The curious magic of childhood fear

If you breathe very quietly, they won’t hear you, and you will be safe. It is essential that you keep your eyes shut because even though you know this doesn’t work in other circumstances, if you can’t see them, they can’t see you. If you see them, they will become able to act. Keep still and pretend to be asleep, because then they will leave you alone. Don’t be tempted to get up and look under the bed, or in the wardrobe, because that’s how they get you. If you have to go to the loo, there will be a magic thing you can do to stay safe in transit. Hold your breath. Be back before the flush does that thing…

These rules are widely shared, and I was reminded of them the other night when a poet I didn’t know mentioned the whole not breathing too loudly thing. Where do these rules come from, and why do so many of us have them in childhood?

It’s something I remember fairly well. It wasn’t always an issue, but some nights… some nights it was important to get under the covers and not move a muscle. Some nights I did not feel at all alone in my room, and what was there felt hostile. And I find myself wondering what I knew as a child that I cannot explain as an adult.



About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

11 responses to “The curious magic of childhood fear

  • Viviane

    I remember those nights. Once, I got so scared I went down the stairs and hid in a cellar room even though the cellar normally terrified me just as much with its dark corners and odd storage rooms we weren’t allowed in as kids. I cowered behind boxes in the forbidden room and tried to stay really still.

    Usually, I’d lay still in bed as you describe though. When I got older I would call on my old dog’s spirit (he had passed on years before) and my stuffed animals to protect me and I’d snuggle in. Then I could breathe easier, knowing they’d keep me safe.
    I also did a version of that when my parents shouted outside and I still hoped they’d calm down without my brother and me going in to talk them down (from around 5 years old or so, I think).

    I still do it when I am terrified…there was a house with a really ominous feel we stayed in a while back. I called my spirit wolfs to share the bed and guard me. It helped a lot as I felt them snuggle close and they went with me when I had to leave the room during the night.

    Do you find it stayed in childhood or do you still catch glimpses of it now?

  • sleepingdragon1

    It’s never left me to be honest, I can get it day or night. I have ideas about what it is but nothing solid enough to say ‘this is the answer’ whatever the case I do think things are there and I think the fear might come from the unknown-ness and the ritual remedy from memory passed down and become instinctive…because dolls and teddies are so much like guardian / god figurines from other times and places aren’t they? perhaps in pre-house times we all sensed the spirit world and reacted like children in the dark, then we filled our lives with other stuff and slowly stopped noticing. There’s a couple of dr who episodes that go there tho 😉

  • Rick

    One explanation for this is that as children we are more aware of that wider dimension around us, and more sensitive to our vulnerability to things that actually are there, but which we can’t see. One young woman I know told me once that she used to dread hearing a cassette tape of Celtic songs that her parents would play to help her get to sleep at night, because whenever a particular song would play, a figure dressed in rags would emerge slowly from the floor of her room and stand staring at her. As a young child I would also see things that I know, even after so many years, were actually there. As adults we’re less sensitive to these things, but many of us can recall very keenly what all of this felt like.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    Fear was a daytime thing for me. Even in Vietnam, when I went to sleep, nothing woke me up, not artillery firing, not rockets or mortars landing and exploding. I woke only if someone was trying to wake me up for night duty.

    This ability to sleep through anything was not much appreciated by my fellow artillery battery members, whose sleep was disturbed nearly every night by rockets, and mortar attack. But I appreciated it a great deal.

    • Nimue Brown

      my son’s always been able to sleep through anything going on around him, although he’s not been tested to anything like that degree.

      • Christopher Blackwell

        Well, I don’t sleep so soundly as an old man. However lighter sleep means that I wake
        up out of my nap now, normally, if a customer comes in. So that is good for now.

  • Linda Davis

    Oohh yes, I remember all too well! Of course, for our ancestors the dark was a dangerous time and the beasties prowling outside the cave or just beyond the light of the campfire were all too real and actually did want to get you ! Hunkering down, staying completely still and silent would be the right thing to do.So maybe that instinct is passed down and strong in us as children? But I agree, there can be a sense of ‘presence’, even for adults. Nowadays, if it doesn’t feel benign I tend to tell it to bugger off.😉

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