When you’re a child, your imagination runs riot. The things you see, learn and experience are a recipe for daydreams and nightmares. Sometimes, as adults, we forget that part of ourselves – the unknown aspect of our subconscious, the child within who makes things up and plays on your fears during the night. Watching horror movies doesn’t have the same effect on me as it did when my Dad, babysitting me one night, sat me down in front of the television. Not a particularly avid movie or television watcher, he had no idea what he had let me in for. The slimy, grotesque and heart pounding horror of watching Alien – which gave me nightmares for weeks.
The dark becomes something forbidding. Something that can, instead of hiding us and making us sleepy – exposes us with all our fears. I used to lie awake, trying to avoid looking too closely at shadows, thinking of happy, bright, warm things. I tried to stop thinking about the looming wardrobe, a large shadow in the corner that might – possibly – be the servant of the nothing from The Neverending Story. The rising pitch of my tinnitus would sound like a warning alarm, a sign of danger. At times I would run to the safety of the bright lights outside in the hall, or focus on that crack of light filtering in under the door.
Then there were those times when nightmares threatened to shock you in the daylight hours. On an ill advised trip up and down our street, my sister and I decided to post scraps of paper with nonsense written on them. A couple of doors up, there was a door with a lion’s head door knocker. The path up to the door seemed impossibly overgrown, and I halted – but just for a second, childish bravado taking over. Reaching the door, I gently pushed the piece of paper into the silver letterbox, and panicked when a riotous barking and snarling came from behind the door. I flew back down the road to safety. Again – nightmares for weeks, a lion’s head door-knocker coming alive under my hands.
Is there something learnt from our primal ancestors that warns us of danger – real or imagined? The jolt of adrenaline and fight-or-flight I get when watching horror films suggests that when our senses are tuned or immersed in something, our brains store certain flashes of images for later, to trap us in nightmares and moments of fear. It seems that I have less nightmares now, as an adult. It seems less real, as if my fear has numbed. Perhaps it comes from being told by adults when you’re young that ‘it isn’t real’ and beginning to believe it yourself.
Yet there is always something that refuses to give up on nightmares. That part of you that still hesitates at crossing the dark and shadowy threshold of your bedroom before sleep. Your eyes watching the spindly shadows of branches waving on the wall. The part of you that doesn’t want to watch a horror film alone. Despite my wardrobe being white and full of clothes, I still glance at it when my eyes have adjusted to the darkness, it’s shape seeming to hulk in the corner. A frisson of remembered distorted monsters flashing under your eyelids whilst you brush your teeth.
I’m fascinated by nightmares – because I read and write supernatural stories. I frighten myself watching series like Supernatural, films like The Shining, books like The Woman in Black. Yet I kid myself that these aren’t real – that what I’m feeling whilst watching them or reading them – is just a thrill of adrenaline. Later, when you might be running through a dark forest pursued by some kind of monster in the darkest part of your brain – you’re paralysed by sleep. That is what adults don’t remember – that childhood nightmares are real, because we felt them, and even now – I still remember that cold fear.
Everybody has a secret world inside of them. All of the people of the world, I mean everybody. No matter how dull and boring they are on the outside, inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands maybe. ~ Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You