no problem!) Our library even had a copy available. 

What the Amazon synopsis failed to mention, and what I failed to remember, was the teeny-tiny subplot about the serial killer roaming the streets of Berkeley murdering little girls, who brings the book to its final showdown when he grabs one of the main characters. 

We didn’t finish that book, and my girls still blame me for two weeks of missed sleep. What stunned me most about the experience was how my warm childhood memories of The Egypt Game completely omitted its terrifying underbelly. I was not a brave child; like my daughters, I had a vivid imagination that made it near impossible to shake scary images or thoughts out of my head. How had I not been traumatized by this book, the way my daughters were?

It turns out that’s how fear works: It doesn’t make sense. 

For instance, one of the daughters so frightened by The Egypt Game is currently on book eleven of the Survivors series, which can best be summarized as “post-apocalyptic dog fiction.” The premise: After a city is wiped out by a devastating earthquake, the packs of dogs who remain battle it out for survival. It’s brutal, and she loves it.

That daughter’s older sister finds the Survivors series too violent, yet she’s a fan of what might arguably be the most frightening genre of all: non-fiction. She’s read about poverty, the Ebola virus, human trafficking, and climate change, and come away fascinated instead of frightened. 

Neither of these daughters has attempted reading the Harry Potter series, on the grounds that “it’s too scary.” Yet they’ve read the entire Chronicles of Narnia,The Hobbit, and The Worst Witch series, which contain at least as much of the dark arts. 

Last night, my daughter was lurking by my bed well past midnight because we’d just watched the 1985 movie Clue, based on the popular murder mystery board game. Our family enjoyed playing this game on vacation this summer, and I mentioned that I’d loved the movie version as a child. (Those memories again!) 

In my defense, I then decided, over my children’s objections, that we should play it safe and wait a bit before watching the movie. Although it’s a PG-rated ensemble comedy with almost no onscreen violence, I didn’t want to chance the lost sleep. 

But my eldest daughter, who is the same age I was when I first saw Clue, kept pressing. “Let’s just check to see if the library has the DVD,” she’d ask. (They did.) And so, on a night when all of her younger sisters were at a sleepover, we indulged her. 

This daughter has seen every Star Wars movie ever made, and lost no sleep over any of them – not the villages wiped out, the tiny Jedi-in-training massacred, the sliced-off arm lying on the cantina floor. She has acted in a production of Macbeth as the “Second Murderer” and “Third Apparition.” She is currently writing a reimagined drama of “Little Red Riding Hood,” in which Little Red’s cloak is crimson from being dipped in wolf’s blood. But apparently Tim Curry bopping someone over the head with a candlestick put her over the edge. 

I give up. Short of banning all literature and film from our house, there is no way to keep the fear at bay.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I mumbled to my daughter as she lay, eyes wide open, in her sleeping bag on our floor.

In my darker moments, I wonder what would happen if I just tried brutal honesty: 

“Actually, there’s a LOT to be afraid of out there, things so much worse and more real that any monsters under your bed or in your closet. And, while I’d like nothing more than to keep you safe forever, that’s not in my power to do. Statistically speaking, there’s a pretty low chance that anything bad will happen to you here tonight, but I can’t make any guarantees. Odds are, though, that the scariest thing you’ll see will be ME if you call me back up here in five minutes. Sweet dreams!”

Of course, those real monsters are the very things that keep me up at night. Being a parent seems to mean that, no matter what, you will lose sleep. Somehow, it’s worth it. 

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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