Thursday, September 25, 2008
Monsters In The Dark
I can not remember when I first became afraid of the dark as a child. I only remember it as my first fear. It must have occurred when I would see snippets of scenes on television of dark, scary houses with monsters hiding in them. I then equated the dark with monsters hiding in wait to catch me. I would constantly have nightmares about running from unseen monsters, knowing that I was just about to die.
I hated the bedtime ritual as I knew that when it was done I would be left in the dark. I felt incapacitated when my parents would turn the light of my room out at night. To rationalize this fear, my child mind created a complete set of rules about the monsters in the dark:
1. Monsters hide from adults. When adults came into the room, monsters disappeared. When I just knew that my doom was near, I would call out to my parents who would come in, turn on the light, and try to convince me that there was no such thing as monsters in my room.
2. Monsters can only come out when it is dark. Light poisons them. If I could some how turn on the light, I would be safe. Often I would insist on sleeping with my light turned on. Sometimes I would hide a flashlight under my pillow.
3. Monsters can not find me if I am hiding under the blankets. If so much as a toe stuck out from under the blanket, then the monsters would find me. I learned to sleep with blankets over my head. It was smothering and unpleasant but a necessary safety precaution.
4. The darker the space, the more monsters there are in the space. The darkest room in the house was the freezer room, a room with no windows located at the end of the hall in the darkest part of the basement. I would only go there if I turned on the light in the basements stairs, the hall light and the lights in the room across from the freezer room.
5. Monsters could only get me if I was alone. Since I am a twin, this is the rule that saved me the most. Twins are rarely alone. Where I went, my sister would follow. We kept each other safe. We shared a room so I determined that this rule only worked if she was awake. If my parents did not come to my rescue, I would wake my sister instead.
Just like Watson’s experiment with Little Albert showed that Albert’s fear grew to encompass more than the white rat, the monster culture that I invented grew with every scary movie that I viewed. Adaptations of scenes would merge with my thinking. My dreams would occur more often and be more frightening.
As I grew older these rules would weaken as I learned more about family dynamics: My parents would not always come when I called. My twin sister did not like to be woken out of a deep sleep, nor did she like to sleep with the lights on. I noticed that no one else in my family had to turn on every single light in a dark hall, nor did they seem afraid to go to the freezer room by themselves. No one was attacked or eaten by monsters.
By the time I was a teen, I knew that monsters did not exist. It did not change my attitude completely. While I was not afraid of the dark, I still did not like it. Some of my rituals stayed the same. At bedtime I would turn out the light and immediately pull the covers up to my chin (rather than completely over my head). I would close my eyes and refuse to open them. I knew this behavior was silly but the habits were entrenched in me.
These habits finally changed when I was an adult with my own children. Now I have no problem walking down a dark hall to check on my sleeping children. I don’t bother to turn on the lights. I can sleep with no covers. I still have nightmares with monsters, but they usually entail me saving my family from monsters, attacking the monsters with weapons and being angry that they would dare threaten my children.
The conditioned fear response hasn’t completely left. I hate scary movies. If I do watch one, I can’t get a restful sleep for weeks. But I can still move around in the dark. Perhaps it is my role as a parent and a protector that gives me courage.