Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Nightmare characters

I have heard all kinds of justifications for terrifying young children with fairy and folk tales. The popular notion when I was studying child psychology in the 1960s was that it exposed children to fear within a safe environment (i.e. the bedroom with the reassuring presence of a parent) so that they would be less fearful in the outside world. I thought  it was poppycock then and I still think so. There are "experts" now telling us not to read sanitised versions of fairy tales to our children and grandchildren but to give them the full Brothers Grimm version with all the gruesome details.

Except on the warmest nights, I go to sleep with my head under the covers, a habit that started when I was very small because of the strange lullaby about a Grey Man that my mother used to sing. I can't remember all of the words but these still haunt me: Hush, there's a Grey Man coming up the stairs. Hush lest the Grey Man catch you unawares. For he's crawling and he's creeping, and his bogey eyes are peeping, just to see if everybody's fast asleep.
Hush, little one, don't let him catch you. Hush little one, don't let him see. Hide head beneath the clothes, count ten upon your toes. For where the Grey Man goes, it's black as night."   I suppose she needed a little help in getting four children to settle down at night, especially when my father was working late!

The Grey Man was my nightmare character, the next generation suffered the terrors of Mr Noseybonk, a character in a children's tv programme called Jigsaw.
I have read that it was not the intention of the creator of the  character to inspire terror in a whole generation of children but many 30-somethings have lingering nightmares of the man with the white face and long nose.

Nowadays, Noseybonk writes features for The Dabbler. In fact he has just written a handbook for bloggers, Blogmanship: How To Win Arguments On The Internet Without Really Knowing what You Are Talking About It is available as an eBook from Amazon or you can do what I have just done and get a copy as a PDF file for a mere 2GBP.  

Despite his literary talents, Noseybonk is not a nice character, I think of him as the opposite of the Fiddler on the Roof. According to Wikipedia the Fiddler is a metaphor for survival, through tradition and joyfulness, in a life of uncertainty and imbalance whereas the equally ubiquitous Noseybonk represents  the dark side of life, his long nose sniffs out our secrets and weaknesses and exposes them through sarcasm, parody and cruel humour.  His handbook will probably amuse you and will certainly equip you to win arguments on the internet or in real life if you enjoy arguing. Noseybook tells us that arguing for arguing's sake on the internet is a male-dominated activity but he devotes a whole appendix to the 'ploys' of ladyblogmanship. I won't breach his copyright by quoting them here but I will be having a serious word or two with my son* at the weekend!
*as editor of The Dabbler, he should take responsibility for what he publishes!

While writing about the Grey Man, I remembered that I had mentioned him in a previous post and searched it out. It was really interesting to read that post and the 58 comments that followed. I can see many examples of the techniques described in Noseybonk's handbook. If only I'd had a copy back then, I might  have held my own a bit better.


  1. Fairy tales didn't scare me, however your grey man bedtime song might have had the same effect on me as it had on you.

    I still have vivid memories of being frightened when I was taken at about age six to a huge Times Square movie palace (I think it was the Roxy) to see The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney.

  2. e, if you follow the link I've given above to the post with the 58 comments you will find that the long thread is between you, me and Peter with a few contributions from Skipper. Those were the days!

  3. I don’t think fairy tales scared me - maybe because I wasn’t told any scary stories. I have an extremely good memory, so I should remember that kind of stories and terror. I did have nighmares though - not sure what caused them. (But I remember several dreams)
    But I do understand why you told kids to stay away from the lake, well or the forest by telling them that witches or giants lived there. If you had ten kids and have to manage a small farm you couldn’t watch all children while tending to house and animals.

  4. Margaretha
    I think children like to be scared a little bit but some of the stories are too gruesome for me. I bought a book of nursery tales for my granddaughter recently and was halfway through reading her a story about three sisters when I came to a description of the nastiest sister having her eyes poked out with a spike. I skipped that bit!

  5. "And if he finds a little one awake
    In his bogey-arms the darling he will take
    To a land that's far away.......
    Can't remember the rest of that verse but it was a wonderul incentive to close the eyes and pretend to be asleep. Especially because from the top of the stairs to the bedroom was dark and gloomy. Don't forget I was much younger than you and was subjected to the same singing. Mum had to sing this with a lantern in a school play. I wonder if the audience of parents and children appreciated the dark walk home and preparations for bedtime?
    How could such a loving mother act like that to susceptible minds as ours?
    I didn't sing that to my daughter nor to my grandson Theo.
    Remember: "Go to sleep my baby.
    Close your pretty eyes.
    Angels are above you
    Peering at you dearly
    From the skies.
    Great big moon is shining,
    Stars come out to peep.
    Now's the time for baby *****
    To go to sleep.

    This was also sung by mum ad still lives on in my daughters' house with Theo.

  6. What an interesting post, M.

    I could happily read the scariest of fairy stories when I was young and loved to escape into the realms of fantasy, allegory and archetypes etc (not that I realised at the time that this is what I was doing, of course).

    It was 'real' life that scared the living daylights out of me and it was reality rather than the imaginary world that gave me recurring nightmares . . . My daughter was remarkably similar and when I was (briefly) teaching primary schoolchildren in the 1970s, they all loved the scary stuff!

    These days it takes an awful lot to frighten me; for example, I read The Night Watch by Sarah Waters without a flicker of fear. Others reckoned that it was one of the most terrifying books that they had ever read, which I found totally bemusing. I am, however, very frightened of knives. No doubt Freud, Jung, Adler et al would all have had a field day with that.

  7. Hello there, Anonymous brother! I never understood how Mum could sing that song to us, either. I didn't know the story about her having sung it in a school play so perhaps that explains why it wasn't something scary to her but just a school song?

    It is much better to remember all the nice songs she sang and stories she told. I pass those on to my grandchildren too.

  8. m. well at least I'm consistent. That was a fun string ... and they still don't get it. :-)

  9. D, I'm sure you are right about the distinction between fantasy and reality. I think Noseybonk and the Grey Man are frightening because they are recognisable as people but ones who have gone wrong somehow. Stories about ghosts, goblins, witches, aliens and other imaginary creatures don't hold the same threat.

  10. e
    Can you believe how long ago that was? October 2007!

    You're right, they didn't get it and never will.

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  12. I don't share much about my growing up on Blogger, but my own real childhood was scary enough--fairy tales seemed a pleasant escape :) I like the whole seeking joy/balance thing. And I'm a grownup now. (but it took me a long time to get there). God is good.

  13. Jodi

    Thank you for leaving your comment. I am so glad that your life is happy now. I had not intended this post to touch raw nerves in anyone. My brother and I are obviously lucky that the song about the Grey Man is the only bad memory from our childhood.

  14. Oops, sorry Maureen, I didn't mean to give the impression of touching a raw nerve. I really enjoyed this post. I was just sharing my thoughts on fairytales. It's funny, the fears we have as children. My kids still talk about the electronic, dancing Santa Claus that my mother-in-law decorated with at Christmas time. It gave them nightmares. We had no idea. I'm glad for my kids it's their only bad memory (as far as I know) lol.

  15. That picture of noseyman is very scary. I'm one who doesn't like scary stories or movies, and I didn't read them to my kids. My imagination is too good. I just went back and read the "If" posting. Wow, lots of conversation there! Some people throw their kids into the water and others let the kids walk in slowly, carefully on their own. I'm the latter, as I was that kind of kid. I typed into google 'if for girls' because I got a card on my sixth-grade graduation with the poem on it. There seem to be several now. But I thought you might be interested in them.

  16. Nan
    I think that you and are have similar views on lots of things, including how to treat our children.

    Thanks for the tip about "If for girls." I looked it up on Google and found some interesting versions.

  17. Gosh, The Grey Man rhyme is horrible, I'm not sure I won't have nightmares myself!

    I think there is a big difference between thrills and horror and it also depends on what sort of imagination you have. I can't watch horror films because once the images are flashed on a blanket they become real to me. My sister, however, who is the sweetest natured person in the world, reads horrible stuff and just finds it exciting. You have to tailor reading meterial to the personality of your child I think.


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