Friday, December 4, 2009

Yrsa’s post got me thinking about what myths and fables we Brits have to terrorise our children into obedience. I came up blank until my wife pointed out to me that I’d just told our two eldest - seven and six respectively – that if they didn’t shut up and go to sleep then Father Christmas might think twice about delivering the presents they wanted this Christmas. That’s what Santa is – a tool to buy your children’s compliance. I regret the lack of a witch/child boiling character in the Gryla mould, though. Particularly for those nights in the middle of summer when a threat about Santa and Christmas carries little resonance…

Anyway, all this led me back to my childhood and trying to remember what it was that scared the bejaysus out of me back then. I recall two characters; one fictional, the other, sadly, very real. First of all, and this is seasonally appropriate given the Wizard of Oz is a festive staple on our televisions, the Wicked Witch of the West. Nothing was more guaranteed to have me cowering behind the sofa than her green sharp-featured face, cackling laugh and flying monkey army. Even now, when it comes on, I feel a familiar shiver up my spine.

Yet the Wicked Witch of the West was as nothing compared to the second of my childhood bogeymen. I grew up in West Yorkshire in the 1970s and 80s during the era of the notorious Yorkshire Ripper. He preyed mainly on prostitutes, but there was not a woman in the county who felt safe while he was loose, and the fear was as tangible as rain or mist. You barely saw a grown woman out unaccompanied after dark. I was surrounded by women and girls and their unease was contagious. The whispered conversations, furrowed brows over newspapers, anxious glances when someone needed to venture out, all permeated my childhood brain so that every dark corner, every shadow contained the waiting Ripper and every second a person was delayed or late on their way home meant He had got them. I was too young to understand what he was doing or why, or the litany of police incompetence that allowed him to carry on his killing spree for the best part of a decade; I just knew a malevolent, almost demonic force was out there and it was proving impossible to stop, and that I and the people I loved might be next on his twisted list. 

When he was eventually caught and unmasked as Peter Sutcliffe – as is often the case, revealing a sad, insignificant little man - the subsequent relief was almost joyous. Church bells didn’t ring, nor was there any bunting, but a county of women and numerous small children slept peacefully in the beds for the first time in years.


Dan - Friday


  1. If you think about it, most fairy tales we were told, growing up, were very scary--maybe to warn us not to talk to strangers? (Wolves?) Not to wander off in the woods like Goldilocks or Hansel and Gretel?

    The Yorkshire Ripper sounds frightening--despite his unmasked insignificance.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. You're right Elizabeth. Perhaps the most gruesome is is Der Struwwelpeter - very sinister and it pulls no punches. The kid who sucks his thumbs? He gets them cut off with a pair of scissors. I saw a stage show enactment with puppets and the bit where the thumbs are snipped off was traumatizing. Think of Beaker from The Muppets in a sketch scripted by Tess Gerritsen. Read or be read that story and no kid would ever dream of sucking their thumbs (and let's face it, on the list of child misdemeanours, thumbsucking is a minor felony...)

  3. We were even scared in South Africa!

  4. Hi Dan,

    The flying monkeys was Trauma #1 for me.

    I still remember the first time I saw it, for years I put a pillow over my head when it came to that scene.


  5. I can still sing the song (dirge?) the flying monkeys sang as they trudged.

    I hate real monkeys (fine thing for someone who lives in the tropics) and I think the fact that they don't have wings is one more proof that God isn't malevolent.


  6. What a great discussion! I just recently had to use Santa Clause myself in order to get my kids to bed on Dec. 24th!
    Arnie S.